My childhood was rare according to most people, and this was only twenty or so years ago.
Mom was a stay-at-home-mom. Mom was a stay-at-home-mom who baked bread, at least once a week if not twice. Mom was a stay-at-home-mom who baked bread without any of the modern conveniences, no stand mixer and definitely never using a bread machine. Her sole equipment – a wooden spoon, a mixing bowl, and arms strengthened from simultaneously kneading dough while holding and caring for her children.
You see, I was raised on homemade bread of two varieties, either white sandwich bread or cracked wheat sandwich bread. (Now as a married man, I make cracked wheat bread, but I use a KitchenAid stand mixer to aid in the process.) There were school days when my sisters and I would come home to the heavenly aroma of fresh baked bread, and beg Mom to cut us a slice. The worst part for a kid whose idea of delayed gratification is waiting 30 seconds is being told by Mom that the bread had just come out of the oven and was too hot to slice. We would have to wait.
The fresh baked bread got even better when Mom started making homemade strawberry jam during the summers with farm fresh California strawberries. Her trick was to go to the Farmers’ Market, asking the vendors for the bruised strawberries that were too ugly or too overripe to sell in baskets. (After all, we Americans want our fruit pretty and uniform, not misshapen or ugly.) The farmers were happy to make some money from otherwise worthless produce and gladly sold my mom whole flats of bruised strawberries for five dollars, which were perfect for turning into jam.
Fresh California strawberries turned into fresh strawberry jam smeared across still slightly warm homemade bread. To this day, there is still no better treat. To this day I am still very particular about the way I eat these first few slices of bread, something my wife did not understand until she also tried it, and was instantly converted.
I begin by peeling away the top crust of the bread which is at once both chewy and slightly crunchy. There is a depth of flavor here that I have only truly come to appreciate as an adult as a result of the mixture of the grains and the sugars intermingling to produce a rich, sweet nutty flavor only found on the outside crust of the bread. I will then sometimes eat the bottom crust, while not having the depth of flavor as the top crust, still yields a greater chew and density than the interior of the bread. With the crust having been consumed, I am now left to enjoy the middle of the bread, which when freshly out of the oven is so soft I handle it with the greatest of care.
I do have a confession to make, however. Growing up with this plethora of bread, I did not realize how lucky and fortunate I was and am. Sure the first slices of bread were soft and delightful, but soon after, the bread would fairly quickly lose its once soft texture and become drier and drier. We kids wanted soft bread. And soft bread was found when we would visit Nana (Mom’s mom) and she would have a loaf of Wonder Bread for us. Soft, flavorless bread, now that was a treat!
There really is nothing like fresh, homemade bread. The smell of bread baking brings people into the kitchen. We are instinctively drawn to the smell. I wonder if the Atkin’s Diet became so popular because most people have stopped baking bread and have forgotten the immense joy and pleasure found in bread and the breaking of it.
Sadly the loss of baking bread in the home has influenced the Church as well, most notably in her celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
Alexander Schmemann in his discussion of symbols as it relates to the Eucharist writes, “Its [a symbol’s] function is not to quench our thirst but to intensify it” (The Eucharist, p. 39). A symbol no matter how perfect it correlates to that which it symbolizes is never the object itself. A symbol is never meant to replace the primary object. A symbol should stir our whole being, causing us to long for that to which it symbolizes. It should awaken our hearts and desires more fully to that reality.
A sacrament might function in the life of a Christian much like an amuse bouche functions in a great meal. The literal meaning of the phrase is “something to please the mouth,” and the purpose of it is to awaken the palate to what lays ahead. A singular bite to simply excite you about what lies ahead.
The Eucharist is meant to excite us about God’s kingdom breaking forth. It is meant to entice us to reflect on the great joy of salvation, the great mission of God that he has invited us to particpate in. It is a singular foretaste of the heavenly banquet, where one day we will all dine with Jesus as he intends. An amuse bouche of the totality of the Christian experience.
But if the Marriage Supper of the Lamb tastes anything like what we serve at the Lord’s Table, I, for one, am not all that excited. A stale, flavorless, pre-broken piece of cracker and a pre-portioned miniscule serving of high fructose corn syrup laden grape juice? No offense, but that in no way awakens my senses or amuses my mouth.
One day I want to be walking up to church and from 50 feet away, smell the unmistakable perfume of fresh bread wafting through the church parking lot. I want to be in service and here that crackling of the crust as my brothers and sisters share the one loaf, remembering “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Cor. 10:17). I want to share with my brothers and sisters the immense joy of fresh bread, remembering and greatly anticipating what is still to come.