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A Bread Teacher With No Recipe

Muriel “Penny” Penn – photo courtesy of Kath Wolverton

Who are your bread teachers?

Nina Raginsky asked me this question last week when I chatted with her. Names of book authors came first to mind, but there were far fewer real acquaintances who taught me anything about bread.

I’ve written of my Aunty Betty, my earliest bread teacher. She used to bake “Brown Bread” and sometimes brought a loaf to our house. It was a real treat from the factory-made stuff we consumed in my childhood home. And once I was actually in Aunty Betty’s kitchen when a few loaves came out of the oven. The smells left an indelible mark on my childhood memory. There was something beyond taste that made it special. It came from Aunty Betty!

Penny, my teacher

But there was another bread teacher, Penny, my landlady for three years while I was an English Literature student, living near the University of BC campus.

I rented a room in the basement of her house with two other guys. We were on Wesbrook Crescent on the edge of the UBC campus. We each had a room and shared a modest kitchen and bathroom. It was definitely a student place: a little grungy. Once, we discovered a clump of puffballs (Basidiomycota) growing on the stone wall beside the house’s boiler. It was a great joke for a while until one of us finally scraped them off when they started dropping spores.

We weren’t an exceptionally tidy group in the basement, and we weren’t exactly paying for a room at the Ritz. Rent was a princely $75 per month.

Penny was a relentlessly cheerful landlady! She was a mother to all of us, as well as to her two lovely daughters, Annie and Kathy. If you showed the slightest inclination to join in with the family, you were welcomed with open arms, invited upstairs for dinner, or offered tea and cookies if you were up for a chat.

Johnny Carson and frozen daiquiris

I was often alone studying in the basement in the evenings, while my roommates preferred the library for study or perhaps “The Pit,” the student beer hall in the Student Union Building. Just before 11 pm, Penny would open the door at the top of the stairs and clink a juice glass with a spoon. She’d call out my name with a sing-song voice and tell me it was just about time for the Johnny Carson show. I’d hurry up to the TV room, and she would serve us daiquiri slushies out of an ice cube tray. And we would laugh the evening away with Johnny Carson.

I’d watch for an hour but never wanted to leave. I far preferred to bask in Penny’s warmth and cheer instead of studying metrical analyses of Milton’s Paradise Lost or William Blake’s concept of Albion.

Penny’s husband, Harold, was just as welcoming and happy to chat about life’s issues. He was relentlessly curious, and he’d engage you with a mechanical or scientific problem, or a puzzle, or joke. There was a mischievous sparkle in his eye, not unlike Penny’s. He liked nicknames. His nickname for Penny was “Pud,” as in pudding. His nickname for me was “Mort the Snort.” He was my dentist for years!

Penny’s bread

Another draw to the upstairs was Penny’s bread. Not just the bread, but the way she made it. There was never a recipe in sight.

She’d pour flour into a bowl, some yeast, a little salt and enough water until it felt right. She’d keep up a steady chatter throughout her mixing and kneading, hardly paying attention to what she was doing. It was all intuitive, flour on the counter and her apron. She followed no rules, no book. Look and feel and taste and smell were all that guided her.

I might have missed a stage or two, but it was hard to resist the smells that filled the house as the bread baked. I’d linger at the kitchen door, hoping for a warm, buttered slice of that bread. Or two or three. That is what I wanted.

It wasn’t just the bread, of course, but the warmth of the whole house: Penny’s cheer, her welcome, her laughter, her joy. It was her love. Penny’s bread was an extension of this essence. When she made bread, she shared all of herself.

Same with the frozen daiquiris, I suppose!

I may not have had awareness of this when I was a brash 20-something. But I see it now.

I wanted, then, to make bread in the best way I knew how: I’d find a classic recipe and follow it to the letter.

My first attempts

My first effort was a recipe in The Joy of Cooking. Success was minimal. There were outright failures. I bought The Tassajara Bread Book, attracted to the “sponge method” and the zen approach to breadmaking. My dough wouldn’t rise, the taste was off. There were outright failures, burned bread or dough that never made it into the oven. I still didn’t understand that the missing ingredient was Penny’s essence or something equivalent

And I dropped breadmaking for years!

Success came after Jennifer and I moved to Pender, and I started using sourdough. I was less fastidious about the process. When the loaves came out of the oven, tall and burnished chestnut brown, I got the joy.

The joy and love became part of the process without me noticing it. When I touched the dough and could feel it push back, it felt like magic. When it went into the oven soft and pillowy and came out with a golden, shattery crust, it was a miracle. “God is alive, magic is afoot.” 1

Thank you, Penny!

I remember saying to Jen, “This is the bread I’ve always wanted to make.”

And it was easy to recall those loaves that came out of Penny’s oven in the mid-1970s, with their intoxicating smell, the seductive taste and the joy she brought to my life at that time.

Penny passed away four years ago, and I was fortunate to see her in her last days. I made sure to thank her. For her love and her inspiration, for her bread and everything else.

Thank you, Penny!


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  1. From the great Leonard Cohen prose poem from his novel, Beautiful Losers

2 thoughts on “A Bread Teacher With No Recipe

  1. Very touching David.

  2. What wonderful teachers David; no wonder there is so much ‘love’ in your loaves.

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