There are three main things that the women in my family share almost unequivocally: a fine-tuned sense of smell; a glacially slow metabolism; and a deep abiding love of bread. My deepest and strongest memories of food have always been intimately linked with all things doughy, crusty, plush and slightly yeasty.
My earliest recollections of bread are memories of my grandmother (my nani). I remember spending my afternoons hovering around her as she prepared rotli (Indian flat bread) for the evening's dinner. Her deft flick of the wrist rolling out perfect, flat rounds. The toasty smell of cooked dough permeating through her clothes and the kitchen. It was almost as if her soft, plush figure was entirely made of the same substance - out of perfect white flour and a little bit of oil and water. She would, of course, give me the tiniest rotli, covered in ghee, sprinkled with sugar. I would always eat it far too quickly, unable to contain the desire to overwhelm my senses.
Bread is and has always been a deeply sensual food. It demands that we give it our entire attention and demands that we take risks for it. To rely on ever so slight changes in temperature to activate the yeast is to put yourself wholly in the hands of fate itself. The kneading of dough, the fragrance that starts to snake its way through the house, the sound of that first crackle of breaking crust. I can't think of any other food that is so beguiling, so seductive.
The act of making it is often passed on through families, with special recipes and techniques. My own family is no exception. Because I'm afraid of yeast, the task of baking has fallen squarely on my mother and sister and I adore and ravenously consume just about anything they put in front of me. From my mother's caraway-spotted naan to my sister's layered gooey cinnamon buns, the joy of eating with my family is entirely predicated sometimes on eating various combinations of flour, fat and liquid.
To love bread is to first love the very basic part of what it means to be human. The earliest civilizations cooked things up that resembled bread. It has sustained communities around the world. There is a reason we "break bread" with others as an act of camaraderie and well wishing. There is a reason why it figures so highly in important events such as weddings (what is cake afterall, but a sweet type of bread?) Jesus fed a multitude with loaves of bread and not carrot sticks. It is often in some form one of the first things we eat, whether it's softened in milk or comes in some other form. It lies at the heart of our understanding that those who love us will feed us and sustain us in many other ways. It is inseparable from human emotion and from our psychological states.
In a society that sometimes quickly forgets its roots, the relationship with bread has become complicated, tenuous and risky. What once was heart and hearth of our daily lives has become much maligned and seen as dangerous. What once sustained us and was the centre of how we survived has become a fringe product for those who don't care about their well-being. I feel sad for those people who choose not to eat bread (which in my book is entirely different from those who simply can't eat it). I would never try to convince them otherwise. But I do ask myself what else, about themselves they might be forgetting. To me they are missing out on a visceral joy of slathering a slice of french bread with butter and then licking up all the crumbs without reserve.
I will always believe that my love of bread was bred in bone through my nani. In my mind, she is often a tableau. A woman wearing a light homemade cotton frock, sitting at the kitchen table, dipping buttered bread into her chai. Bread filled in for meals. It was her lunch, her after dinner snack if she was hungry, and most definitely her breakfast. As she aged and succumbed to Alzheimer's, it was often the only thing she would eat. For many people with dementia, repetitive behaviours are par for the course. She would make tea and eat slices of bread over and over because she didn't remember having eaten. And bread was her go-to. It has been all her life, and the continued to rely on it to offer her comfort when much else had faded from memory.
Still. When I sprinkle my own thin layer of sugar over rotli after a long week at work, I think of her.