Every Friday we sit down to dinner with our closest friends and family, sharing food and good company at one of four houses. The menus change, of course, but many dishes are as familiar as the people who prepare them. I can taste them now: Aunt Hazel’s chicken curry, Judy’s veal brisket, Jesse’s couscous, and my mom’s herb-crusted salmon, to name only a few. My dad is a wonderful cook, and he has whipped up countless dinner hits over the years, but his challah stands alone. His expertly prepared loaves are warmed with nostalgia and the memory of hundreds of Fridays gone by.
After I moved back home I told my dad that I was ready to learn how to make his challah. Up until this point I had avoided baking bread; as an inexperienced baker, I prefer precise recipes that leave little room for error. Bread is unpredictable, and my dad’s baking process is untidy in a way that has always maddened me slightly. He has a recipe, but it is more scribble than guide. His variations on the quantity of sugar and eggs make the bread his own. He does not measure out the flour carefully as I do. He neglects to shake the cup lightly to allow the grains to settle, and never sweeps the butter knife across the top to create a flat surface. He throws flour into the mix with ease, watching the dough gather and form, knowing instinctively when it is ready to be turned out and kneaded.
I am soon proving a less than capable student. I have split the readied dough into two rolls and braided it according to his patient instructions, but it isn’t working. The dough is sticking too much, as if the braid is melting into itself, and he tells me to start over. I knead it back together and he shows me how to use the whole weight of my body to press the dough into the counter. I separate it into two pieces again. He watches me roll, careful to point out the uneven parts so that I end up with something uniform from end to end. I lay one piece across the other and gingerly make my braid once more. A brush of egg wash and a sprinkle of sesame seeds later, I stare at the challah in near disbelief. It looks just like his. He is, in spite of my stubbornness, an exceptional teacher.
The challah is baking in the oven, and I sit with a cup of steaming tea in hand, breathing in the heady scent of my favourite bread. I glance up at a photograph hanging next to the pantry that shows my late Granny Rae’s hand on a piece of kichel dough, gently pulling it through a rusted metal pasta roller. Our parents ate her kichel with the traditional chopped herring, but my sister and I snatched them up plain, all sugar and delectable crumb. As my dad showed me how to braid the challah dough, my mom might have said that it seemed as if Granny was back in the kitchen, happy to see us baking again.
Tonight, in a place that is much too far from where I sit, my sister is busy baking her own challahs. She called me earlier this evening in a slight panic over the state of the yeast. Having thrown out two batches that failed to proof, she was about to embark on a third attempt. I told her to use a different kind of yeast, and after consulting with my dad, she started over. We chatted while she watched and waited, until it finally began to bubble. She’ll be busy kneading now, and in an hour or so, she’ll fashion her braids the way dad taught us to. I imagine her standing at a counter dusted with flour, working the dough, just as our granny did on countless other Fridays. Her hands are younger, but they carry a timeless wisdom. It is a wisdom spun from a generation that survives in photographs and recipes scribbled on yellowed paper. Years from now, when my sister’s hands are lined and worn with age, I know that they will still be consumed with the same task – creating that which fills the belly and the heart.
We want to learn to make what they made, and when it isn’t quite right, we are grateful for the kind father who shows us how. For all the Fridays I missed – for all the help I neglected to offer – for all the hours and days I fear I’ve long forgotten – I will commit at least this lesson in bread making to memory. I will remember to pause each week, to knead, turn, and honour with some small act the treasured traditions and beloved hands whose palms fell soft upon my young shoulders.