In the wake of the Newtown massacre, it feels hard to summon the Christmas spirit, Tiny Tim's sense of God bless us, every one. Some who should be at our holiday tables won't be. It is impossible to undo this terrible loss of life. But we can seize this moment as an opportunity to rise, to come together.
Ahimsa, which translates both as nonviolence and universal love, is a term bandied about by Buddhists, Hindu, yogi and vegans, and is the subject or side dish of many of my Meatless Mondays posts. It's easy to talk about -- I mean, who's really against love? It's the doing that's hard to pull off. To the hardcore ahimsa practitioner, an animal that gives its life for your dinner matters just as much as a child, evil thoughts can harm as much as physical weapons. That sets the bar so high for most of us, we can't even think where to begin.
Begin with rising. Begin with a loaf of bread. Yeah, bread -- a little yeast, a little water and some flour. Add some heat and time, and from a sort of mud, you get a sweet-smelling, sustaining loaf that feeds many and comes at the cost of no creature's life, something far greater than the sum of its parts. It's an everyday miracle at a time when miracles seem thin on the ground.
The Hebrew word for "blessing" or "prayer" is baruch. In Arabic, it is baraka. In Morocco, baraka is its own kind of blessing. It is showing gratitude for the food you have by sharing it. It is creating abundance. It is the power to multiply food. You don't have to be Jesus to do it, either. This kind of blessing, the law of increase, requires a practical magic, of making the most of what you have, even when it's something as simple as a loaf of bread.
In "A Small, Good Thing", Raymond Carver's deft heartbreaker of a short story, a couple suffer a tragedy. It is an accident, not the work of a gunman, but they have nonetheless lost their young son and they are gutted by grief. Spoiler alert -- at the end, a baker finds out what has happened. He brings them bread. He says, "Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this." It is choosing light when darkness threatens to consume us, it is a small step towards healing and ahimsa.
"'Smell this,' the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. 'It's a heavy bread, but rich.' They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving."
Every meal -- any meal, even a loaf of bread -- can offer the opportunity for deeper connection, for a communion for people of every faith or of no particular faith at all. Bread is a food shared by every culture. It is a unifier. Combine a few simple ingredients, and it rises. Take it in. Let it inspire you to rise, to come together with others, to share a meal with ahimsa, nonviolence and love towards all living creatures.God bless us, every one.
No-Knead Whole-Wheat Oatmeal Bread
This recipe, complete with molasses and course grains, is healthful and homemade and about the easiest yeast bread going. It's from my forthcoming book Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith and What to Eat for Dinner (New World Library, February 2013) and needs no kneading. That's right. As with many no-knead bread recipes, it owes its origins to Jim Lahey, mad genius bread baker and owner of New York's Sullivan Street Bakery.
one 1/4-ounce packet active dry yeast
2 cups lukewarm water
1 tablespoon molasses
4 cups whole-wheat flour
1 tablespoon olive oil or canola oil
3/4 cups old-fashioned oats
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
Pour the yeast into a large bowl. Add the warm water and molasses, and stir gently until the yeast dissolves. Let the yeast proof on your kitchen counter or a similar warm environment for 10 to 15 minutes.
When the yeast is frothy, add the flour. Mix well by hand, or with a mixer on low speed for 2 to 3 minutes, creating a smooth, moist, not sticky dough. Using a big spoon, work in oil, oatmeal, and salt at the end, until it just comes together. Do not obsess or overmix. Less is more.
Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel. Set in a warm spot to rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour. Lightly oil a 9-x-5-inch loaf pan or a 9-inch pie pan.
Punch down gently to let a bit of the air out. Do not pummel. Plop the dough into the prepared loaf pan or shape into a round and place in the pie pan.
Cover with the kitchen towel again and let the dough rise in a warm spot for 1 hour more. It should impress you by doubling again in size.
Preheat the oven to 450°F.
Bake for 30 minutes, or until top is golden brown and crusty and the bread sounds hollow when tapped.
Well-wrapped and refrigerated, it keeps several days. Warm up in the oven for a few minutes for maximum enjoyment.
Makes 1 loaf.