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Emma's Bread, a family's story

Emma's Bread, a family's story

My grandparents, Emma and John Blumhardt, in their farmhouse parlor in the early 1960’s

My grandparents, Emma and John Blumhardt, in their farmhouse parlor in the early 1960’s

This is a true story of bread, woven into my mother’s childhood in the late 1940’s and 1950’s. My mother, Donna Lou Blumhardt, was born on a farm in Kulm, North Dakota, on January 16, 1945, the youngest of three children to second generation German immigrant parents from Russia. Her parents, John Blumhardt and Emma Kungel Blumhardt, spoke German at home and English everywhere else, and raised wheat, flax, barley, and some corn on a 1500-2000 acres; mostly wheat and barley. The corn was kept on the farm for animal feed.

Like most farm wives, Emma arose early to begin her days. Mom recalls Emma beginning her week’s baking each Monday at 6:00 a.m. “My Mom baked ten loaves to feed our family every week.” (Including her family of five, as well as the school teacher, and one to four hired farm hands who lived at the house at any given time.)

Emma’s preparations began the night before: the treasured stone jar of everlasting yeast, an effervescent mixture of potato water and flour, was pulled from the pantry shelf, and most of its contents were poured into a crockery bowl. Additional potato water and flour were stirred into the everlasting yeast to create a “sponge,” or seed dough, which would in turn leaven the entire batch of bread dough the next day. What remained in the stone jar was replenished for the next week’s baking, and set aside to ferment on the counter.

In those days, whole wheat flour, or “brown flour,” was undesirable; for poor people. People of means used white flour. She had no standard measuring cups or spoons as we do today. Emma used a silver-plated tea spoon and table spoon from the table service and measured her flour with a small, white coffee cup.

Dakota Maid (that’s m-a-i-d, not m-a-d-e) flour was purchased in 50-pound sacks. Dakota Maid was the brand every good farm wife used, and my Great Aunt Lualla still uses it to this day, declaring that Dakota Maid flour, with its higher protein content, makes the best bread and strudel. The 50-pound sack was housed in an upstairs closet at the end of the hall. Flour was dipped out into the tin kitchen canister, enough for a week, the closet armed with mousetraps. Empty flour sacks were put to use as towels, bloomers, and aprons. Early in my mom’s childhood, she remembers Grandma switching to Red Star yeast, as did most other farm wives. Commercial yeast was faster-acting and popularly considered to be more reliable than her jar of everlasting yeast.

Emma mixed her bread dough in an oval-shaped enamelware dish pan with a red stripe around the rim. She kneaded on the table and set the dough to rise near the heat of the oil stove in the living room on cool mornings. The tub was carefully covered with a piece of plastic that had been cut from a precious plastic bag and was washed and reused. A flour sack towel was laid over the top. The dough was allowed to rise and punched down several times before Emma deemed it “ready.”

She then had a unique way of forming her loaves. Using hands well-greased with Crisco vegetable shortening, Emma pulled off hunks of soft bread dough and shaped them into smooth round balls by pinching the seams together on the bottom. She placed two of these balls sided by side in each oven-blackened loaf pan, making beautiful, bosom-shaped loaves. The Crisco coating kept the dough supple and enabled it to rise higher in the oven; we call it “oven spring” today. Emma allowed her loaves to rise quite high and light. She used a tool called a flour wand to sprinkle a bit of flour over the tops of the loaves before placing them two at a time in the gas range oven that went “poof!” when it was lit with a match. The oven may not have had a window, but Mom says, “The smell was heavenly! To this day, my favorite smell is of bread baking. Brings back all those good memories.”

The loaf pans were emptied onto a large well-dusted board or rack set on the table for cooling. The first loaf was usually eaten warm from the oven, sliced about 3/4-inch thick and served a half-slice at a time, accompanied by butter made in a glass jar churn, and plenty of good homemade jam. According to Mom, “There were chokecherry, plum, purple grape, and rhubarb jams and jellies in the cellar. Bread was so much a part of life - it was taken for granted that bread would be served at every meal: breakfast, dinner, and supper. My Dad always had a little pitcher of fresh cream by his plate. He would pour cream over his slice of bread, one bite at a time, and eat it that way.” Once in a while there would be toast, made on an old-fashioned stove-top toaster. You had to watch the bread vigilantly, or it would char! And, later, there was an electric chrome toaster.

Lunch meant sandwiches: bologna, beef, or ham. Mom took deviled ham sandwiches to school in the late 1940’s. Homemade bread was spread with Miracle Whip and commercially ground ham with condiments and spices; or potted meat, a finely ground spreadable mixture of mystery meat seasoned with allspice, bay, and cloves. “I was fortunate to have a sandwich, a piece of fruit (an apple, or home-canned pickled crabapples), a small red thermos bottle of water, and often a rosette wafer cookie with homemade fudge filling and a sprinkle of powdered sugar in my small tin lunch box,” Mom recalls. “Children from poor families with many children or too few acres to support their brood brought sandwiches made with homemade bread and brown Karo corn syrup.”

Donna (my mother), Sharon, and Willerd Blumhardt, circa 1947. Mom points out that her brother is the only one who posed correctly. Her sister, Sharon, has the wrong leg folded and mom herself cheerfully refused altogether.

Donna (my mother), Sharon, and Willerd Blumhardt, circa 1947. Mom points out that her brother is the only one who posed correctly. Her sister, Sharon, has the wrong leg folded and mom herself cheerfully refused altogether.

School opened at 8:00 a.m. and the Blumhardt kids, Willerd, Sharon, and Donna, went to school no matter what the weather, because “Teacher” lived at their house! “My Dad hitched a sled outfitted with a small oil stove and a stack of woven wool blankets to the backs of our two brown horses, Baldy and Pearly, and off to school we trudged through the snow,” Mom recalls with relish. Daytime winter temperatures sometimes fell to 40 below zero Fahrenheit, and still they went to school, dressed warmly in flannel-lined snow pants, jacket, cap, boots, and mittens. In Mom’s college days at North Dakota State University, she was required to wear a skirt or dress as a Home Economics major, believe it or not, in this weather! “The girls wold put pants on beneath their skirt and then slip into the bathroom to remove the pants before class. They would then slip back into their pants to change classes or return to the dorm. It was just something we had to do,” Mom explains.

Times surely have changed since Mom’s childhood! Most bread comes from large commercial factories and girls are allowed to wear pants to school. Sure, baking ten loaves a week was hard work, but it was good work, satisfying work in more ways than one. It lent structure to the week and nutrition to growing bodies. It is still good to bake bread, but we know now that flour made from whole wheat and other whole grains is actually much better!

Spiralized Midnight Pasta, reworking a New York Times recipe

Spiralized Midnight Pasta, reworking a New York Times recipe