The Ritual of Bread

It is a gentle summer afternoon and I have a bowl full of golden white wheat flour laid out. It has an earthy fragrance- like it never quite forgot the fields it came from and part of it yearns to go back there still. I run my fingers through its grainy texture, rubbing between thumb and forefinger and letting it slide off my palm. I feel how each grain must have exploded as the millstones ground and ground and ground, gold to white, and gold to white. And as I stand there, I wonder how many men and women and children over the millennia stood just as I am, with both hands covered in flour- just as I did. It is a ritual honed over lifetimes upon lifetimes.

Bread is a symbol of home and sustenance all over the world. Here, we eat rotis or naans- both a kind of flatbread. I start trickling water into the bowl of flour and watch it thicken before my eyes. The scent is deeper now, like rain on moist earth but so much richer. I begin to knead, letting the dough coat my fingers, get between the nails, stick to my skin. I use the heel of my hands and my knuckles and the dough pushes back. It is a dialogue- push, yield, collect, scatter, grasp. When we are both done and breathing a little hard, the bowl is covered with a cheerful napkin and I sit down to let it rest. This is also part of the ritual.

I drift over to the fields where my wheat first lay as a seed in the dark earth. I imagine how the sun itself seasoned her until she was ready to burst out, bringing down the gold from the sky into the hands of the people who farmed her. The world has changed with each season and each cycle- but we have grown wheat and ground it and turned it into bread since time immemorial. When I stand here today, breaking off pieces of dough and rolling them out, I participate in a ceremony with no beginning or end. When we break bread with friends or strangers, at home or on the road, in the morning or in the evening, we are part of an ancient rite. In that moment, we are all together, receiving the gift the earth has freely given and letting it fuel us onward- until the next meal.

The bread is baked quickly over a flat pan and I tug it over the naked flame so it cooks thoroughly. It rises and falls back into a paper thin and crispy form. Over the heat, the wheat smells like she is giving back some of that sunlight she drew in. I make more bread and wrap them together into a crocheted square of cotton, ready for lunch. At the table there is a bowl full of milky night-blooming jasmine. The stew is warm and fragrant with fresh green mint leaves laid on top. The lace curtain billows out with a soft breeze blowing against the burning afternoon sun. A koyal coos from beyond the window.

I sit down quietly and break off a piece of the bread. As I chew down on it, I feel the thread that connects us across time and space stretching out from my fingers- from one such ritual to the next. And then the next. And then the next.


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