To make a loaf of beer herb bread, you need to start with two packages of yeast. You sprinkle that over lukewarm water and stir to dissolve. After that, you fold in heated beer, sugar, salt, and melted butter. There’s no proofing the yeast in this recipe, and I like that. I hate proofing yeast because I don’t understand how it works. I think you’re supposed to see a bubble in the water after a while, but I don’t have the patience.
This recipe comes from Bread Book by Susan Wright and Irena Chambers. It was published in 1972 and looks like a recipe book that a bunch of church ladies put together at a Bible study cookie exchange. Except in this case it would’ve been a bread exchange. The cookbook belonged to my grandma, Clara Glunesserian Ayanoglou. When she died, I took this, along with a Sherlock Holmes book of my grandpa’s, and a locket with a picture of the two of them inside.
I have no idea why she had the cookbook, because my grandma never used them. Her recipes were created while she sang hymns and banged pots and pans, kneaded dough, and stomped around in the kitchen in her bare feet. My grandma never wore shoes and she never used cookbooks.
She also never shared recipes; none of the Ayanoglou women did. It could have been out of pride. Ayanoglou girls are stubborn and bull-headed. They love when people sneak into the kitchen to take a peek, a sniff, or steal a taste of what’s cooking, but they’ll act annoyed that you’re in there. And if you ask if you can help, they’ll slap your hand, tsk, or shoo you away. “Go play,” or “Pour some wine,” or “Fix my shower head. It’s broken.” And when you’re gone, they’ll put a hand on a hip and smile that pursed lip smile knowing they’re making a thing no one else can make, and everyone wants. Ayanoglou girls don’t need any help because no one else can do what they can do. I know because I’m one of them. I also know that if you’re an Ayanoglou girl, you need a recipe only you can make.
My mom bakes French bread. At Thanksgiving and Christmas when I was a kid, she’d wrap the loaves in foil and tie red and green ribbon around them. I’d hold them on my lap as we drove to Grand Rapids from Chicago, wondering, as I watched the skyline get smaller, how long the loaves would stay warm. I’d lift them to my nose when we’d get to Gary, Indiana, so I would smell the yeast, butter, and flour my mom kneaded together, and not the factories.
My Aunt Lucy made coffee cake that we called “buttery pieces of heaven.” For years my cousin Tara and I sat at her kitchen table together mornings after sleepovers. Our legs dangled from our chairs at first, and we would reach with both hands for our orange juice as we talked about toys. Then the conversation changed to favorite songs, or hairstyles, then boys, and eventually we were sipping coffee, discussing husbands and pregnancy and children. As we grew, we spoke through mouthfuls of crunchy bread laced with cinnamon and vanilla, a welcome constant in my aunt’s home.
My Aunt Joyce made lachmajine that my cousins and I would grab warm from the oven as we dashed into her kitchen and back outside. I’d hold a piece of the crunchy bread in one hand and try to take a bite of the meat mixed with tomatoes, spices, and a punch of lemon juice while sledding down Joyce’s backyard hill.
And my grandma, besides the dolmas filled with mint, rice, and cumin, and the buttery cookies doused in powdered sugar, made breadsticks with olive oil and sesame seeds. I’d sit on her driveway, the tar warming my legs, and eat them on a summer afternoon.
The beer herb loaf recipe is the first one I tried after reading through the recipes one summer afternoon weeks after my grandma died. I was twenty-five, on break from teaching seventh grade English. In addition to not having to proof the yeast, I also picked this recipe because there was beer in it. My grandma didn’t like beer. She thought it was tacky. If she looked at this cookbook she would’ve dismissed it as soon as she saw the word beer. I loved that I would be working through something no one else could give me advice on.
I lined up the ingredients, kicked off my flip-flops, and got to work, humming “Peace Like a River,” as I shuffled around the kitchen. That was my grandma’s favorite hymn, though she sang it in Greek.
After the beer and butter, you stir in eggs, sage, thyme, savory, grated onion, and six to seven cups of flour. I don’t grate the onion. I find that disgusting. Plus, everything you grate after that—the skins of oranges and lemons, cheese —will taste like onion. Also, there’s no need to count out the cups of flour. Throw in a few cups, get the ingredients incorporated together (my mom would say, “Have them make friends”), then put a couple more in until it becomes hard to stir.
