How To Grieve With Challah Bread

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?

dough challah

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.

fat loaf crumbshot

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.

challah slice- crumbshot

Grieving Challah
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
3 eggs
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).

IMG_6770
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.)

slurry

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.)

IMG_6776

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.

IMG_6778

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.

IMG_6780

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.

IMG_6782

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.

IMG_6784

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.)

IMG_6786

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.

Advertisements

177 responses to “How To Grieve With Challah Bread

  1. My deepest condolence! This article has so much to it. I would have never imagined bread having so much significance to it. When my grandpa died I guess I kinda turned off grieving because of guilt, not seeing him prior to when he passed on. Guess that’s something i’ll have to live with.

  2. Thank you for this post… I just lost my grandmother and this post was so meaningful for me the first time I read it. I couldn’t bring myself to post this then, but thank you…

  3. Reblogged this on 6 Impossible Things and commented:
    I cook when I’m stressed. I cook when I’m sad. I cook when I’m unmotivated to do anything positive at all with my moments and I’m stuck on some, strange INFP mental merry-go-round struggling between my anxiety, my passion and my insanely disappointing, high, personal standards. I relate to this kind of grieving because, in my life, when things don’t make sense, I too cook.

  4. Beautifully written and I am truly sorry for your loss. Your deep and sincere emotions are surely embedded in the bread, from mixing, kneading and braiding. To me that loaf of challah looks like the circle of life, round with elaborate design and purpose.

  5. I grieve for you reading this. I hope you don’t know how to grieve because it’s painful, cold and lonely. Thank you for sharing this. It’s beautiful, warm, thoughtful and comforting. I hope you receive those thoughts back a thousandfold. I’m going to make this tomorrow.

  6. sorry for your loss. I never knew my grandparents on my father’s side and lost my mother’s parents at ages 14 and 18 years old. They are always in our hearts and your challa is a great way to show the thread of life. May you not know sorrow anymore.

  7. I loved and admired my grandfather very much,we were very close when I was young but then I moved away.He died in his late 90,just did not wake up one morning.I knew it was his time and it helped that he went peacefully in his sleep.I still miss him so many years later and I wish I would have told him how much I loved him.But he was a wise man and might have known.I am very much looking forward to meeting him again in eternety – and that makes grieving bearable.

  8. Such a touching post, in some ways your post made me think of The Story Teller by Jodie Picoult: Sage Singer is a baker. She works through the night, preparing the day’s breads and pastries, trying to escape a reality of loneliness, bad memories, and the shadow of her mother’s death. Baking bread sounds like a excellent way to deal with your grief at the loss of your grandfather, and the accompanying regret of a closer relationship that might have been.

  9. Sharing.
    Sharing how much I value honest writing.
    Sharing with you that my brim is overflowing because
    I have come across this…
    your piece.
    Yeast or no yeast.
    You’ve inspired me to write.
    I implore you to breathe
    And
    Be kind to yourself
    as you
    don’t
    know
    how
    to
    grieve.

    Hmph…your words I read
    In response my words go free.

    Peace

    e

    Abundant blessings & condolences on your loss.

    © Ericka Arthur and authenticitee, 2015

  10. Pingback: Slow Lane Aubergine | Eating With My Fingers·

  11. You write beautifully. I wish you peace and time, time to heal and the peace in which to do it. My grandmother died a little over 3 weeks ago and while I notice her passing, I’m lucky I do not have the grief. Her life was not as she wanted and death was her release. My father, her son, feels this peace now. I hope you can share your bread and your grief. X

  12. Pingback: How To Grieve With Challah Bread | myrnaluz33·

  13. This is beautifully written! I bet your bread turned out well because you baked it with so much love- All of those loving memories of your grandfather! Thanks for sharing these intimate thoughts with us! My neighbor passed away and her family cooked up soooo much food for Thanksgiving because it was a way of grieving… It brought back memories and kept those hands busy. That is what your posting reminded me of… If I ever find the need to grieve deeply, I will remember your bread and make time to do something like this! Thank you for sharing such strength, pain and love!!!!! Even a recipe!!!! :)

  14. Pingback: How To Grieve With Challah Bread | ibisoharry·

  15. you are twenty two? but such heart warmingly good writer already! You have a truly good heart is why your writing resonates with warmth and it is such a pleasure reading about your life and times. Glad to be connected, sorry about your loss, love and hugs from India. I could smell the warm bread, feel your loss and sense your love through your writing. Peace to your grampaw’s soul. May he rest in eternal peace wherever he be.

  16. I am deeply sorry for your loss and admire the way you’re coping with it with all your talent “He used to pull stories out of his sleeve, wrapped in his handkerchief. The stories would fall out when he shook the handkerchief. ” are words to treasure

  17. Keep posting and I would love to get to read more of your journey even though am not into making food (am a lacemaker, unlike you I work with lifeless thread as opposed to bread. What you do sustains our body and spirit, what I do nurtures my sense of balance and feeds my need for beauty around me)

  18. Beautifully written and some lovely memories of time spent with you grandfather. I think you do know how to grieve. You write about your loss, talk about your loss and do practical things to take your mind off it when it gets to much. I am food teacher and I teach bread making all the time. Kneading helps release tension and anger, shaping to focus on creativity , glazing to think of how we make judgements on appearance, and tearing and sharing bread to remind us that we are in this together. Sorry for your loss and keep baking. It helps.

  19. Pingback: How To Grieve With Challah Bread | myblog6571·

  20. My paternal grand father was pure Welsh – “priveleged; To be born with music in your heart, and poetry in your soul.”

    Dylan Thomas was an alcoholic poet, who died of his illness, aged 39…..

    “And death shall have no dominion.
    Dead man naked they shall be one
    With the man in the wind and the west moon;
    When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
    They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
    Though they go mad they shall be sane,
    Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
    Though lovers be lost love shall not;
    And death shall have no dominion.

    And death shall have no dominion.
    Under the windings of the sea
    They lying long shall not die windily;
    Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
    Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
    Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
    And the unicorn evils run them through;
    Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
    And death shall have no dominion.

    And death shall have no dominion.
    No more may gulls cry at their ears
    Or waves break loud on the seashores;
    Where blew a flower may a flower no more
    Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
    Though they be mad and dead as nails,
    Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
    Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
    And death shall have no dominion.”

  21. This was absolutely incredible to read. Sorry for your loss but your doing right thing by putting your grief into writing because it turned out to be a beautiful piece. Also that Challah Bread looks great. Keep your head up and keep pushing.

  22. I empathize for I am a Grandfather. I taught for forty years. I find it difficult to be with the children, now grown, for their lives went their ways. When I am gone I hope they bake bread for that is the staff of life and will remind them that their grandfather led a good life and loved them. Food and life are essential. Although I truthfully like the bagel.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s