Last week I learned that one of the women in my writers workshop for victims of violence was relocated to Denver because her husband, a Lithuanian mob boss had a hit on her and kids.
That afternoon I started baking.
When I bake, I remember the smell of fresh bread in my grandmother’s kitchen. Her table was polished smooth from kneading the dough. There was always a jar of homemade jam and a crock of margarine to slather on the pillow-soft crusty slices. My grandmother didn’t know about cholesterol back then and I hadn’t learned my biological father who gave me up for adoption beat women.
The three-story Victorian home where I host my workshop is in desperate need of repair. Its paint is peeling and it looks like one too many blizzards caused it to lean to the right. Today, I’m standing in front of the house holding a box of writing journals, donated books from my friend Maureen, who put out a call for romance novels for two women and collected used books from Claverack library. Perched on top is a mixing bowl filled with bread dough. Domestic abuse is a huge problem. It’s estimated that 1 in 4 women live in abusive relationships, and within our lifetime, half of us can expect to be the victim of domestic or intimate violence.
I talk into the buzzer. A new volunteer invites me in. Inside, the smell of dirty laundry, soiled diapers, and ammonia converge. I’m wearing my daughter’s Converse tennis shoes meant for the trash and a Bard College t-shirt. I feel awkward because no one in my group made it past high school. The ladies in my workshop read everything from comic books to Harlequin romances to James Baldwin.
Some women bring something they’ve written during the week to read. Some read from free writing exercises when I give a prompt. We take turns reading, then the group gives positive feedback. What the women have in common are silenced voices and stories that need to be heard. During a workshop, I steer them away from talking about abuse. For these women, writing is about a different kind of truth – unencumbered, raw, and naked. Writing isn’t therapy, but it’s therapeutic.
For the first time, the house has an eighteen-year-old college student. Unlike the typical abusive spouse, her abuser is her mother. Earlier in the week, the shelter director told me:
“One minute she’s explosively angry, and the next she’s not present.” The new girl’s eyes meet mine, then she looks down at her feet. I can hear the director’s words in my head: “Remember. Boundaries.” My grandmother would’ve said,
“There are no boundaries when it comes to loving someone who doesn’t have love.” Treading softly in an open field of landmines, where the most innocuous comment can set someone with PTSD off, I’m hyper aware.
Children’s drawings and framed positive affirmations hang on dingy white walls. The kitchen window, like all the windows, is covered in bars. The gray and white linoleum, which is meant to look like marble is now threadbare in places of heavy traffic. Work boots and children’s shoes are scattered everywhere. The house is at full capacity. Eleven women, most with children, make a lot of noise. I carry my dough delicately like a sleeping baby.
“I have a surprise,” I say. Smells of fresh dough precedes my words. New women are untrusting of an outsider, so I use food to communicate. They may not want to share their stories, but the smells, tastes, and textures of a dish act as a leveling wand between us.
Bread asks me to pay attention. If I leave the dough to rise too long it might fall as it bakes, so I place it above a refrigerator where I can keep an eye on it and set my timer. Bread is flour, water, salt, and yeast. But yeast, even dry yeast, is a living organism. It’s what makes baking bread an art. Yeast is sensitive to heat, moisture, air pressure, and elevation. My recipe allows the dough to rise twice: first in a mixing bowl, and then in a bread pan when it’s shaped into its final form. The first rise activates the yeast, starting the process of transformation from simple ingredients to something changed by chemistry. The second rise gives structure to the bread, allowing it to cook without collapsing.
I see a few new faces. There’s no laughter, not even a smile. I see a couple of regulars: Elana and Alma. Elana’s wearing a Grateful Dead t-shirt too tight and is complaining about her roommate’s baby crying all night. If I touch her arm reflexively, she jerks away. Her fingers are stained yellow from nicotine. Alma, an elderly petite woman, wears her platinum streaked hair in a ponytail. Even though she looks like she’s been swallowed by defeat, there’s a childlike innocence in her crooked smile. Her oversized blue jean overalls dwarf her tiny frame. She has a smoker’s skin, wrinkled like an elephant, and hazel eyes that hint at what might have been a twinkle from days past. There’s always a cup of coffee waiting for me when I arrive, which Alma anxiously takes back and forth to the kitchen to refill, like an alcoholic at an AA meeting. I never tell her I’ve had enough.
Elana’s a great illustrator, but she doesn’t know it. I have to be careful not to compliment her too much. If I do, she shrinks back in herself. Today she wants to read.
“Machete Man is my old man,” she says. I see her children in the playroom within ears shot and wince. A weekend volunteer makes eye contact and takes the children outside.
“Your character’s name is Machete Man,” I say softly. Everything we read remains secret.
“When we respond to Elana’s story, we’ll refer to her as the narrator,” I say. Elana frequently pauses to hold up sketches. She’s drawn Machete Man with demented eyes, saw-like teeth, holding a machete dripping blood. She shows us a woman and two children holding hands in a field of sunflowers, then a drawing of a bag of fertilizer with her soon to be ex on the bag.
“See my new tattoo,” she boasts. Encircling her wrist, like a bracelet, is a stalk that leads to the top of her hand, which is covered by a giant sunflower.
“In case I forget to rise up,” she says, looking directly at me. I couldn’t have planned the timing better.
“Would you help me clear the table?” I ask the group, catching myself before I touch Elena. Alma jumps up to clean the table, then I drop a cup of flower in the middle. I touch her shoulder when I say thank you. I gently place the Pyrex bowl upside down in the table near Elena.