I never beat the mixture. I only use a wooden spoon and then my hands. It’s mostly out of spite: Why would I use a mixer when the strength of my arms and fingers is sufficient? Besides, when you’re kneading bread you have time to think. I suspect it’s a lot like gardening, if you can get beyond sitting in dirt and having bugs and bees all over you. Some people don’t mind that. I do. Instead, I knead bread.
My grandmother’s daughters Joyce and Lucy lived in Grand Rapids. Her other daughter, Grace, my mother, set up house in Chicago, but we always traveled to Grand Rapids for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Usually, we ate our Thanksgiving meal at Joyce’s. We sat around a Ping-Pong table, though you’d never know it because Joyce draped a pretty tablecloth and set out handwritten name cards where we were to sit. I always liked looking for my name, though I knew I’d be next to my cousin Tara on the piano bench. I loved how pretty Joyce made my name. She’d draw a little flower on the “e” at the end. Its petals were pink.
Joyce decorated the table with vases of wildflowers, Queen Anne’s lace and little yellow buttercups, she’d picked in the field that seemed to go on forever behind her home.
Joyce loved making wreaths and drying flowers. The table we sat around was in the part of the house she’d turned into her workshop. Flowers tied with tulle ribbon hung upside down on a pegboard. Sticks she’d found on her walks lay on a thick wooden table. I always wondered how Joyce curved them into wreaths without snapping them.
One year, after dinner was over and I was helping to clear the table, I asked Joyce if she would do the flowers for my wedding. I was nervous asking. I thought her flower creations were things she liked to give away, and she didn’t want to be told how to design them: what color or type of flower they should be. I think the things she made represented something on her walks that she thought or wondered about. Perhaps they displayed something she tried to put to rest. This is probably why I admired her bouquets: I wasn’t interested in a certain color or type of flower for my wedding. I just wanted what she had to share.
Joyce was holding two plates and staring at them when I asked. Her cheek fidgeted as though she was trying to fight some emotion or another. When she looked at me, she didn’t say she’d do it, but she told me about a big patch of wild lavender she knew of.
At our wedding, the purple popped against the January greenery she’d placed in each vase at the center of the tables. Guests wanted to know what she did to keep the color so bright. She wouldn’t say, but smiled and said, “I’m glad you like them.” I loved seeing Joyce smile.
You have to knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic. Then you put it in a lightly oiled bowl, cover it with a damp cloth and let it rise for an hour and half. In the summer when I first made this bread, I went to the pool while I waited for the bread to rise. Other times I walked to the library.
The recipe makes two loaves so you need to divide the dough in half and shape each one into a round loaf. The cookbook says to put each in a pie plate. I never do that because I don’t have two pie plates. I just use a cookie sheet. Besides, it’s not like the dough is so soupy that it’ll lose its shape.
Everyone who has tried an Ayanoglou creation has asked for the recipe. It’s a mistake to ask because you won’t get a nice 3-by-5 card with ingredients and 5 to 7 directions on it. You’ll get something like this:
“It’s important to put enough liquid ingredients in with the flour, otherwise you won’t be able to work with the dough. On the other hand, if you put too much liquid in, and the dough is juicy, you’ll just have to throw it out.” This is what my mom said once about her French bread.
“Well, how much oil, butter, and milk do you use?” I might ask.
“I don’t know. Maybe this much?” She used her thumb and index finger to show me what she meant. “You know, I didn’t always use milk. I added that one afternoon because I needed more liquid and wondered what a little warm milk would do.”
“Why’d you warm it up?”
“I don’t know. Seemed like the right thing to do.”
Once, Tara and I asked my Aunt Lucy how long she baked her coffeecake. She looked at us, confused. “How long?”
“Yes. Like, 45 minutes?”
“I have no idea. I take it out when it makes a nice thump.”
“You mean you flick it with your fingers?”
“That’s what I mean. Like this.” She flicked her middle finger off her thumb.
“And that’s when you know it’s done?”
“That’s when I know.”
“It doesn’t have to be golden brown or anything?”
“Well, it can be golden brown, but until it thumps nicely, it’s not done.”
