Random Thoughts

Bread - The Staff of Life

... and the taste of it was like wafers made of honey

Marjorie Burgess

Bread has been a food staple since the beginning of recorded time. The ancient Egyptians baked bread before the 20th century B.C. Fragments of unleavened bread have been unearthed among the ruins of the Swiss Lake Dwellers in the earliest civilized communities of Europe. There were public ovens in the Republic of Rome and the bakers of Greece were world famous. Bread has been referred to as the staff of life. It has been written that a substance called manna was sent down from Heaven to feed the Israelites in their journey through the wilderness. "And it was like coriander seed, white; and the taste of it was like wafers made of honey." Bread was made at home or in small bakeries until the end of the 19th century.

Shortly thereafter, bread factories made their appearance. Mixing machines, chain conveyors for carrying the dough, cooling and slicing machines, temperature-controlled ovens, and other time-saving devices replaced the bakers.

Around World War II, a whiter flour was introduced that successfully eliminated all the vitamins and minerals from the flour. The U.S. Government, as a public health measure, required that the missing vitamins and minerals be replaced. This was the beginning of the "Enriched White Bread".

Many times, between World War I and World War II, I would be sent to a local Jewish bakery for a loaf of the most delicious dark rye bread. The loaf was large and round. The bread would spring back when pushed in with a finger. There would be a delightful crunch when one would bite into the shiny brown crust. Its pungent aroma carried me home as quickly as possible. My mother would cut a slice of this home-styled bread, filled with caraway seeds, for my sister and me. It would be covered with freshly ground peanut butter from the local butter and egg store, purchased recently and carried home in its small cardboard container that was shaped like a small boat. We would feast on this treat with a glass of milk, convinced that all was right with the world. Then we'd go outside to play.

As the years passed, most of the small bakeries all but disappeared. We would be forced into buying this white cottony substance that had no taste or smell. It weighed so little that one could easily carry three loaves at a time. If you were to squeeze it, the dent would remain. If the sandwich filling was moist, like chicken salad, the bread would shrink to the thickness of one quarter of an inch.

There are, however, a number of advantages. Bread made with this pure white, reconstituted flour did nothing to add to or subtract from the taste of the sandwich. Bread will stay fresh, soft, and fluffy for a long time. I have read that rodents refused to eat the flour. Perhaps they were concerned with vitamin and mineral deficiency.

After World War II, we settled in the suburbs of Boston and lived near an old-fashioned bakery owned and operated by a Victorian couple. Mrs. Meister was a tiny lady who dressed consistently in the Quaker style, dark clothes, covered by a full, white, pleated apron. She wore black, high buttoned shoes or at other times, a pair of mis-matched comfortable slippers, one slipper was red, the other, blue, to the gentle amusement of her customers. She sported a black, pork pie hat, adorned with a bit of veiling. A new feather or a flower would renew her hat. A very frugal individual, indeed.

We did not see Mr. Meister. He worked all night baking those wonderful breads, cookies, pies, and assorted pastries. In the early morning, Mrs. Meister would take over the duties of the day, wrapping the previously-ordered items, slicing the bread, if it were cool enough, but never slicing the raisin bread, for fear that it might jam her work-worn slicing machine. She would carefully arrange the doughnuts and those huge sugar cookies and hermits, that cost but a few pennies and were the special treat of the children. A specific number of loaves of bread would be baked each day. Most of the regular customers ordered beforehand. The shelves would always be empty at closing time. Their baked goods were not fancy to behold, but oh, how satisfying to the taste. When prices had to be increased, she would reluctantly raise the price a penny or two.

It has been 30 years since we have had such a wealth of wholesome baked goods available to us at the foot of the hill. We would walk into that nineteenth century bakery, converse a bit and return with a bag full of unadulterated delicious breads and assorted pastries made in the old-fashioned way, using only nature's grains and foods.

When one goes to the supermarket today, we are advised to read the ingredients, a long tongue twisting, bewildering list of chemical additives. Many of us do so with a sense of helpless confusion. This scientific list of elements are largely unknown to us. They are written in the smallest print possible on a cake or bread wrapper of see-through plastic. We are assured that these ingredients mean us no harm, that they enhance the flavor, prevent the goodies from spoiling, and also add to the looks of the finished product.

Who are we, the citizens of the United States, to doubt the wholesomeness of said item, guaranteed by the authority vested in the United States Department of Agriculture?

From the Melrose Free Press - November 7, 1991

Elizabeth Meister turns 105

Elizabeth Meister, a former Melrose resident, marked her 105th birthday on Sept. 17, with family at the Winthrop House Nursing Home in Medford.

One of ten children born in Clinton, Mrs. Meister operated the Meister Home Bakery in Melrose with her husband for 45 years. She is the widow of Henry Meister, whom she married in 1914, and to whom she was married for 50 years.

Prior to moving to Winthrop House, Mrs. Meister resided in elderly housing in Melrose.

Attending her 105th birthday were her sister-in-law, Mrs. Mildred Meister of Stoneham, niece Barbara Jones of Stoneham, Mabelle Diamond, her great niece, and Miriam Roy of Melrose, and her nephew, Arthur Fairchild.

(The article lists several other nieces and nephews living in Saugus and California.)

October 1, 1999

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