Sugar, butter, flour
Home baking can be a subversive act — and a reclaiming of love and pleasure, writes
My maternal grandmother’s biscuits are what I remember most about her. She said it was the syrup in her recipe that made her cookies delicious. Every time my mother went back to boarding school after the school holidays, she’d be given a tin of biscuits. This was the way my granny showed love — by baking. She was one of 13 children, several of whom died during an impoverished childhood. Her own mother — my great-grandmother Dorothy Button — came alone from England by ship to SA in 1903. On the cusp of adolescence when she arrived, she never saw her family again.
These stories are bones in the skeleton of my family history — one can only guess how these traumas (and the limited power of being a woman then) took their toll on my great-grandmother. My mother said her family members were “melancholic and laconic, the men drunk and absent”, which could explain her and my own struggles, because things get passed down the generations.
My mother couldn’t recall if her mother had ever said the words “I love you” to her. She remembered my grandmother giving her bear hugs as she dried her with a towel after a bath. She remembered brushing my granny’s hair. In the last days of my grandmother’s life, my mother thinks she tried to mouth “I love you” to her. She couldn’t be sure.
When the lockdown changed the course of our lives in March last year, I turned to baking: cakes and bread. It wasn’t an original undertaking among the privileged. Thousands across the world adorn their social media pages with their bubbling sourdough starters — the leavening agent — and their proud sourdough bread output.
Store-bought yeast is a far cry from what went into leavened bread a century ago. It’s factory and mass produced with a list of unpronounceable ingredients. Today bread is much cheaper than “artisanal” loaves, but at the expense of vital nutrition and easier digestion. Of course, the denouncement of homemade bread’s slow fermentation process has its benefits, especially for women expected to do the labour-intensive work of cooking and baking. In an ideal world, feminism, equality and slow bread would seamlessly cohabit.
Food is a loaded subject for me. My relationship with carbohydrates and sugar has been one of shame and denial, because I’ve equated them with weight gain and illhealth. But buying into fat-shaming culture took away the joy of sweet, rich and filling food. Instead I binged on cakes and bread and sweets because my brain jumped at the chance of breaking ranks and gorging on the forbidden fruit. Baking with sugar, butter and flour is a subversive act, a reclaiming of love and pleasure. It’s connected me to my female lineage and invited a softening of my feelings towards them.
I don’t think of my mother as a baker. I can’t smell my childhood kitchen and see her hands sifting flour. She also despised the intense work and ceremony of putting together a Sunday lunch. But small details come back to me now. Her two favourite boarding school foods were white bread, fresh from the oven, the centre hollowed out and stuffed with slap chips, and a bread and butter pudding, soft and warm.
When my mother died tragically in June 2019, the biggest loss was this kind of conversation that barely registers in the scheme of things — the little stories I can’t share with anyone else. Did you see the spinach grow in the garden? Did you get the dishwasher sorted? I told you it was because you don’t rinse the cups first. I love the feel of the cat next to me on the bed while I sleep. What’s that poem you heard on the BBC radio that you liked?
Jeong Kwan, a Zen-Buddhist nun named the “Philosopher Chef” by the New York Times, thanks her mother every time she cooks. When Kwan cooks for her fellow nuns, she channels her mother’s compassion, so every bite of the food is a gift of love. Kwan reminds me that we can drink from an ancient and collective “mother” well. In Jungian terms, we tap into a collective unconscious so we’re never without a mother or a father.
There’s so much left unsaid between my mother and I. But strangely, I don’t want to have the bigger conversations about forgiveness and the long thread of ancestral angst. I want to connect with her and my granny and my great-granny through baking bread. We’d go through the same motions, mimic one another, envision our hands in the same dance, baking bread as an expression of duty and love to others — across time and space, measuring the flour, salt and sugar and mixing them in a bowl. We rub the butter between our fingers until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. We add the water and the yeast we’ve raised and tended from scratch. Then we wait. The dough rests overnight. We roll it the next day under the heel of our hands to make the shape of a sandwich bread loaf. We delight in the popping of air bubbles as we do this. When the dough rises over the loaf tin rim, it’s ready to be baked. Afterwards, we talk about the result: the lack of golden brown on the crust, or the structure of the crumb. We’ll try something else next time — perhaps a hotter oven or an egg wash.