Breaking Bread with Neighbors
Building community the old-fashioned way
My neighbor Donna brought me a sprig of rosemary from her garden. She and I had our first conversation when her cat Mona ran away. In New Orleans, particularly during the pandemic, people have chosen to meet on their front porches. I poured us some peach seltzer in large tumblers when she came over searching for her pet. We sat together on my front porch, and I showed her how to post a missing notice on the Internet where others would see it. We ended up talking about my days as a club kid in Paris, and since then, she stops by from time to time to say hello.
I got to know my neighbors much better than that in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. Right before the storm hit, I emptied my freezer and refrigerator and cooked everything in it. The power was going to go out anyhow, and I did not want anything to rot in it. The next morning, when the storm had passed, I brought plastic containers of egg salad and fruit salad to my neighbors and asked if they were okay. They offered help, too — a place to recharge a cell phone, bags of ice, and a sense that nobody was alone on our street even if we had just survived something frightening.
We were in this hot mess together, the sweaty days with no air conditioning, the lack of communications because all the towers had fallen — even 911 was not working for a time — and the frustration we felt as we tried to start our lives again. I got to know them a little bit, my neighbors, to cherish them a bit. Even though we don’t agree about politics or other matters, I know I have good people around me, and they seem to think highly of me as well.
In generations prior to this one, when women were sequestered at home, they built communities. Neighborhoods had welcome wagons for newcomers. People played bridge with the folks next door. There were clubs. Americans are too busy to do this now. It’s wonderful that women are in every profession now, that we are much more free, but that community feeling that women built, I think we miss it. Food, though, may be a bridge toward that sense of community once more.
I had not seen Donna this year until she stopped by with the sprig of Rosemary pictured above earlier this week. I thanked her, and I told her I would make bread with it. I did not tell her that I would bring her a loaf of it. I am going to surprise her with it tomorrow. It’s still cooling. I took it out of the oven less than an hour ago.
I made a rustic rosemary and olive bread. It’s dense and hearty. That’s because it has olive oil and sour cream in it. I made two loaves of it — one for my household, and another for Donna’s.
Here’s what I did:
I took a large bowl of flour — 3/4 white, 1/4 wheat, and I made a sort of well in the middle of it. In a separate bowl, I opened four packets of yeast. I added a bit of honey, and some cups of warm water. I waited for that bowl of water, honey and yeast to start to look frothy.
While I waited, I added sour cream, all the leaves of rosemary, and some chopped olives and some olive oil to my food processor and chopped them all together.
I then put these ingredients in the flour with the yeast mixture and combined them evenly with a spoon. I then took out the dough that formed and kneaded it for about seven minutes. When I finished the first round of kneading, I divided the dough in half in two balls. Here is what that looked like:
I used an old trick to keep the dough moist while it rose. Some cooks use plastic wrap over the tops of the bowls they use to store the dough while it rises. I learned how to do this the old fashioned way in France.
First, I added a little olive oil into each of the mixing bowls where the dough would rise. Since olive oil was already an ingredient, I knew it would not interfere with the taste.
Then, I put each ball of dough in the bowl, coating one side with the olive oil, then I flipped it over. Then I covered the bowls with dish towels I had soaked in hot water, then rung out.
After an hour and a half, I kneaded it once more, knocking out some air bubbles that had formed. I shaped the bread into two loaves. I let the loaves sit for almost another hour.
I turned the oven on high — a temperature of 450 degrees. I scored the bread loaves and added salt in the grooves I created with my knife. I put both loaves in the oven.
After ten minutes, I lowered the temperature to 400 degrees. I let the loaves cook for another 45 minutes.
Here is what they looked like when they came out:
This bread is dense and heavy, the legacy of a time gone by where people reaped grain with a scythe and ground it with community millstones — heavy peasant work, a time when neighbors tended to get along because they had to in order to survive. It is wheaty without being truly wheat bread. It tastes slightly sour and salty, and it is filled with the flavor and scent of fresh rosemary.
Are we really so different than the peasants who invented breads like this one? Doesn’t our getting along matter to our survival even now, despite our ability to order goods and services from half way around the world?
Hurricane Ida hurt people and their homes, but it also offered my neighbors and me a chance to rebuild community. I am grateful for that sense of belonging here. Despite all the divisions in our society and all our technology, we need each other still to thrive. We feel better when we are in connected to others. Older people live longer when they meet others regularly at church or at civic gatherings. Younger people do better in school and understand complex human interactions better when they are placed in social situations. Sometimes, neighbors can be annoying, but it is better to know one’s neighbors than not to know them and to feel isolated. It is better still to love our neighbors as ourselves. How better to begin to do that than knocking on a door, offering food, asking after people, letting them know that they matter?
I am bringing one of these loaves to Donna in the morning. I heard Mona the cat ran off again. Perhaps we can look for her together.
Because this is only one recipe, the grocery list for this newsletter is shorter:
1 pint of sour cream
CANNED GOODS/DRY GOODS
White flour around
Yeast (4 packets)
1 4-ounce can of chopped olives
At my grocery store, all these ingredients come to $36 this week. You likely have eggs, olive oil, but even if you have white flour, to make as much bread as I have made, you will likely need more flour than you currently have in your house.
Here is the recipe:
Anne’s Rustic Mediterranean Bread
8 cups of white flour (plus more for dusting while kneading)
4 cups of whole wheat flour
4 packets of dried yeast
1/4 cup of honey
4 cups of water
4 ounces of chopped olives
About 4 ounces of fresh rosemary leaves
1 pint of sour cream
Salt to taste
1/2 cup of olive oil (plus more for coating bowls for dough to rise in)
1 egg (for egg wash at the end of the baking process)
This makes two loaves. For one loaf, halve the recipe.
In a very large bowl, combine the two kinds of flour. Make a well in the middle of the flour mixture.
In another smaller bowl, combine the yeast packets, honey and water. Let these percolate together until frothy for about ten minutes.
While the yeast becomes active, put the olives, rosemary leaves, sour cream and olive oil into a food processor and chop until you have a consistent mixture.
Put the two wet ingredients into the well in the big bowl of flour. Fold the flour into the wet ingredients until there is a consistent mixture.
On a large board sprinkled with flour, take the dough and knead it for about 10 minutes.
Divide into two balls. Put each ball into a separate mixing bowl to rise, coated in olive oil as described in the text above. Cover the bowls with warm, damp dish towels. Let them sit as the dough rises for about an hour and a half.
Knead the dough again, knocking out air bubbles that may have formed. After about ten more minutes of kneading, shape the bread into loaves or rolls. Cover them directly with a warm, damp dish towel.
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Score the dough. In the places you have scored it, sprinkle with salt.
Bake for ten minutes at 450 degrees. Then lower the temperature to 400 degrees and bake for another 40 minutes.
Beat an egg. With a basting brush, coat the loaves with the egg and bake for 5 more minutes.
Let cool before serving.