Porch Talk

a Southern Momma speaks


The Staff of Life

In a recent conversation, one of my daughters and I discussed the renaissance of home baking that is going on in this country. We had both read online articles about this, and were surprised to learn that while home baking included muffins, cup cakes, layer and loaf cakes, cookies, brownies, and biscuits, it also included bread.

Basic bread, not banana bread or any others like it, but loaf bread. I wondered why making bread was so popular, and then thought about the difference of process in making bread and all the others cited above.

Bread dough has to be kneaded in order to develop the glutens in the flour, which gives the dough structure and texture.  Unlike making other baked good, when batter is stirred with a mixer or by hand, making bread is a hands-on process.  The baker’s hands handle the dough, kneading it smoothly so that the glutens will be distributed throughout the dough.

Thinking about that, I realized that kneading not only helped the dough, but the baker.  In times like these, anxiety and fear are emotions millions suffer.  Kneading dough can release tension, at least for a while, and the aroma of baking bread creates a space of normalcy, which we all need.

My first experience with baking occurred when I was five.  For Christmas I received a toy stove that really worked.  I wanted to make biscuits for my father, and though my mother offered to help, I was determined to make them myself.  I put the pan in the oven of my stove, and when they were done they looked every bit as good as the ones my mother made.

I put the biscuits in a basket lined with a napkin, and presented them to my father.  He took a bite, then another, following each bite with a sip of coffee.  His face had a strange look, not at all the appreciation I expected, so I picked up a biscuit and took a bite.

I had never bitten into anything as hard as that biscuit was. ‘How could that happen?’  I mentally reviewed the recipe, and my mind stopped at the word “shortening”.  It was the last ingredient, followed by the instructions, and somehow, I had overlooked it.  My mother saw my face and asked what was wrong.  “I left out the shortening,” I said, and burst into tears.  My father dipped a biscuit into his coffee, and ate it with relish.

“These are the best biscuits I’ve ever had,” he said.  “The only ones I can dip in coffee and they won’t fall apart.”  Despite his praise, I never made biscuits without shortening again.

Nor did I have any more problems baking until the day I made a cake for my husband because I was angry with him over some trivial occurrence, and decided to make a peace offering with his favorite cake.  A good friend was in the kitchen with me, visiting while I made the cake, three layers of chocolate that would be iced with divinity icing.  As I put the last stroke of icing on the cake, it began to split into four quarters.

I heard my friend gasp, but she said nothing, and watched me get a large bowl and put cake and icing in it.  Then I attacked the contents with a steel spoon, reducing it to a mixture of cake and icing.  “There’s his cake.  And I dare him to say anything about it.”

My friend called my husband and told him to be prepared for this baking disaster.  He came home and instead of teasing me, put some of the mixture on a plate and ate every bit.   Before he could say anything, I picked up the bowl and scraped the contents into the garbage.  The word “cake” was not spoken.

Later, my friend called and said my husband had called her and said he had never had such a good cake, but he knew what would happen if he said so.

I made a cake for the family every week-end, but I never had another disaster, and to this day, I don’t know how that one happened.


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Books Can Be A Help in Getting Through This Crisis

Like so many others, I am doing fine-tuning housework to keep occupied in a productive way during this shutdown.  Yesterday I began with the books in my library, which fill fourteen large bookshelves.  They were packed away during the 2017 flood, and two good friends helped me unpack them and put them on the new shelves.  We tried to keep the genres apart, and the books in them arranged alphabetically, and given the tedious task of dusting each one, we did a good job.

Still, many books, both fiction and non-fiction, were mixed together in several genres, and I decided I would put them back in order, giving me a project that will take several days.

The plus side of this is that not only does it occupy my time, it gives me an opportunity to reaquaint myself with books I hadn’t looked at in years.  And what a treasure trove I’m finding!

I have loved books since I was a very young child,.  I remember reading an essay Katherine Anne Porter wrote about Eudora Welty.  She stated that Welty grew up in a family where, when you visited relatives, you didn’t have to take the current book with you, because they all had the same  books that at that time were considered essential to any personal library.

