It’s chilly this morning: Saskatoon thermometer at 7 am read -18̊ / 0̊ F. Pookie, the youngest of our two cats, keeps wanting to go outside and see if things have improved weather-wise, but after three minutes he’s ready to come in again.
Last night I took a notion I’d like to have cinnamon buns for breakfast this morning, so I set out the ingredients before I went to bed. When I got up I mixed the dough. As it turns out, they won’t be baking until mid-morning, but we can have them for our dessert after lunch.
I’ve half an hour before they need punching down, so maybe I can reply to this morning’s prompts and tell you about how a young prairie wife acquired the skill of bread-baking.
I’m not sure where I acquired the skill of baking with yeast, because my mom taught me almost nothing about cooking. Thankfully I had a great mother-in-law who was herself an excellent cook and taught me so much about life, love, and the pursuit of good food.
Like me, Mary hadn’t been taught how to bake before she left home and found herself needing to learn after she was married. I at least watched my dad take golden loaves of bread from the oven when I was a girl, so I knew something. When it came to bread and pies, both Dad and Mom F (I was raised by my uncle and aunt) were excellent bakers, if they had the time.
Mary grew up in Guildford, England, where a baker’s wagon would come down their stree every morning. All her mother had to do was go out to the land and pick whatever baking she wanted for the family that day. After Mary and her husband, a store clerk, immigrated to Saskatchewan she tried to learn baking skills from a recipe book her mother had given her. But her bread didn’t rise, was solid as a rock, or full of holes.
Before long her baking inability was disrupting their marital bliss as well as family finances. “We NEED bread,” her husband told her one day. “Why can’t you make the stuff? It can’t be that hard.”
“I’ve never been taught. I can’t seem to succeed just reading a recipe.”
“Ask one of the neighbour women for help. They all know how.”
Mary thought about the neighbour women she’d seen out and about. They were … well… coarse. Non one she would have ever associated with in England. In Canada things were different, she knew, but she’d listened as they talked and rudely gossiped in the store and didn’t see anything to be gained in associating with them. And then to admit she couldn’t do a simple thing like bake bread? Wouldn’t that get the gossip going!
At the time they were getting a farm paper and she took note of a column offering “Homemaker Hints by Millicent” or some name like that. Women wrote in with a question, which would be printed with the senders initials and the columnist’s response. Mary got her courage up one day and sent a letter to the column, asking Millicent’s advice on baking bread.
About three weeks later she opened this paper, found Millicent’s column — and saw her letter. Oh, but…! Here was her name…and her address…printed for all the world to see. She blushed with shame. All the women in town would be laughing at her. Mary shuddered to think what her husband would say if he ever saw this.
To add insult to injury, the recipe Millicent printed in response was the same one she’d already tried. She shut the paper and tried to forget about it.
The next morning her routine was disrupted by a few hard raps on her door. Mary opened it a crack and saw Mrs Ratigan — one of those “ill-mannered” women who lived nearby. Mary had seen her bustling around town, a large, assertive Irish woman, fussing over the children around her, wiping their drippy noses and giving them a smack when they needed one.
Mary opened the door to ask…and Mrs Ratigan marched right in. She held the incriminating page from the farm paper in her hand. “Mary Watson. Wants to make bread. I read it here.” She grabbed a chair and sat down. “Nobody ever learned to bake bread out of a book. You need a mother to teach you. Where’s your mother?”
Mary recovered from her shock enough to reply. “Back in Guildford, England.”
“Fine. Leave her there. I’‘ll be your mother this morning and we’ll make bread.”
Swallowing her pride, Mary got out her ingredients and Mrs Ratigan started giving instructions. Before the morning was done she’d showed Mary how to mix and knead, how long to let the dough rise, how to test it. Mary learned how to form loaves, eliminate air bubbles, and how to bake them.
As soon as the loaves were in the oven Mary made tea. Mrs Ratigan sat at the table and watched her pour. After a few sips, she said, “The good Lord never said a person always has to have Irish coffee. There’s Irish tea, too, you know, dear.”
Mary laughed and took the hint. She got the bottle of her husband’s brandy from the cupboard and handed it to her “mother for the day”, thinking it would likely make an acceptable substitute for Irish whiskey.
Mrs Ratigan opened the bottle, took a whiff, then poured a generous smack of it into her tea. Taking a sip, she grinned and said, “If you weren’t an Anglican, I’d say you’re one of the true faith.”
Mary laughed again. She was coming to like this cheerful, motherly neighbour.
Mary poured tea and Mrs Ratigan poured out the flavouring. By the time she left there wasn’t much left of the bottle of brandy, but Mary thought her husband would forgive the loss when he saw four lovely loaves of bread and some buns waiting for him when he came home from the store.
She’d been fearful about how the women in town would talk about her and treat her once they read her letter in Millicent’s column, but things turned out for the best after all. Sharing her need actually brought her friendly smiles and greetings from the town wives and made some satisfying friendships.
Visiting with one of these new friends sometime later, Mary discussed how embarrassed she’d been when Mrs Ratigan arrived at her door waving that paper. “Now the whole town knew! I was so ashamed and just cringed to think what you’d all be saying about me.”
“Oh, you needn’t have worried. It felt like you were one of us at last.” Her friend smiled. “Besides, Mrs Ratigan informed us all that if she ever heard anyone laughing at you, she’d conk them in the nose.”
Well, by now my cinnamon buns are in the pan, rising. The faintest whiff of cinnamon lingers in my kitchen and it will soon be a delightful fragrance. Can’t you just taste it? Almost as good as chocolate. 😉