Monday, June 11, 2007

Our Daily Bread

The line in the Lord's Prayer says, "Give us this day our daily bread . . ." This is most often understood to be a prayer for physical nourishment. What if we think about it literally - literally bread made fresh daily.

Early yesterday morning I made a quick trip to the grocery store to stock up since we had been out of town. This kind of trip usually involves buying soy milk, fruit, and bread. As I was heading for the bread aisle, I decided that I was not going to buy bread; I was going to make it. I have no real schedule to keep right now so I can indulge myself and everyone else around here with homemade bread for toast and sandwiches.

This afternoon I reached for my Tassajara Bread Book and thumbed through it for a bread that fit the bill - basic but tasty. I settled on oatmeal bread. It has been some time since I have made bread, and I have never made this recipe. Usually I dive into a recipe and feel my way as I go. For some reason, I chose to read all of the front material before starting. Because this book is written by a Zen Master, every detail of every step in the process is treated as sacred. I enjoyed reading about how all the ingredients interact with one another, what is important in the kneading process, why each detail, no matter how small it seems, is important in the overall process. By the time I started making the bread, I felt that I was doing so much more than just baking bread.

This particular bread starts with a sponge made with water, yeast, sweetener (your choice of honey, molasses, or brown sugar) and flour. The sponge proofs for 40 minutes. At the end of 40 minutes, I was thrilled to see that the sponge had overtaken the entire bowl. In that moment, I realized that all was right - the yeast was fresh and the water temperature was not too hot or too cold. At this point the rest of the ingredients, salt oats and oil, are added. (The salt is added after the sponge is proofed because salt inhibits the function of the yeast.) Now the bread must rise for 50 minutes or until it doubles in size. Again, I was amazed when the bowl was full of batter after this rising. Punch it down and let it rise again. Now form it into two loaves, place it into oiled loaf pans, and let it rise again for 25 minutes. Make slits in the top to allow steam to escape and finally it is time to put it in the oven and bake it for an hour.

This was not a quick process, but it was satisfying. Most of us do not get to witness the creation of something from start to finish on any regular basis. I was consumed by this process that took all afternoon. From start to finish, this bread took five hours. This was not a time to want immediate gratification. I realized during this time that I truly enjoyed participating in each step. The attention to detail from stirring 100 strokes to kneading for 10 minutes, to allowing the bread to rise long enough to double in size are all important to the outcome of the bread.

I could have bought bread at the grocery store yesterday and all would have been done. We could have had a sandwich immediately. But, it was a great gift to be able to make the bread. While I was thinking about this, I began to wonder if I would feel this way if I had to make bread every day. Would it then become just another chore? The same is true of knitting. It is something that I enjoy doing. How would I feel about it if the only socks my family had to put on their feet were the ones I made. There would be a great deal of pressure to knit quickly so that everyone would be warm - especially the kid who is going to spend the next four winters in Chicago!

Everyday tasks are the bulk of most of our lives. Moments of ecstasy are few are far between. I believe that this is intended to teach us to savor every moment of every day. The sacred is present in all things and in all places; we must be open to seeing it. Whether it be folding laundry or baking bread, it is important to realize that each step, each detail of the process is as important as the next. It is in acknowledging the interplay between all things that we begin to understand our own place in the world.

In some things that we do, we may be like the yeast, an integral ingredient that is only seen in the early stages of creation, or we may be the loaf of bread that feeds the hungry. Whichever the case may be, we are a sacred being. The loaf of bread is not possible without the yeast and the yeast has no purpose unless it is united with the other ingredients in the creation of the bread.

Right now I am blessed to be the one eating the bread!