Mary Rakochy's Gift of Bread
The only way to eat fresh bread is with homemade preserves. From Mary’s heart to Mary’s hearth, these loaves are for sharing.
Mary raises her eyes from the silky dough forming in her hands to look at the kitchen clock. Her eyes are not anxious but they are intense. Fifty-six years of kneading dough and teasing plump loaves out of the simplest ingredients every week have not made her indifferent to the vital importance of making good bread. And time is essential.
“When I got married and moved into this house with my in-laws,” she says, “the first thing my mother-in-law did was walk me out to the oven to show me how to make bread.” It is worth pondering why the making of bread would be the first chore that came to Mother’s mind.
As Mary works more flour into the dough (an unknown quantity except that it has to match four “dippers” of water—a dipper is the old ladle she has always used which is also unmeasured) a possible answer to that question emerges. Her arms, obviously conditioned to the rhythmic work of kneading, never stop moving. Visitors interject with questions about quantities and testing the consistency of the dough to know when it is just right. Her answers are brief and indefinite. She is, you come to understand, working hard. She will get to your questions later.
A pause in the labour brings an immediate and genuine smile to Mary’s face. An essential step in making good bread has been completed—the leavened lump is miraculously rising on the stove—and she comes to a presence of mind that is suddenly about ensuring that all of her guests have coffee.
The Rakochy farm shows all the practicality and ingenuity that lay at the heart of survival and progress for Prairie homesteaders. Mary’s son Dan, who maintains the now empty animal sheds and outbuildings, tells the hilarious and traumatic histories that invisibly populate the yard. Neighbours fill in bits that extend further into the past than Dan’s recall. Their voices boom and ricochet among the buildings and, from a distance, sound musical and haunting.
It turns out that even when she is not focused on kneading or making loaves Mary’s answers to questions about her method are somewhat vague. Making bread in her fashion is quite intuitive. She just knows. Each step in the three-and-a-half hour process is plainly part of who she is. At a certain point, when the lump has risen to the precise degree, she dispatches Dan to chop the white poplar firewood into smallish pieces that will stack properly inside the oven. When the unbaked loaves are settled into their lard-rubbed pans and reach the right place in their second rise, she stacks and lights the wood. The shelf at the mouth of the oven is constantly swept free of ash with a small clutch of turkey feathers. A little corn broom might do a better job but turkey feathers have always had their place there.
The group of visitors swells as the time for the actual baking draws near. The summer kitchen, white and comforting in its simple tidiness, is prepared for a lunch. There is, it turns out, nothing unusual about anticipating the emergence of the fresh hot loaves by first sitting down to hot soup, watermelon, and chocolate cake. Mary serves and finally sits, eating little. Her attention is still plainly on the bread that bakes in the oven’s dark heat.
A generation ago, the Rakochy family and their neighbours numbered 35 people—“In just two families!” exclaims Dan. The presence of people eating and visiting and working in Mary’s yard was a common occurrence, and the infrequency of it these days obviously saddens her.
The soup and cake are barely consumed when the time comes to bring the bread from the oven: baking takes approximately an hour. Visitors waste no time in getting from the summer kitchen to the oven house. Mary sets her tools beside her at the oven and deftly removes the hot steel door.
She smiles her broadest smile as the first loaf slips free of its pan. She is obviously satisfied with her work—15 loaves added to the uncountable loaves she has drawn from her oven in the last 56 years. Without delay, two loaves are whisked to the summer kitchen, sliced, and presented to an adoring gathering that now includes three of Mary’s sisters-in law who grew up with the oven and the yard. Finally, all the company announces that it is sated—not a bit of room left for bread, coffee, strawberry jam, or the pickles that stay cool in the well. Mary visibly relaxes. The afternoon will include the washing up but apparently there is no hurry. Voices will continue to echo among the buildings for a little while yet.
It may be argued that the priority Mary’s mother-in-law placed on bread-making had only to do with survival. After all, with 13 children to feed, an adequate supply of the staff of life was imperative. But watching Mary make bread suggests something just as profound and just as essential to life as nourishment. The labour and time invested in the simple task of baking creates time for people to gather. It always has, even if people didn’t perceive it as anything more than the necessary labour of survival. But at Mary’s farm on bread day, her work at the oven is a gift of time and gathering for everyone who comes.
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