Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Bread Bellies

My mom used to make Afghan bread when I was a child. My family consumed a lot of bread, especially my dad, who seemed unable to eat regular food without the accompaniment of a bread basket. We certainly broke all the rules of the now-popular low-carb diet. My dad, always inventing building projects, often talked about how he could build a tandoor oven in the yard, and was delighted with the advent of wood fired pizzas, marveling at the hot oven fire at the restaurants, exclaiming, “This is exactly how they made bread in Afghanistan!” I don't know if my mom made bread because my dad asked her to, or if she would have anyway. She often recalls how she was "so good" back in those days, and how she did lots of things she doesn't do anymore, as if the day she stopped baking bread marks a moment of melancholy independence.

She always used whole-wheat flour instead of white. (I later discovered, on a trip to Afghanistan, that the bread seemed to be made with white flour). I would watch her make the dough in a large metal bowl measuring two feet in diameter. Maybe this is why I tend to cook in large quantities even though I'm often only cooking for one or two. She would sprinkle the wooden cutting board with brown flour. The sound of her hand wiping across the floured board always pleased my ears and my OCD tendencies of wanting everything to be even and balanced. When I make pie, on those rare occasions, I always enjoy spreading my own flour and watching it sink evenly into the pores of the wood.

She kneaded the elastic dough under her strong hands. You see, even though my mom was beautiful, she was no prissy woman. She mowed the lawn (two lots on a hilly slope, which by city standards was more like four lots) and did all the household chores.

My favorite part of the bread making process was when she would separate the dough into separate balls that would sink into the wooden board as soft mounds. Then, she would take her pinky and poke each mound in the center so each looked like a little belly. I'm really not sure what the purpose of the belly button was – if they were a result of counting the loaves, or if they served another function. But, in my weird little mind those little bellies were very exciting (and still are). After she left the dough to rise, she would roll each mound out into a long oval shape, squishing the belly with the weight of her rolling pin. Dipping her fingers in water, she then pressed them into the dough from top to bottom making parallel indentations similar to the crop rows I would see in our rural town.

The oven was hot, and like a brave fire woman withstanding the heat for the good of her family, she would put loaf after loaf into the oven. They were not loaves in the traditional sense of the word, as they were flat. I always wondered why our bread was so flat and thick compared to the "French" bread we would buy from Safeway. My sister, older than I, loved hollowing out the French loaf, eating the white, soft, squishy interior with glee, leaving only the crispy exterior, much to my dismay.

At the very end of her baking session, when almost all the loaves were done, my mom would make me a small mini loaf, about the size of my grown-up hand. But before putting it in the oven she would brush it with a healthy dose of butter, explaining to me that this is what made it tasty – something her mom also did for her.

It was like a special confidential ritual – a secret – that I was allowed the buttery baby bread, unbeknownst to my sister or my dad. Who knows, maybe she did this for my sister as well and I choose not to remember. She certainly didn't do it for my dad. Even though I didn’t taste a significant difference between that buttery bread and the regular bread, I never revealed this to my mom, as this isn’t what made it tasty anyway. In that moment, I was truly special, eating my baby bread born from a dough belly, made especially for me by my mother.


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