My grandma was the worst at sharing her recipes. My aunts and mother would at least offer hints, but not my grandma. I asked her once how she made her breadsticks and she made a face like she had just sucked on a lemon. In her Greek accent she said, “Why you wanna know? I make them for you, eh? Ees not for you to know. Ees for you to enjoy. Go sit. I bring you some orange juice.”
At my bridal shower, everyone was to bring a favorite recipe and something for our kitchen—a crockpot, a vegetable peeler, maybe some oven mitts. My grandma gave me a beautiful white pitcher and a recipe for hummus. On the card she wrote, “Come over and I’ll make it for you.”
The hard part of making the bread is over. Once you have two loaves, all you do is pop them in the oven at 325 and let them bake for 35 to 45 minutes. You’ll know the bread is close to done when your home smells of yeast, thyme, beer, and onions, and the crust is a deep brown.
The women in my family love to tell stories. The stories my grandma told were mostly about my grandfather, a man I never met, because he was killed before I was born.
I love the one about how he proposed. My grandma was living in Cyprus, and met my grandfather when he was traveling with his church from Greece. The Glunesserians hosted him and a few of his friends. They dated long distance for a while until she received his proposal via telegram.
My grandma first told me this story right after I got engaged. She and I sat across from each other at her dining room table, breadsticks and a pot of coffee between us.
“He proposed to you with a telegram?” I asked, pouring myself a mug and grabbing a breadstick. My grandma scooted the sugar bowl towards me.
“I was at the post office with a girlfriend and the man handed me a telegram from Theodore. It said, ‘Clara, will you be my wife?’” She said it quietly, like she was talking to the girlfriend who went with her to the post office that day. I twirled the engagement ring on my finger.
“What’d you say?”
“Well. I’m very shy, Callie. Of course I want to say yes, but I don’t want to tell the man behind the counter this.”
“So,” she said, putting her hands together and resting her elbows on the table. “I tell my girlfriend, I say, ‘Tell the man to write, “Clara says yes.”’ So my friend goes up to the man and tells him what I said. And this man, he’s so gruff.” My grandma straightened up and put her hands on the table. Her face scowled, but her mouth fought a smile.
“He say, ‘Say yes to what?’ Well. My friend, she is so excited for me, she yells, ‘TO MARRIAGE!’” My grandma giggled, and I felt as though I was with her in the post office, witnessing.
Sometimes my grandma’s breadsticks didn’t turn out so well. Something happened in the oven, and they didn’t hold the braided shape she’d twisted them in. They came out cracked and looking more like puff pastry. She still used them, though. She’d brush olive oil and sprinkle sesame seeds on the cracked, puffy breadsticks and give us what she created. “They’re broken, but they’re still pretty good,” she’d say with a full mouth.
It is Christmastime. Tara, our older cousin Tonia, and I are getting together for the first time in five years. We are all wives and mothers now, with six children among us. We decide to have an all-day-get together, the kind we used to have when we were children. I’m bringing my beer bread loaves. Tonia’s bringing her recipe for lahmajoun, something she learned from her mother, my aunt Joyce. Tara’s going to bring her mom’s coffee cake. She isn’t sure how it’ll turn out because there’s no recipe, and Lucy is gone. She died of pancreatic cancer five years ago, so Tara’s baking the coffee cake from memory, from years of watching her mother bake. She tells us that when Lucy was dying she tried to tell Tara what the recipe was but Tara said it was too hard to understand. “Plus,” she told me over the phone, “what I wrote is smudged with tears.”
That’s OK. The three of us will bring what we have: our food, our husbands and children, and we will sit down together. Our children will mingle shyly, starting out as strangers, but as most children do, they’ll make up games, giggle, and peel off layers of clothes from running around, faces flushed and smiling. For several hours, our lives will be braided together like my grandma’s breadsticks. Maybe the braid will be loose; maybe we will need to rest after being stretched in a way we aren’t used to, or sure of. It will be a start.
I wrap my loaves in foil and tie red and green ribbon around them. I place my hand on the warm tin foil, close my eyes, and imagine the disappearing Chicago skyline. When I open them, I wonder if I mixed the ingredients up enough so that they all taste well together and there won’t be too much sage in one bite or a clump of thyme in another. There is no way to tell right now. All I can do is bring what I have.
This is a chapter from Callie Feyen’s manuscript, Molting, a collection of essays dealing with motherhood, her aunt Lucy’s death, and her teenage years.
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