My grandfather is dead: I do not know how to grieve. So I make bread.
In the Bible they call bread the staff of life (my grandfather might have liked this: he liked religion), but really it’s the staff of grief. And rage, and guilt. I do not know how to grieve. I am twenty-two: my grandparents had children young, and I thought they would all die old. Older. I do not know how to grieve. I do not know how to grieve my grandfather’s passing, because I barely knew my grandfather. I tried to tell someone “he was like this-” and I came up short: who was my grandfather?
He let me eat apple pie for breakfast. He was my father’s father. He was bald. He liked to garden. He was a teacher, and some kind of occasional preacher. He came from a village called something like Jacksondale, which I cannot find on a map. I do not know where he came from: perhaps Jacksondale was just a story. He used to pull stories out of his sleeve, wrapped in his handkerchief. The stories would fall out when he shook the handkerchief. He told good stories. One was about a black cat, and a lord, and I remember the gates he drew in the air: they were like this. I remember them as well as if I had seen them myself. He told good stories.
Once we asked him could we have ice-cream before breakfast, and he said if we could find any, we were welcome to it: we went to the outside freezer and found two boxes of Cornettos. He let us eat them all. Perhaps this means that he was a man of his word. I hope so.
He was kind to us when he saw us. He did not see us often. He found it difficult to see us often. I do not hold him responsible for the fact he found it difficult to see us often. I had not seen him in some years when he died: it is hard to know how to grieve. My grandfather died on Saturday: I heard on Tuesday. My sister saw a Facebook post from a cousin (all emoji hearts and “eternal flames”), and told me he was dead. I don’t know how he died. I don’t know if knowing would make it easier to know how to grieve.
My grandfather is dead, and I am at a loss. I had not seen him since my eighteenth birthday lunch. My eighteenth birthday lunch was also the last day I saw my father’s house, and the day my father said some things, terrible things, which I can’t forget. I have tried. These events are not coincidental, and I think they go a little way to explaining why this loss has left me at such a loss: why the way I am grieving this man, whom I did not know in any meaningful way, is by making bread.
Bread is the staff (stuff?) of grief because it is the staff of life. Tiny microscopic life-forms, breathing and bubbling and growing under your hands: it lives. Life goes on. I cannot find myself on the map, but I go on, nonetheless. And I make bread.
And in my airing-cupboard church, yeast rising and breathing beside me, I mourn what was, and what might have been.
The rules of bread-making are strict and formal; the rules of this kind of grief are written somewhere I can’t see. I don’t know how to grieve, but I know how to make bread. A six-strand challah braid: knead in anger, rise in grief, plait to find a pattern in all of this.
In making bread I can make an order out of chaos, and so I make bread, endlessly. A loaf rises as I write. Plait after plait. I give loaves to visitors, neighbours, strangers. Here. Share my bread. Share my grief. Be my people, when my people are gone. We will all be gone one day, but for now, we go on, go on, and he took the bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and he said take, eat: this is my body, do this in remembrance of me. He was a preacher of sorts.
In my blood is my grandfather’s blood; his body is a quarter of the pattern for mine, and in making this bread I remembered him, and I was sad, sad to my bones (which are one-quarter patterned on his), and sorry for it all, and perhaps that is all grief is- or, at least, it is all the grief I have.
25 mins actual work; 3 hours from idea to loaf
for my sister, without whom I would be entirely lost
(Taken almost wholesale from Emma Christensen’s recipe at The Kitchn: with baking there are rules.)
One packet instant yeast
250 ml lukewarm water (this is about a cup)
625 g (1 lb., 6 oz.) plain white flour
40g (1 1/2 oz.) sugar (I used golden caster)
2 teaspoons salt
4 tablespoons neutral oil, like groundnut
Stand mixer; or a sturdy bowl and good hands. A little bowl for the yeast mixture. A spoon. Baking sheet, parchment. A warm dark place. A thermometer is very useful.
Begin with the yeast: you’re bringing it to life, essentially. Take your bowl of lukewarm water, and sprinkle over the yeast, and a pinch of borrowed sugar. Stir until dissolved, and a frothy thick layer starts to form.
Weigh out your flour, and your sugar, and your salt into a big bowl, or the bowl of your stand mixer. The salt, if it is sea-salt, needs to be ground: properly ground, with a pestle and mortar. This is a good place to be angry. Grind it out (the people who didn’t tell you, the people who told you, the people who didn’t or don’t or couldn’t).
