Josh the bakerboy tips his popover hat to me, each day I stop by to admire his loaves and long legs, sniffing, only sniffing the flamboyant air. No change jingles in my purse to lead me into indulgences I will late regret. Like my mother, I adore good bread, and like her, I love it so much I make sure not to keep any around the house. Zaftig hips, y’know. Growing up, we kids were under the impression that all bread was cottony bland, better suited for wadding and throwing than sandwiches. Only the filling counted.
Fridays were different. Fridays Mom shut herself in the kitchen in an ecstasy of eggs and flour, birthing braided challah with more joy and less pain than she had any of us, believe you me. Not that she’d say, but you could see it in her face, transported, soon as she got home from Bea’s Beauty Salon and tied the apron over her broad behind. Disdaining the cold steel of machinery, she leaned into the rising batter and kneaded it to life.
After tossing the long skeins of dough with a satisfying thunk on the counter. Mom danced her fingers through them, as she must have done with her own braids, right over middle, then left, then again, before they were cut at age twelve. I never had braids, hair tomboy short, but I still have hers, beribboned in their little cedar chest, salted away in the cupboard between the honey and the box of loose recipes in spidery script.
All the Singer women inherited the baking gene, as well as a passion for butter and a need to take up space in the world. Tanta Fanny—oh it was paradise those mitted hands midwifed from her own oven of iron and gas. Apfel strudels, marble pound cakes, bar cookies layered with streusel, raspberry jam and walnuts that she liberated from brown shells with the hammer Uncle Sol had left her. Bang, bang, her house shook with creation, rattling the stacked-up Lipton Tea boxes she would line with wax paper, then
M & M cookies, sent off to summer camp with us to ensure we made friends, as she had ensured that her sister would marry my father, cooking their first-date dinner, behind the scenes. Mom did make the dessert cake, piling frosting on the side that listed dangerously low. Dad married her anyway, for the promise of brisket simmered so long it fell apart on your fork.
Tanta Fanny’s recipe box held more than scrips for how to stir the pot. “Miss Big-Shot Detective”, was all Fanny said when I showed her the floury pages, “don’t make such a mess”. She sighed, fists on hips, “oh well, when you cook like me, you’ll look like me”. Sandwiched between yellowed Good Housekeeping cut-outs for molded Jell-0 salad pasted on the leaves of a 1941 diary, were scrawled entries, Sept. 4 rec’d telegram from Kiev, sent $5 m.o., Oct. 26 sent m.o. $10 Kiev, Dec. 18 no reply Kiev, splotched and almost as indecipherable as Fanny’s face when a young niece asked too many questions.
In those days, I was ripped-knee carefree, or was it careless? I didn’t know the meaning of time. I would leave things in too long, or the pilot light unlit, then grab, unthinking, for the pan, till the scorch of flour, finger and gas hovered like a dark angel, and Fanny banished me, bandaged, from her kitchen. Fanny always took care.
The wheat flour sifting into the walls over the years made the best insulation—long ago Tanta Fanny had spit twice against the evil eye of hunger blowing into her house, or squinching in through a chink like a slack-bellied cat. Fanny had kept her vow —churning out smorgasbords of blueberry blintzes, three cheese kugels, herring swimming in sour cream, cinnamon bubke—stuffing nieces, nephews, cousins, postmen, the ghost of her husband, then the ghosts of her brother and sisters, so many ghosts crowded around her table, Fanny gave herself over to the kitchen. You couldn’t fill up a ghost, but she tried.
Decades later, I do look more like Tanta Fanny and my mother than I care to admit, though I am fighting off those wobbly jowls that were so soft to kiss. I have my own well-equipped kitchen, although Lean Cuisine entrees-for-one ride the train from freezer to microwave to couch more often than not, alongside a nice Sauvignon Blanc. I have a good life, a professional job, and I exercise, religiously, at Gold’s Gym. But sometimes, on nights like this, I fantasize about working in a bakery, renouncing my stock options and svelte dreams, to reclaim those ovens, the right to eat, to make and eat the good things.
And unlike Bubbe Feiga, emaciated at the end, I would expand in proximity to the ovens, I would double in size every forty-five minutes in the intoxicating warmth, putting in what I had loved and shaped with my own hands, pushed out with my own breath. And that which I had shaped and breathed into being would grow, not bone and ash but fat and fragrant and full of resurrection, whole meal, bee-nectar, yolks as opulent as sunsets, and the sacrificial yeast. I would stir them up in an alchemy of love, punch down the noxious gases, tipple, in the waiting, from a tumbler of achingly-sweet toasting I’chaim I’chaim, braid the loaves as Bubbe Feiga must have braided her own, follow the recipe that, somehow, escaped the burning.
Lisa Beatman hits the road a lot, but calls Boston home, teaching immigrant factory workers. Her work is published in the Hawaii Pacific Review, Abiko Quarterly and Rhino. She has published a chapbook. Ladies’ Night at the Blue Hill Spa (Bear House Publishing).