And still the timer said four minutes left. I swear that I could hear its glaring LED’s mock me.
“Screw this,” I said. “They have to be done by now.” A wave of heat and the smell of yeast rolled over me as I opened the oven door and pulled out the cookie sheets. Crossing my fingers, I took a knife and tapped the crust with the flat of the blade; it thunked as if the loaf were hollow. The directions said that that meant that the bread was done. I let out a sigh of relief. I don’t think I could have waited any longer. I took the butter and glided it over the misshapen loaves until they glistened. Careful to avoid the dogs searching noses, I eased the loaves onto the cooling racks.
“Are they done yet?” my little brother, Aksel, pestered, his own nose twitching like the dog’s.
“Not yet,” I waved him away. Being a little brother, he didn’t listen; he leaned in closer.
“Smells good,” he said. “Can I have some?”
“No. They just got out of the oven.” I stared at the four little loaves as if that could make them cool faster. I was anxious to try them, to see if they tasted anything like the bread at ritual. By this point, I had resigned myself to the fact that they weren’t going to look anything like that bread. These loaves were squat and misshapenly round. They were nothing at all like the golden brown, hemispheres of perfection stereotypically passed around at Lughnasadh. I didn’t even attempt to create a loaf in the shape of Venus of Willendorf the way Hazel does. No, my bread looked more like cow dung than the Goddess.
“Looks good, kiddo,” my Dad said as he walked in the room.
“Thanks.” I appreciated the lie as a gesture of kindness.
“Is it ready to eat, yet?”
“Not really, but I suppose we won’t get too burned.” As I split open a loaf, steam poured out from its core. The smell was heady, thick with flour and butter; with just a hint of honey and raisin. It didn’t look like Lughnasadh bread, but it did smell like it.
“Here you go,” I said and handed them each a thick chunk. I took one for myself.
My first bite was tough; it was a corner of the bottom crust. As I held it in my mouth, it began to soften, and I began to taste. The first thought was butter, but as that faded, there was more of an earthy taste to it. There was this umami richness to the bread that I wasn’t expecting. I had expected it to be sweeter than it was because of the sheer amount of honey in it. As I continued chewing, the bread gained an almost bitter edge. However, it wasn’t unpleasant. In fact, it really brought out the subtle sweetness. The bread left a trace of saltiness on the back of my tongue after I swallowed.
I remembered my first bites of Lughnasadh bread. I was fourteen at the time, and my dad and my stepmom, Deanna, had taken me and my brother to the local Lughnasadh ritual that was being held in the Unitarian Universalist church downtown. When we arrived, the last of the afternoon sun was streaming through the windows. People were milling around, talking with their friends. Others were setting up the altar in the center of the circle of wooden, folding chairs. The altar was laden with freshly harvested sheaves of grain and late summer vegetables: zucchini, tomatoes, corn. There was a statue of Demeter with two white tapers on either side of her in the center. At her feet was a massive loaf of golden brown bread in the shape of Venus of Willendorf. That was my first glance at Lughnasadh bread.
People began to gather in the circle and ritual began.
“Lughnasadh is a harvest festival of Celtic origin; it is the fourth and final fire festival of their year.” A priestess with long grey hair explained as she walked around the circle. “More specifically, it commemorates the death of Lugh, the harvest god, who sacrifices himself so that the people may live. He is not unlike the Christ who gave his life in order to cleanse the world of its sins and offer the people everlasting life.” Through out this, I kept thinking about the Memorial.
My mother raised me as a Jehovah’s Witness. One of the services is the Memorial. It commemorates the death of Jesus Christ. They pass bread which symbolizes their sacrificed god. This bread is unleavened, free of sin like the Christ, and no one is allowed to eat it, with the exception of the anointed. (The anointed are the 144,000 that are thought to go to Heaven.) As a small child, I would pass the bread enviously. I wanted to taste it. Probably because I knew that I wasn’t supposed to. It wasn’t even that appealing looking: It was dark and floury, brittle and cracker-like. We were told that this was God’s gift to us, but we were not allowed to have it.
