Breaking Bread: A Mythology Major’s Musings on Culture, Gender, and Baked Goods

I decided to try my hands at soda bread this week, since I didn’t know what else to do for St. Patrick’s Day, except my yearly rant about all the things we get wrong about St. Patrick’s Day, how St. Patrick wasn’t even Irish, how nobody in America seems to know the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland or even Ireland from Scotland, and how St. Brigid was more important for most of Irish history anyway. I vote we all get together on St. Brigid’s Feast Day and eat butter. Lots of butter. So much butter.

But I’m really tired of harping on that every year. So, instead, I put on my Irish/Irish American folk music Pandora station and press-ganged my boyfriend into helping me make soda bread.

Soda bread is great for impatient people, since you don’t have to wait for the bread to rise and there is minimal work involved. My boyfriend had never made bread before and approached it as a cautious apprentice might alchemy. I actually used to make bread with my mom all the time as a kid, but our bread oven broke when I was about six or seven and we stopped making it after that. So, while I’ve made bread innumerable times, it’s been nigh on 20 years.

However, the moment I got my hands in there and the smell hit me, it all came rushing back. I felt suddenly two feet shorter and was back in my old childhood home with its too-small kitchen and my mother’s much-worn cookbook (the kind where you can tell what the good recipes are by how stained the pages are). It was some powerful nostalgia.

This is why you should bake with your kids. Not only is it chemistry and math and a good life skill to have, but every time they make something you made together or use the skills you taught them they will remember you and the hopefully happy memories you shared. Food is also how humans have passed on traditions and culture and identity for millennia. Cooking and baking together was historically a time to socialize, gossip, sing, tell stories, and let one’s hair down.

In homosocial and patriarchal societies where food preparation was “women’s work”, it was a microcosm of female culture with its own oral traditions and power structure, a time and a place where women bypassed patrilineal and dominant narratives to pass on their (sub)culture, their stories, and their wisdom. For a fascinating look at just how transgressive the stories told in female spaces can be, I highly recommend looking into women’s oral Ramayanas recently collected in India. These are retellings of the classic Indian epic and not only are women front and center, but often the stories will vary wildly in content and openly subvert or challenge the gender politics and messages in the “usual” tellings. Albeit fiction, The Red Tent also comes to mind, which, at least at the age I was her helper in breadmaking, was my mother’s favorite book.

Of course, this is not to say that the kitchen is still the domain of women. My brother was an assistant baker as often as I was. I think everyone should know how to cook. But, as I said in my lengthy treatise on soup, cooking connects us to culture, which unfortunately, often trickles down to us from a distinctly male perspective. In this one aspect of history, women’s voices and presence haven’t been totally erased, subsumed, and relegated. I learned to cook from my mother, who learned from her mother, and so on and so forth (“This is a soup as only the women of Roan Inish knows how to make”).

Here in the kitchen and in our recipes, tensions as old as time bubble up. History, gender politics, shifting values, cultural diffusion, cultural exchange, and changing times all mix and mesh and mingle and the result is a delicious anthropological melting pot of ideas to explore. I made soda bread to feel connected to my ancestors and found my mother (and myself) instead.

I used a variation of this recipe because it most closely resembled the ingredients I had access to. I skipped the raisins and used a combination of milk and plain yogurt in lieu of buttermilk (Forgive me, Brigid, for I know not what I do). I also nixed the sugar because sugar does not belong in bread. Why do we put sugar in bread in this country? Why?

Is this the most authentic soda bread? No. Was it the prettiest soda bread? No. My cross came out all wonky and the bread was kind of lopsided. Was it delicious? Yes. I served it warm with butter and raw honey and it was magical. It also went wonderfully with cinnamon rose tea.

Screw my attempts to cut down on gluten, this is for a cause greater than I. Here’s to the rich history of the Irish in America and their continued legacy today. And here’s to delicious, delicious bread. I turned my back and it was gone. Gone, I tell you! Either my boyfriend really liked it or this St. Patrick’s Day is getting a little too authentic with a reenactment of the Great Hunger.

And, on that note, Happy St. Paddy’s Day, everyone! Sláinte ok waes heal! Stay tuned for a St. Patrick’s Day poem that I hope resonates with Americans of all backgrounds in our rich yet conflicted nation of immigrants.

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One thought on “Breaking Bread: A Mythology Major’s Musings on Culture, Gender, and Baked Goods

  1. […] St. Patrick’s Day! In keeping with my last post about soda bread, here’s a poem that seemed fitting to share on such a holiday as this. This poem began quite […]

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