The Gift of Bread: A Response to Recipes From Auschwitz (2019) by Thelma Rosner

By June 7, 2019Uncategorized

Zach Pearl | May 2019

Every story has at least two sides—two faces to gaze upon. First, there is a face that looks elsewhere (avoiding the gaze) and, in the process, articulates a trajectory or line of flight[1] along which ideas travel and multiply. Second, there’s a face of reflection—a pointing backward and gazing within that seeks to identify its own vanishing points. We see this dialectic in motion every time we crack open the spine of a book. Stretching like taffy between the widening planes of the codex is a miniature world of multiplicity—flying lines and mirrored glances—neatly contained by the borders of pages. It is an entire space-time unto itself. The tête-à-tête of the double-spread then does not participate in the logic of nature[2] where borders are indistinct if not imaginary. Instead it offers us an opportunity to remain, to revel in the messy matrix of exchange as two faces gaze intensely upon each other and become transfixed, interlocked in a symbiotic stare. We will not be turning any pages here. We will remain in the messiness. Our trajectory is bread (specifically, the sticky sourdough variety) and staring us down is an imminent reflection on the gift, or rather the difficult nature of giving:

It must be twenty years ago now that I first made bread. Until then, I had a limited understanding of the stuff. Bread was, or so I thought, a simple thing; most of all a material thing. Before baking it myself, it was also a neutral thing like blank canvas onto which more flavourful comestibles were piled high. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. I know now that bread is a gift, and like all gifts it remakes the world as it circulates within it[3]. It shapes us inside and in-between our relations to other things, fortifying symbolic bonds of kitchens, communities, and cultures. Despite doing my fair share of ingesting the stuff, I was oblivious to the true viscosity[4] of bread; sticking to everyone and everything, encompassing us all in some kind of gluten-y apparatus[5]. It took the sudden arrival of someone else to hold a mirror up to my blindness. Then for that someone to angle the mirror, and, in the resulting glare, force me to look elsewhere.

Moira Blumenthal was a moving target of a woman. She blazed into our sleepy Ontarian town on a mid-April morning, cutting the fog right in two. At seventy, Moira was starting over (again), after the recent loss of her husband. And, from the moment she arrived on our street, she made her presence known: She hosted dinner parties, joined the local chapter of the Civitans, and even led a Jane’s Walk down Main Street (!) At the same time, there was also something diffident about Moira. The colossal brim of her sun hat demanded a minimum distance. Even her illustrious vegetable gardens, with their towering vines of tomatoes, zucchinis and long beans seemed strategically planted to obscure the living room windows. As her next-door neighbour, it was palpably odd that we shared over a hundred feet of property line and never more than a few words. After several months, it began to irk me: How could I go on living my life in zero-point proximity to a person I barely understood?

One morning in June, I woke early; determined to beat the cavalry of squirrels that ravaged my cucumbers like clockwork at 6am. As I waded bleary-eyed into the patch, I couldn’t help but notice how the fruits of my labour paled in comparison to the size of Moira’s. It was like an impressionist painting sat beside a photograph, or the lushness of real lips versus lipstick traces. Deflated, I began collating my ‘cucumber sketches’ into a bin until a scent so warm and sharp flooded my nostrils, and it lapped against the edges of my medulla. Bread! The distinctive, primordial smell of freshly-baked bread. It was an odour so simple yet multitudinous; modest in its directness while alluding to an intricate (internal) world. I shot up like a mortar (scaring off the approaching squirrels) and looked around for the source. Across the lawn, a golden loaf of bread was cooling on the sill of Moira’s kitchen window, swaddled like a newborn in tea towels. Before I knew it, I was on the move—trespassing into Moira’s yard, trying not to trample the cabbages. As I got closer, the scent intensified and ignited my body memory. I was six again, tugging at the apron of my Nan as she artfully formed boules of rye. As I reached the sill, I momentarily became one with the flaxen bâtard, losing myself in its propitious texture. And as I raised my eyes above it to settle on the glass of the window, I no longer recognized my own reflection. All my angles were in flux. Who was this strange being staring back at me? Was it my reflection or an apparition?

“Are you just gonna stand there all morning or are you gonna come in an’ have some?” exclaimed Moira, throwing open the window.

Slack-jawed, I stuttered an awkward, “Ssssure. Llllove to…” as I processed mistaking Moira’s features for my own in the glare of her half-open window.

We had coffee in her kitchen, which was filled with jars of canned goods arranged meticulously by colour, like a visual archive of pickles. Notably there were no family photos or knick-knacks on the walls, only a series of still lives. Alongside the bread, she set out a pad of butter and some jam. “You probably won’t even need these. Go ahead, try some on its own.”