I could feel myself wrinkling my brow in distaste; I didn’t want to think about that.
“Lugh is the deified personification of the grain. The first harvested grains are especially sacred to him; they are his body. True Lughnasadh bread is made with these first grains. This bread is the body of Lugh. To eat this bread is a sacrament.” With that, the priestess who made the bread, lifted the platter and began to circle around the room, each person taking a piece.
“May you never hunger; may you never thirst,” she said to each person. She said it to me as she paused for me to take a piece.
“Thank you,” I said, barely whispering, as I took a small chunk from the Goddess’ golden head. She smiled as she passed. I held the bread in my hands. It was beautifully golden on the outside and creamy white on the inside. There were these wide air pockets that made the bread so light it was almost fluffy. The smell of yeast tantalized my nose. I could hardly believe that this was mine. I took a bite. That was the best tasting bread I have ever had in my life.
And I didn’t feel an ounce of guilt.
A couple of years later, I rolled a piece of my own Lughnasadh bread over and over in my hands, inspecting every detail. The bottom was a darker brown than the top. It wasn’t burnt, thank God; it was more of a deep amber color. On the top of the crust, there was more of a lighter, homogeneous brown color. Sunflower seed stars speckled the surface, and bits of raisin poked out here and there. There was a splash of cinnamon on what had been the peak of the arch on the loaf.
Inside the bread was lighter still, only a shade or two darker than the pale beige that the dough had been. The bread still steamed. The butter melted off the knife as I spread it on the bread; it seeped into the bread quickly. There were flecks of yellow cornmeal caught in the beehive-like air pockets. Boulders of sticky, purple raisins were sprinkled throughout; they stuck out of the bread at odd angles. Some clung to the edges, where they had been ripped from rest of the loaf. Others were like icebergs; I could only see a bit of one, but I knew there was the rest of the raisin buried within the dough. The sunflower seeds were harder to spot because their color acted like a camouflage. They were distinguishable only by their texture. Every once and a while, I could spot one of their smooth edges.
“What are you doing?” My dad asked, a look of puzzlement on his face.
“Just looking,” I said, quickly taking another bite.
My second bite was of the inner bread. This was much softer than the outer part. When I held it in my mouth, it turned into this mess of sticky dough that stuck to my teeth. I swallowed that quickly just to get rid of it. The next bite I chewed and savored slowly. It was sweeter than the crust. There was a bit of raisin in this piece. The raisin was chewy and burst with sweetness, while the bread itself was slightly coarse and had the same umami richness of the crust, though it was less pronounced. There was also an undertone of nuttiness; that came from the sunflower seeds. The saltiness of the seeds emphasized the sweetness of the raisin and complimented the umami-ness of the bread. They crunched as I chewed. This bite did not have leave the trace of salt. Instead, it left a hint of nuttiness.
“Can I have a glass of milk?” Aksel asked.
My own tongue was thick and dry. The bread seemed to absorb the water from my mouth. “You know how to get it,” I said.
As he poured his milk, he asked,“Can I have another piece?” He eyed to loaf.
“What did you do, inhale it?” I asked him. I looked for the rest of his bread. He couldn’t have eaten that much in so little of time. Sure enough, there was only crumbs on his paper towel.
“Maybe…” He let out his evil laugh.
“Oo, yea,” he said as he tore into the loaf, a perfect caricature of a rodent.
A little while later, when I was cleaning up the kitchen (it looked as if a flour bomb had gone off) Dad asked, “What do you want for supper?”
I only laughed at him. “I don’t think I could eat another bite.”
“Yeah, that bread was pretty heavy stuff.”
“It was practically lead.”
“Well, it still tasted all right. You did good, kiddo.”
Later that night, while I was writing my Food Studies paper, I kept thinking about imperfect the bread had been. It had been virtually nothing like the bread I had had at Lughnasadh years before. It was dense and heavy, dark and umami-ish. It wasn’t at all like the golden bread. Dad had liked it, and so had Aksel and my stepmom. Granted, they were probably biased, but I had liked it as well. It wasn’t bad, it was just different. Very different. It was my own.
It was my Lughnasadh bread.