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Edward Espe Brown

Excerpts from Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings: Recipes and Reflections

Stories of Ed's life and practice at Tassajara and with his teacher, Shunryu Suzuki

Homemade Bread Touches My Heart


In the summer Of 1955, when I was ten years old, my brother Dwite and I went to visit my Aunt Alice in Falls Church, Virginia. We flew first to Kansas City, and minutes before we landed I threw up, making use of one of those little bags which I had been naively asking about a short time earlier. Airplane rides were a lot bumpier then.

We sat in the plane on the tarmac there in Kansas City, waiting for something to be fixed, sweating in the terribly hot and stuffy confines. Isn't traveling fun? A bedraggled little boy arrived in Washington, DC, but was quickly revived by rest and old-fashioned hospitality.

Best of all was the homemade bread my Aunt Alice baked. I couldn't believe how good it was. We'd have it with dinner, and then in the morning we would toast it for breakfast. It was fabulously delicious, especially with the real butter and homemade jams we got to put on it. After the store-bought bread and margarine at home, it was simply to die for. Returning from a day of sightseeing in DC, we would be greeted with the hearty, earthy, nutty aromas of freshly baked bread.

What I could not understand was why more people were not baking bread at home, delighting their noses and pleasing their palates. In the stores then, pretty much all you could buy was foamy white bread. When allowed to, I would eat off the crusts, and then mash the rest of the slice into a marble. Then I had something solid to chew on. Commercial whole-wheat breads, if you could find them at all, were dry and comparatively tasteless.

Once I tasted my Aunt Alice's bread I wondered why people put up with the more boring version when they could be having bread which stimulated and awakened previously unknown reservoirs of joy and delight. Well, my thinking may not have been that sophisticated, but I decided then and there that I would learn how to make bread and that I'd teach others how to make bread. Plus, when I could, I'd get butter to put on it.

When my brother and I returned from our trip, I asked my mom if she could teach me how to make bread. "No," she said, "Yeast makes me nervous." The directions in the cookbooks instructed one to "knead" the dough. No, Mom could not show me how to do that either.

Arriving at Tassajara eleven summers later, I encountered fragrant, satisfying bread and two chefs, Jimmie and Ray, who could teach me how to make it. When I asked if they would show me how, they were more than happy to do so. It felt like an initiation. The secrets of how to do something were being shared and passed on. I became a descendent in the lineage of bread-bakers.

Jimmie and Ray, it turns out, had learned to bake bread from Alan Hooker at the Ranch House Restaurant in Ojai, California. Years later, when I was working as a waiter at Greens, Mr. Hooker came to dinner. Afterward I went over to his table, introduced myself, and gave him autographed copies of my books.

"You don't know it," I said, "but I'm your disciple." Even though we had never met, I felt very close to him. We shared a deep love for wholesome bread, and he had learned this craft, worked at it, and transmitted it, opening a whole new world to me. I felt profoundly grateful and honored to be in his company.

Later I received a letter from Mr. Hooker, thanking me for the books and inviting me to have dinner at his restaurant if I was ever in Ojai. Fortunately, I was able to take him up on his offer, and we had a delightful time. A shared love of bread and baking brought us together.

This is culture, the passing on of how to do something. The shared know-how bridges the generations and gives life to life. Nowadays it is less obvious what we are passing on other than how to watch television and walk a supermarket aisle, and what is lost is not just the way to bake bread, but the connectedness with our predecessors, our fellow beings, and the stuff which is our life.

Recently my brother returned from a Fourth-of-July visit to Washington, DC, where his oldest son is living with his wife and baby girl. So I felt it was timely to remind Dwite of our earlier trip, when he watched after me and we discovered bread and took in the sights together. "What I remember is the Smithfield ham)" he mused, "but it didn't change my life."

The whys and wherefores of hearts being opened is mysterious and momentous, giving shape to whole lifetimes.

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