I popped a piece into my mouth and felt my eyes bulge as the complexity of flavour washed over my tongue.

“Good, right? You’ll have to take some home with you.”

“What is this?” I asked in rapture, like a new convert to Moira’s cult of baked goods.

“Sourdough,” she said coyly.

“Yes, but what kind???”

“This kind” Moira said as she waltzed to the cupboard, threw open the door and nearly climbed inside. She emerged with a single but sizeable mason jar half-filled with soupy brown liquid. “My family’s sourdough starter—our own recipe going back to 1944”.

I just stared at her, visibly bewildered—partly because I had no idea what she was talking about, but also because I had gone from being a total outsider to hearing about Moira’s sixty-year-old science experiment in a matter of minutes.

“1944? Is that safe?” I exclaimed.

Moira chuckled to herself, and her glasses jittered. “Well I haven’t dropped dead! Seriously though, it’s perfectly safe. The fermentation is a natural preservative. As long as you keep feeding it and make sure it’s getting enough air, it’ll treat ya good.”

My face contorted into a look of horror. “Feed it? Air?! You mean it’s alive?”

She chuckled again. “Everything is alive, Dear. But, yes, it’s nearly as old as I am, and, with any luck, it’ll outlive me yet.”

As I continued to look a mixture of puzzled and petrified, something sparkled in her iris.

“Say, would you like to have some?”

Before I could answer, she began dividing the starter into smaller jars. Then she dipped quickly into the pantry and returned with a single notecard.

“Here,” she said warmly yet firmly. “Follow these instructions to the letter, and you’ll be able to have bread like this anytime you want. But, you have to promise me that you’ll take good care of it…try to think of it like a pet.” Then she placed the mason jar in my palm, whispering, “My gift to you.”

A few days later, I was back at Moira’s in an absolute panic. No sooner had she opened the back door than I shoved the flattest, saddest, rock-hardest loaf of bread in her face like a child presenting its broken toy.

“Uh oh,” she said calmly, showing me into the kitchen. “You forgot to feed it?”

“I remembered. I swear! Every night before I go to bed. I’ve followed your instructions to a “t”, and it’s still no use. This is the fifth one like this!”

“What all have you tried?” she asked, stroking her chin like a detective.

“Everything! Moving it away from the stove, closer to the window… I’ve tried distilled water, holy water…”

“Have you tried singing to it?”

“Singing to it? It’s not a houseplant.”

“No, it’s not,” she said patiently, “but it is alive. All living things like being sung to.”

She again thrust her body into the cupboard and retrieved the sacred starter. Leaning over it like an oracle, she began to sing:

Madárka, madárka ne zavard a vizet,
Hogy igyam belőle, hogy írjak levelet.

Apámnak s anyámnak, szívbeli mátkámnak,
Hogy tudják meg ők is kinek adtak férjhez.[6]

“How do you know it’ll work?”

“You don’t” she punctuated. “But anything meaningful requires a sacrifice of some kind. Though, exactly what that looks like varies. My starter likes Hungarian folk songs. Yours may like violin concertos. You just have to keep trying things until you get a response.”

“Okay…and what if I get a response, but I can’t understand that it’s a response in the first place? Where’s the meaning in that?”

“I don’t know. Maybe, there’s meaning in the struggle for meaning itself?”

I scowled. “No offense. But that seems awfully unproductive.”

“Well, sometimes the unproductive is necessary[7]. Living in the present moment is unproductive, if you never give any regard to the future. But if we always thought about the future, then what kind of life would exist for us here in the present? You see, between any two values there has to be some kind of incoherent middle-ground. Care for some tea?”

Still perplexed as she put the kettle on, my daze quickly dissipated when she reached into the breadbox and brought out another half-loaf for us to share.

“Where did you learn Hungarian?” I asked between mouthfuls.

“It’s my first language, actually. My family is from tiny farming village there. I came to Canada to escape the War.”

“Your family, too?”

Moira didn’t respond. She was suddenly frozen, staring into the abyss of the sourdough. Her eyes turned pink and watery.

“They were taken to the camps…I never saw them again. I managed to escape with my mother’s rucksack, and inside was a tiny jar of starter…Can you believe it? We were in the middle of a war—bombers flying overhead—and she still thought to bring the starter. Out of all things! I didn’t understand it then, other than feeling a sense of duty to protect it and to keep it safe. But now, I can look back and see that, for her, it was a way of preserving our culture—all her memories of home, her recipes, her love. They were in that jar. They still are. Which is why it’s so important that I keep it alive, and why I’ve passed it on to you.”