Stir together, letting the flour lift and fall. Plenty of air. Breathe.
Hollow out a little well in the centre of the flour. Crack two eggs into it, whole. You can separate the third one: the yolk for the flour, the white saved for the wash. (You can separate the egg like this: split the shell in half. Catch the yolk in one half. Let the white fall. Move the yolk to the other half-shell. Let the white fall. Repeat. This meditative transference is a good place to say, I did all I could, I did all I could. Repeat.)
The yolk goes into the well, with the other eggs, and your four tablespoons of neutral oil. Stir to form what Christensen calls a “slurry”. Tip your frothing yeast over this slurry, and stir again, and stir bigger: incorporate the flour, and the sugar, and the salt, and the egg-oil-yeast together, to form a “shaggy dough that is difficult to mix”. You will know exactly when you have done this: it is the perfect way of describing it. (Christensen again.)
You can, at this point, set your shaggy dough on your stand mixer; set it to knead with the dough hook for six-eight minutes.
Or turn it out onto a floured board, and knead into it all of your fury. You can say it aloud, as you pummel the dough into reason and order: it isn’t fair (knead), it isn’t fair (fold), it isn’t fair. It isn’t fair. You’re right. Keep kneading. Push your knuckles in, fold it around your fingers. Ten minutes at least, until it’s supple and smooth and forms an easy ball. You’ll know when you get there.
Set the dough to rise in an oiled bowl (I only oil the bowl I made it in), and set it in a dark, warm place. Cover with a clean tea-towel. Crawl with the dough into the dark warm place. Cry a bit. Wait. Wait. it will rise: bread is sturdy, and bread is resilient, and bread rises.
After about an hour, the dough will have doubled in size. See? Take this doubled-dough, and weigh it. Divide the number by six. That is going to be the weight of each of your strands. Pull the dough into six balls of the right weight (you will be better at this than you think), and roll each ball into a long, thin strand. The length and thickness of these strands will determine the shape of your loaf: shorter, fatter ones for an everyday loaf, longer and thinner for a ring loaf. A celebration loaf, I think they call it.
Lay out your six ropes of dough, and squeeze them together at the top. Braid them, like this: take the right-most rope, take it over two, and under one, and over two again.
Christensen explains it like this:
“Carry the right-most rope over the two ropes beside it, slip it under the middle rope, and then carry it over the last two ropes. Lay the rope down parallel to the other ropes; it is now the furthest-left strand.” Repeat until you have no more rope.
It is not nearly so hard as it seems, and you will be able to do it. But you will have to focus on the bread, which is good: when you are thinking about bread you are not thinking about knowing, or remembering, or feelings. Only bread, and braids.
If you have made a shorter, fatter loaf, you squidge the strands together at the end, and then you sort of cup the bread, pushing it together to make it higher, fatter, more loaf-like.
If you have made a longer, thinner loaf, you must make it into a circle: this is not as hard as it seems. Just lift it. The loaf is well-made. It won’t break, and nor will you. Bend it into a circle, and join the ends together, weaving the end of the braid into the beginning. Haphazard braiding is ok here.
Lift your braided loaf onto a baking sheet lined with parchment. Set it back in the warm place. Another hour, and it is risen when it is puffy and pillowy. Heat your oven to 175 Celsius. Brush the pillowy plait with egg white: you can mix this egg white with a teaspoon of water if you don’t think it will go far enough.
Scatter the bread with sea salt, assuming you kept your tears out of it. I scattered mine with poppy seeds, too. (The last time I saw my grandfather we talked about the poppies in my father’s garden: I did not remember this until after I had baked this bread.)
Bake the bread for thirty minutes, turning it in your oven at the fifteen minute mark. It is done when it is deep golden-brown, and when a thermometer reads 88 degrees Celsius, right in the middle. If you have no thermometer, it is done when it knocks hollow on the bottom. (And in this it is also like grief, especially a grief you don’t understand: hollow, heavy.)
Turn the bread out onto a cooling rack, by the window. Eat as soon as it stops steaming; or wrap in a tea-towel, and go knocking on your neighbour’s door. Take my bread. Eat my bread. I am sad, and I would like to be less alone: share my bread with me.