“Press it down softly,” I say, but she looks scared. “It’s ok. It will rise again,” I add.
“Push him down,” says one of the new women. Never bring my chef’s knives, I think. I divide the dough into two and show her how to pat it into a rectangle. Alma winks at me like we’re conspirators and says, “I’ll clean up.” After I put the loaves in the oven, Elana’s face is less taught. We dissolve into hysterics when she shows us more drawings off Machete Man fertilizer spread over sunflowers. We laugh because it’s better than the alternative.
“You’re under the cone of silence now,” I say to Elena. It’s the group’s time to give her positive feedback. It’s hard for these women to hear positive feedback, but they feel less alone when the other women share their stories.
“Fuck Machete Man,” the new girl barks. I see her steel grey eyes squint. “He’s fertilizer.” Silence sits with our group, but I wait. Bread baking is a messy business, but so is life. The best ingredient, which should be a part of every dish, is one that costs nothing: love. My grandmother was frugal, except in matters of the heart. In trauma training, we call it extreme empathy.
“What if we make a cookbook?” I ask, winging it.
“My Aunt taught me to make a great corn casserole, says Alma. “It tastes like candy corn.”
“I’ll bring the ingredients,” I say, trying to not look too excited. It’s important these women feel in control after having had none.
“My kids love my mother’s strawberry shortcake,” says another woman. “It’s man-stripping goodness,” she says, licking her fingers for effect. I’ve learned to not react. Just smile, I tell myself.
“What if we use the kitchen as a test kitchen?” I ask. “I’ll pick up a flat of strawberries from Ironwood farm. Three women own the farm,” I add.
I reach into my bag and hand another woman, Maria, a Jamaican cookbook. “Thank you, Bard,” I think. Maria grew up in foster care and only recently learned her biological grandmother was Jamaican.
“Maybe one of these dishes will inspire you to write your own recipe,” I add. I make a mental note to ask Maureen to help me do a round-up for cookbook donations. I get up quickly to get the bread, almost falling over Alma, who’s worried I’m going to get coffee.
“You know, writing allows us to reframe our stories from victims to survivors,” I say softly.
“That sounds like psychobabble,” says Maria, with a look like, how would I know.
“Pass the jam,” says Alma. ‘
“That’s my grandmother’s apple butter,” I say, grateful for the interruption. The apples come from Samascott Farm,” I add.
“Put the recipe in the cookbook,” says Elana, and your magic bread.”
“Maybe you’d like to be the editor,” I say. We’re all holding crusty pieces of bread with butter from Ronnybrook Farm melting on crusty pillows of softness. It’s fleeting, but I see her eyes light up. I try to use as many local products as I can, hoping the women will do the same someday.
“My grandmother would tell you all to never cut the bread before it cools down to keep it moist unless you have company.”
Cooking helps us to slow down time, to share a piece of ourselves, and engage all of our senses in a safe place. My grandmother would say we’re giving love without words. Food transcends race, ethnicity, sex, sexuality, age, class. Food builds community, celebrates events. It doesn’t need to be complicated, cost a lot.
The bread melts in my mouth as swirls of tangy apples coalesce with a slightly sweet cinnamon. A salty, almost butter-like taste blends together on my tongue. Studies show that the smell of fresh bread is said to be the most universally loved smell on the planet, followed by vanilla. The food we cook is flavored with our personality and our culture. It’s what brings us together in good times and in bad. Moreover, it’s nurturing.
Next week I think I’ll write a story about a woman who used cooking to find her voice and writing to tell her story.
RISING UP: A recipe baked with love
What You Need:
Food Processor with a dough blade or stand mixer with a dough hook
Bread loaf pan 9”
4½ teaspoons instant yeast (two 0.25-ounce packets)
¾ cup + 2⅔ cups warm water, divided
¼ cup (50 grams) granulated sugar
1 tablespoon salt
9-10 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, for brushing
In the bowl of a mixer, stir to dissolve the yeast in a ¾ cup of the warm water, and let sit for 5 minutes. Add the remaining 2⅔ cups water, sugar, salt, room temperature butter, and 5 cups of the flour and stir to combine. Using a dough hook, mix on low speed and gradually add the remaining flour until the dough is soft and tacky, but not sticky (you may not need to use all of the flour). Continue to knead until a soft ball of dough forms and clears the sides of the bowl, about 7 to 10 minutes. Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl and turn it over so it is completely coated. Cover with plastic wrap and set in a draft-free place to rise until doubled in size, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Turn the dough out onto a clean, lightly floured surface. Gently press it all over to remove any air pockets. Divide the dough in two and, working with one piece at a time, gently pat it into a 9×12-inch rectangle. Roll up the rectangle, starting on the short end, into a very tight cylinder. Pinch to seal the seams and the ends, tuck the ends of the roll until the bread, and place into greased 9-inch loaf pans. Cover the loaves loosely and place in a draft-free area until doubled in size, 30 to 45 minutes.
Position an oven rack on the lowest setting and preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Brush the loaves with some of the melted butter. Bake the loaves for 30 to 35 minutes, rotating halfway through, until golden brown (an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center should read 195 degrees F). Remove from the oven and immediately brush with more of the melted butter. Allow to cool for 10 minutes, then remove from the pans and cool completely before slicing. The bread can be stored in an airtight bread bag or wrapped tightly in plastic wrap at room temperature for up to 4 days. It can also be frozen for up to 1 month. Allow bread to come to room temperature. While warm, it’s still cooking and developing flavor/texture and cutting warm bread allows moisture to escape into the air, which means it will stale faster.