I sat stunned, unsure whether to cry or to run away. “Me? Why me??”

“Because you chose it. You gravitated toward that bread like a moth to a flame. I knew from the minute you stepped up to my window that you’d be the one to carry this forward.”

“Moira, I want to help you. Really, I do. But, as you can see, I’m not cut out for this. I can barely keep the thing alive, and now that I know how much it means to you… When you gave the starter to me you called it a ‘gift’, but frankly, it seems like more of a burden…”

Moira straightened up in her chair. “Indeed! Every gift is its own kind of curse—that is its double truth[8]. When you receive a gift, you’re not just accepting a thing; you’re entering into a contract with the person who gifted it to you to give something back, to create a symbolic good between you both, which is easier said than done. You have to work at keeping a gift, and, occasionally, give back to it. There’s nothing on this earth that doesn’t take as well as receive.”

“And so, you’ve cursed me with the gift of bread? Is that what you’re telling me?”

“If that’s how you prefer to see it…I prefer to see it as an exchange. I’m giving you my family’s recipe, our history, our memories. In return, you’re providing care, stewardship, and most of all, a way to remember, a way forward.”

Suddenly, something warm and wet hit my forearm. I was crying. Although part of me resented Moira in that moment for not saying all this before, her honesty and her faith in me touched me deeply, and chased out any urge to shrink away from this responsibility.

“You’re a wise woman, Moira,” I said, squeezing her hand once more. “Where did you learn to see so clearly?”

She pushed her glasses up from the ridge of her nose and said, “When you get to be my age, Dear, you see everything through a bifocal perspective[9].”

I went home that evening with a new batch of starter in one hand and a handwritten sheet of folk songs in the other. The next day, I baked a loaf of bread so delicious it could have ushered in world peace.

Only a few years later, Moira passed away. I’ve continued to make bread every day since in her memory. Not surprisingly, she also gifted me many other of her things, including a small handmade recipe book. Its pages were weathered and thin from age, and most of it was in Hungarian, but it felt so alive—its margins brimming with loving corrections, notes for the family and future cooks. Resting quietly in the middle, however, was a much newer note—a recipe card in familiar handwriting and addressed to me. On it, a short but powerful message that seemed to make all the burden worth it:

You and I are:

A simple codex opening wide in a complex gesture of exchange.

Love always,

Moira

 

ENDNOTES

[1] This is a central concept in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s critique of capitalism. Much like the analog of the rhizome, Deleuze and Guattari use the “line of flight” to describe a way of being that is outside or otherwise able to circumvent the logic of capital and, therefore, produce alternative “trajectories” of knowledge and power. This concept is akin and often mentioned in relation to deterritorialization. See A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

[2] Ibid. p. 5: “How could the law of the book reside in nature, when it is what presides over the very division between world and book, nature and art?”

[3] This is the first of many references to Pierre Bordieu’s lifelong project to enunciate a “paradigmatic” theory of the gift that would position it as central to social practice. See Ilana F. Silber. “Bordieu’s Gift to Gift Theory: An Unacknowledged Trajectory”, Sociological Theory, vol. 27, no. 2 (June 2009): 175-190.

[4] Timothy Morton. Hyberobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. University of Minnesota Press, 2013. 27-38.

[5] Here, I’m invoking a term used by physicist and theorist Karen Barad that she uses to describe the ‘discursive material’ that connects and constructs a particular set of dynamics between the agency of subjects and objects—the weather apparatus, the political apparatus, etc. In her conception, an apparatus is much like the invisible ‘dark matter’ in space, which seems central to constituting the universe as we know it yet is fundamentally hidden from view. See Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press, 2007.

[6] Little bird, little bird, don’t trouble the water / So I can drink, so I can write this letter. / To my mother and father, to my beloved, / So they know to whom I’ve been given. —Translation by Songbat Records. Retrieved from: http://songbat.com/archive/songs/hungarian/madarka-madarka

[7] See Nuccio Ordine’s discussion of George Bataille’s conception of “the gift” in The Usefulness of the Useless. Trans. Alastair McEwen. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2017.

[8] Bordieu quoted in Silber, p. 175.

[9] Ibid.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Barad, Karen. “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to

Matter” in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 28, no. 3 (Spring 2003): 801-831.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press, 2010.

Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be A Thing. University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Bordieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Bryant, Levi. The Democracy of Objects. Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities, 2011.

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