One of my favorite stories about the effect books have, even on the very young, is one Phyllis   McGinley, who wrote A SIXPENCE FOR HER SHOE, as well as many others.  In that book,   she recalled an afternoon when she was reading a story to her four year old daughter.    As the story went on, she thought the words were beyond the child’s understanding, and stopped reading.  The child asked why, and on being told that the words were too hard for her to understand them, she said, “I don’t care about them words.  I just like the story.”

During World War II, when gas was rationed, people tried to make one trip serve several needs, as did my family when we went to the downtown library once a month to stock up on books.  The limit was eight books per person, so with two adults and three children we could have forty books.  I read my brother’s to him, and when I’d  read mine, I read my sister’s, and even some of those my parents had chosen.  Elizabeth Goudge’s books were popular, with nothing that would damage a child’s innocence, and she soon became one of my favorite writers.

When we moved to Lafayette in 1943, a best friend who lived near my home and I walked to the library at least once a week,  because, avid readers that we were, we had finished all the books we had between us, and needed more.

The Betsy, Tacey and Tib books were the rage for girls our age–eleven and twelve–and the librarians, who knew us well, would put a new one aside so we could read it first. Nancy Drew and her friends provided a different kind of reading experience, as they solved crimes with insight and fortitude.  But of all the series of books I read at that time, the Little Colonel series is first.

Lloyd lives in a village near Louisville, Kentucky.  We meet her in the first book, when she defies her grandfather by picking strawberries in his garden.  He’s alienated from Lloyd’s mother because she married a Yankee,which he considers as an insult to all he hold dear.  Lloyd confronts her grandfather, and at the end of the book father and daughter are reconciled.  The series ends at Lloyd’s wedding.

When my daughter Aimee was working at the Actor’s Theatre in Louisville, KY, I visited her.  One afternoon we drove to the village where Lloyd lived, and saw the houses that had been used in the book.  These brought back memories of the books themselves, and we soon realized that while telling interesting stories, these books also promoted manners and mores, and presented personal honor as anyone’s most precious asset.


Facing Difficult Times

There are many devastating results from the corona virus.  The increasing number of deaths, as well as the heart-breaking stories of victims who die alone with no family near them.  The rituals following death can’t be carried out, so families and friends can’t gather to remember and honor the dead, and to offer solace to each other.

Women give birth without the support of loved ones, friends who took pleasure in meeting friends for coffee or meal can no longer do so, nor can children finish this school year except online, and not all can do that.  And millions of people are out of work, because their employers have closed down their businesses.

In a word, we seem to have lost control of our daily lives.  But conversations and emails with family and friends offer the many ways we can get that control back.  From what I hear and read, houses are having the most comprehensive cleanings they’ve had.  People are getting rid of things they’ve hung on to for years, setting them aside to give to a charitable organization when this is over.

With children not in school, and parents not going to work, many families are using this time to become closer.  They play board games.  Parents read aloud to children.  They cook meals that have always taken too much time and effort before.

Bill Gates’ pledge of 50 million dollars for relief, and Tyler Perry buying groceries for every customer at chosen Winn-Dixies in Louisiana and Georgia are grand examples of generosity, but personal generosity, like doing errands for people who are most vulnerable, or calling a sick friend and telling him/her something that will bring a laugh, helps not only the receiver, but the giver, who chose to do these acts in defiance of the many strictures the virus imposes.

Now is the perfect time to read the books one has always wanted to.  The libraries are closed, but sites like AbeBooks have used books that cost little, and many have free shipping.  Finish the handiwork you started months, even years, ago.  Do wood working, play a musical instrument, start window garden.  Hang bird feeders, including ones for humming birds.  I have Cardinals and humming birds, and a variety of small birds like sparrows, wrens and Black-headed Chickadees, and also a Painted Bunting, whose beauty makes me catch my breath.

Now is the time to find refuge in your own home, your own garden.  It is also the time to strengthen or repair relationships, because though the virus has changed our lives, it can’t make them meaningless unless we let it.