In the binder where I keep my unbound recipes is an entry titled “Grandma’s Bread.” White paper, black ink. Five or six ingredients, then let the whole thing rise. Among the three dozen or so recipes that the binder contains, Grandma’s bread is one of my favorites. It’s also one of the most frustrating to reproduce. Impossible, maybe—and not because it’s hard to follow, or because baking in general is a ticklish chemistry.
No, the problem with Grandma’s bread is far more basic. The problem is simply that I can’t seem to make the damn thing. Every time I gas up the oven and shove in the two loaves, I wind up not with what the recipe promised, not with Grandma’s bread, but with plain, old, uninspired raisin bread.
To be fair, Grandma’s bread technically qualifies as raisin bread. But hers is . . . how to explain? Hers is light. It’s light on the tongue and light on its feet. Pebbled with raisins and thinly crusted, it’s the kind of bread that might tempt you to turn, unironically, to metaphors of leaping, effortlessly graceful ballet dancers, if such metaphors didn’t belie the loaf’s working-class origins. In truth, Grandma’s bread resembles nothing so much as sandwich bread. No artisanal grace notes. Nothing that might merit words like “flashy” or “hipster.” Just an honest loaf of bread. Sifted flour and potato water and vegetable shortening and raisins. Little bit of sugar, little bit of salt. But airy, for all that—and sweet, and delicious.
Slice warm, slice generously, and serve with a pad of soft butter or with nothing at all.
I asked my grandma for her recipe shortly after I got married. Jes and I were moving to central Illinois, and although the newly five-hour drive to Michigan remained doable, it was prohibitive. The upshot? Fewer opportunities to see my grandparents and, by extension, fewer opportunities to score Grandma’s excellent raisin bread. After twenty-plus years of eating the stuff, I feared that a drop in my carbohydrate-consumption might be in the offing—and a precipitous one, at that. Hoping to circumvent the worst, I copied down the recipe from my ever-generous grandmother, brought it home, and got to work.
Five years have passed since I got that recipe. In those five years, I wager I’ve made more than thirty loaves. And while the rewards for my labor have steadily progressed from disappointing to passable to pretty good, my apartment’s puzzlingly branded Whirlpool oven and I have yet to produce the genuine article.
I can imagine the responses, of course—the armchair psychologizing that’s so disappointingly familiar in cases like this. “It’s nostalgia,” goes one explanation. “It’s rose-tinted glasses,” goes another. Or, even better: “You talk about genuine articles, but seriously. Come on. Bread is bread, and after decades of eating it, this ‘Grandma’s Bread’ of yours is so mixed up in your childhood that you probably haven’t tasted the actual thing in years.”
Under other circumstances, these uncharitable diagnoses might well be right, except of course that they’re not. Yes, my grandma’s raisin bread belongs partly to memory. And, yes, I cannot disentangle the two. I cannot remember, for instance, her bread apart from those long weekend visits during autumn, or apart from the hiss-and-spit of frying bacon. I cannot taste her bread without partially recalling my charmed, child’s-eye view of the world where things, on the whole, were less scary and less anxious. Where viruses didn’t keep me pinned down at home. Where families seemed uncomplicated.
Where Grandma and Grandpa were still young enough to make Saturday breakfast for a family of fourteen without becoming exhausted.
But the fact that my memory is involved doesn’t disprove my argument. Grandma’s bread is factually, objectively better than my own. And it seems to me not just a failure of imagination to credit her bread’s success to my private delusions. It’s also, frankly, an insult to all the work—the sifting and mixing, the rolling and kneading—that Grandma’s lovely, old, arthritic hands have done.
Not long ago, I learned a word that now seems relevant. The word is terroir, and it often comes up in wine culture. Terroir names all the aspects of cultivation that farmers and winemakers have some control over (the kind of grape, for instance, or the fertilizer and irrigation), as well as the many, many other aspects that they do not control—an unusually humid growing season, or the grade of the land, or the natural chemical composition of the soil. Terroir, in short, names systems that are bafflingly complex. I like to think of it as a word for when we don’t have words, a term that gestures toward what we cannot represent. Terroir flags the world in all its infinite particularity, contingency, and history—the world as it erupts daily into the tidiness of our languages and models and creeds.
If terroir survives the conceptual transplant from grape-growing to bread-baking, then it’s no surprise that I’ve failed to replicate my grandma’s bread. Even if I used exactly the same ingredients, at exactly the same time, in exactly the same way—if, indeed, the only difference between my bread and Grandma’s were the hands that worked the dough—terroir suggests that the results would still, in some intractable way, differ. Because behind my grandma’s hands are years of practice and hard-coded muscle memory that I cannot duplicate. And because behind my grandma’s lovely, old, arthritic hands, too, are decades of hard work, self-giving, and gentleness, and because all of it comes flowing down from the complex of her body when she bakes, out through the tips of her fingers to infuse her bread, in a strangely literal way, with her own irreducible history.
If only these hands—these hands of mine at this keyboard, so incompetent at delivering the one thing I ask of them—could do the same. But then they have their own histories, and futures yet to write.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.