Keefe: Flourless in the time of Quarantine

Flour is not metaphor. Flour is flour. Flour has gone missing.

It’s not in my pantry. Grocery stores have none. Even the specialty baking resource King Arthur Flour had this reply to my desire for one, 10-pound bag, Unbleached All Purpose Flour: Order contains item(s) on backorder. We will ship and charge your order when items become available. That was 20 days ago.

This rebuke, from the company that has been “Baking with joy since 1790,” the company that started “The Isolation Baking Show” to teach the quarantined how to bake bread, make bagels and doughnuts, to master the difference between baking sourdough and whole wheat bread made me feel especially empty. I’m missing the essential element to join the #greatcovidbakeoff.

My heart raced when an Amazon Fresh order promised two, five-pound bags of unbleached all-purpose flour delivered in 10 days! They delivered, yes. But substituted, without permission, two small boxes of gluten-free bread mix requiring yeast. I don’t need bread mix. I need flour.

Besides, I have no yeast. Yeast has gone missing. It’s not on my shelf. None of the groceries have any yeast. How will we rise?

Baking isn’t a new desire for me. Sometimes I’m called the Bread Lady. I learned in the kitchen of a friend and in her spirit, I’ve freely offered more sourdough bread baking lessons to others than I can count. I’ve passed along dozens of jars of ripe, bubbly starter, shared from my own starter which came to me by way of that friend, who got it from another friend, who got it from her grandmother, now long laid to rest.

Bread is my love language. I bake it for mothers who have just given birth; to nourish sick neighbors. When my dear friend’s father died, and I learned that it’s a Bulgarian funeral tradition for family to share bread with funeral goers, who say a prayer as they eat it, I baked her a loaf scored with a “W” for her father’s first name. It was leavened from the same jar of starter I had shared with her years ago, the starter that lifted the bread that she baked for her father, for what turned out to be his last meal a few days earlier.

I. Want. Flour!

Feeding the multitudes was one of my favorite Bible stories. A large group is gathered and hungry. The cautious counters look at the thousands and say, we can’t possibly feed all these people. We have only five loaves and two fishes. Yet the food multiplies enough to fill the hungry.

It’s been many years since I’ve been in a church, but this season of quarantine brings that story to mind. When shoppers began hoarding food, I was slow to shop because I didn’t really believe I needed to rush out and collect food. My cupboards were far from bare. I figured if someone was stockpiling they must need the rice, the toilet paper, the chicken, the can of cannellinis more than I.

And then I ran out of flour. Where are the miracles?

I became a needy little recluse at the same time all my Instagram friends, and real life friends, and my sisters, nieces, cousins and neighbors were all comfort-baking bread and posting photos. Even though I’d been baking homemade sourdough for years, I was shuttered. I hid my starter in the back of the refrigerator to wait until I could revive it.

I answered a barrage of calls, texts and DMs, problem-solving for all the new bakers. Is my dough too lumpy? What kind of pan should I use if I don’t have a Dutch oven? How long should I bake my bread if I don’t want it too crispy? I had a HouseParty app conversation to troubleshoot a too-gooey Sourdough Fig Walnut loaf.  Does this look right? No. Now? Yes.

Are you baking? What kind of bread are you baking now that you’re stuck at home? You must be making so much bread!

“No. No, I’m not baking. I have no flour, can’t find any. Not online. Not in stores.”

Well, there was that one 50-pound bag my husband found at Restaurant Depot a few days into the grocery stampede. When he texted to see if I wanted something that big, I declined, figuring a food bank or small bakery or restaurant trying to survive on take-out needed it more.

I tried to act as if I didn’t care. I had my health, and a roof over my head, two loaves of store-made wheat bread. My desire was insignificant in the face of so much global uncertainty.

I was appalled to discover I did care. I looked at old photos of my homemade bread and consoled myself that eventually stores would restock flour. It’s only a loaf. I’m happy others are learning to nourish themselves, Wait, she’s baking now too? She never even liked to walk into her kitchen…Bahhhh!

It was a tennis match: my petty envy pitted against the kind of person I thought I was. With each ungrateful thought, I tried harder to find new ways to be helpful.

I scraped together my last bit of flour and made a small starter for the neighbor who asked because her kids, now home all day, wanted to start baking. What could I do with a scant 3/4 cup when it takes more than four to make each loaf? Could I ask her to share some flour in exchange? What if she only had enough for one loaf would feel bad saying no since I was giving her starter? I printed out my favorite recipes and left them with her new starter on my front porch. Good luck! Let me know if you have any questions.

And then —

How to explain this?

Flour began to slowly sift in as if by gentle wind. It first came in a sandwich baggie-size cupful left with a note in my mailbox by my elderly neighbor. I know you like to bake, maybe this will help.

It arrived on my front-porch bench from another neighbor who found one 5-pound bag shoved to the back of a shelf on her last grocery run.

It multiplied again when stacks of gallon-size baggies, scooped from a friend’s sister’s 25-pound stash, which she had gotten from a friend, were left it in a cardboard box on my porch.

In a matter of days, I went from having no flour to an absolute whiteout. I shook my head with each delivery, overwhelmed by what I hadn’t even asked for. Could flour make me cry?

I Googled the safety of sharing baked bread with others in the time of quarantine. I washed my hands, wiped down my counters with disinfectant. I washed my hands, then washed them again. I pulled out my mixing bowl, my bread hook, my kneading board, my coarse salt and parchment and baking stone.

The first loaves into the oven were gratitude loaves. I baked for all the flour sharers, and left them on porches with notes as messy with the over-use of “thank-you!” as my flour-dusted floor.

Next I baked for my friend whose young adult son is dying on a hospital bed in her family room, not from the virus, but from a horrible disease that has outrun his ability to fight it. She’d withdrawn last week from the meal train of friends. We would like to thank everyone from the bottom of our hearts for the wonderful meals over the past 3 months. It took a tremendous load off around dinner time. We are requesting our friends to please stop and take care of your own food needs during these difficult Corona Virus times.

I blessed her loaf with a prayer for peace and left it on her front porch.

I baked for my 85-year-old parents, and my daughter, my grandchildren, my son; each loaf passed from a long distance across a porch, left on a driveway without a hug. My family missed my bread, they say, easier to miss bread than to reveal how much we crave each other standing there, unable to touch.

To retreat to the heart of my home, to bury my hands in dough and know this one small thing. I can touch something as ancient as man and fire, as miraculous as the way the right kind of bacteria ferments with grain to leaven a loaf that nourishes body and feeds spirit. I’m trying not to start rationing flour now that I can once again feel the rightness of the world as my kitchen warms with the scent of bread. I’ve looked up the practicality of growing wheat in my canyon.

Just now I went to leave another gratitude loaf on the bench to be picked up for a nurse and her firefighter husband.

There, on what I’m becoming to think of as my miracle bench, was another gift. A few weeks back, I shared corned beef and cabbage, mushrooms and fresh oranges with a neighbor. Today, she and her sons baked Blueberry Lemon Bread. “Thank you for your kindness,” she wrote. “This is our favorite. We hope you like it!”

And so on, and so on. And so on this day I know that no matter what happens next, flour is only flour, but love remains as powerfully contagious as virus in the time of quarantine.

Catherine Keefe is a poet, essayist, and a member of the Orange County Human Relations Commission Anti-Hate Speakers Assembly. She works as a story coach, helping families shape and document generational narratives. She’s happy to share her sourdough recipe including how to create your own starter at home.

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