A Bit of Bread

I had to refresh the sourdough culture today. The bulk ferment tub looked like it could be growing more than sourdough critters. The culture was fine, though, so I used up all but a cup yesterday, making a multi-grain nut bread with dried fruit. This meant I also used up all the nut flour that collects in the bottom of the pecan and walnut bins. Periodic nut bread is one of the better arguments for buying nuts in bulk!

I cleaned out the ferment tub and set the remaining cup of culture in the fridge overnight. This is not necessary, only it was for me because inexplicably I was out of bread flour. (Well, there is this house packing thing happening, I suppose.) So this morning I let the cup of culture warm up a little, then mixed it with 2 cups of warmish water from the tea kettle, and 3.5 cups of bread flour (organic King Arthur — yes, flour matters). Now it’s sitting on the counter under the “grow lights” to wake up the critters and let them feast for a while before going back into the fridge to snooze until next baking day.

(No, there are not actual grow lights in my kitchen. But the ridiculous strip lights under the kitchen cabinetry are hot and bright enough to count. No, I didn’t install them. Now it’s too late to replace them. And in any case, what do you do with the toxic things when you decommission them? I’m really asking that, because I don’t know.)

Here is what my sourdough culture looks like.

It is less liquid than many others I’ve seen, but I find it lasts longer this way. It doesn’t develop that grey slime texture. Or, it does, but not quickly enough to avoid that through regular use.

This is the refreshed sourdough culture a few days later. Note the nice gooey texture and all the bubbles. This is a very happy colony! (It has come to my attention that I have not yet named this entity. So forthwith it shall be called Brooklyn — because there’s a whole lot going on in there!)

March 25th is Lady Day. I’m not sure that’s important. It’s another Marian holiday which is likely a coopted older pagan festival. It is nine months before December 25th though. So you can probably figure out what it celebrates.

Most spring festivities have adhered to either the vernal equinox and the spring new year or the Christian Easter (another pagan thing which we’ll discuss next week). The main activity associated with Lady Day is rent collection and beating the bounds. But the British did like their boundaries and rents, so these things happen at most of the annual round of festivals, not merely Lady Day.

However, there is one story that is uniquely associated with Lady Day. I’ve seen it appear in folklore many places around Great Britain with different characters and settings but the same narrative substance. It is similar enough to the tale of Brigid’s Cloak that it might be derived from her mythology.

In Brigid’s tale, she asks a miserly king for land so that she can minister to the poor. He turns her down. She then asks for just the land that she can cover with her cloak. He sneeringly agrees. Then he is astonished as four of Brigid’s acolytes grab the corners of her cloak and run in opposite directions over his best fields and orchards. He begs Brigid to stop them, to leave him some territory. Being kinder than I am, she agrees and sets up her famous abbey, Kill Dara, on the land that once was covered by her cloak. It does not say that the king was chastened, but he also seems not to have done anything else to provoke Brigid. Maybe he learned a bit of humility if not generosity.

Now, here is the story that grew later in history.

There was a woman on her deathbed. She was wife to a wealthy landowner, wealthy because he was stingy and unkind to his poorer neighbors. The Lady was always generous in her lifetime which provoked her husband, but he could say little against her because even he could see the nobility of her actions and the poverty of his own.

But now that she was bound for death, he was moved to ask if she had any remaining wishes that he might grant. Anything at all, he said, he would give in her honor. She sat up a little and smiled. 

“Yes, my husband, I do. It is my wish that you set aside a portion of your lands to raise food for the poor and hungry. You have such vast holdings, it need not be a hardship to do this thing in my name. It would make me very happy to know that our neighbors are not wanting when I am gone.”

Then exhausted from her speech, she lay down and slept.

Well, the landowner thought hard on this all night. He had agreed to her request before she made it, and he was not one to rescind his word. Yet he did not want to give up productive lands. He did not want to lose even a tithe of his income to feed people who seemingly could not take care of themselves.

In the morning he returned to his wife’s bedchamber and said, “I will grant you your wish. I will set aside land to feed the poor but on one condition. I will place a new log on the fire. What land you can walk in the time that this log burns to ash will be set aside.” So saying he placed a large log in the fireplace and left.

Now, the Lady was indeed failing in body. Her husband knew she could hardly walk across the room, let alone walk the bounds. But inspired, she called to her servants and had them carry her to the best fields. Then she set to crawling.

Seeing her pitiful state, Lady Mary gave the woman the strength and endurance and speed of a young girl. The wife marked out over two dozen acres of the most productive land on the estate before the husband came out to announce that the log had burned away. 

Contented and tired, she had her servants carry her back to her bed, giving out instructions as they went. The land was to be planted with good grain each year. The harvest was to be milled and baked into bread. And every Lady Day, the anniversary of her miracle boundary walk, this bread was to be shared out to all who hungered. By the time the small procession reached the bedchamber, the Lady was dead.

Her husband grieved and, though chagrined at the loss of his best fields, he honored her request. Every year on Lady Day a dole of bread was handed out to all. 

It is said that there were other words spoken before the Lady died. Knowing her husband’s greed, she placed a curse on the promise. Should her bequest ever fail, should some miserly descendant not dole out bread for the hungry, then all the lands of the estate would likewise fail. 

In some versions of the story, her husband tried to stop the dole in his lifetime. In most, however, the dole continues for many generations until one day a descendant decides that his want of wealth supersedes the bequest of a long-dead ancestor or the hunger of his neighbors. 

In all stories, the curse comes terribly to life when the dole is halted. The estate fields produce no grain; the orchards are blighted and withered; the gardens produce neither bounty nor beauty; the livestock die of wasting diseases, leaving rotting carcasses in the abandoned pastures. The ancient manor house falls — sometimes to fire, sometimes to flood, sometimes to causes beyond nature. The family line fails as well, and the last miserly descendant dies alone in a crumbling world of his own making.

©Elizabeth Anker 2021