Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Loaf Mass

Catherine Schuyler burning the wheat before General Burgoyne can feed it to the invading British army
Schuylerville, NY before the Battle of Saratoga  A Master Passion, The story of Alexander & Elizabeth Hamilton   ISBN: 1771456744

We’re about to celebrate the first of the old harvest festivals--Lamas, or The Loaf Mass. Living in an area that still has a great deal of agriculture, I’m keenly aware of the seasons, though I’m also darn glad I don’t farm for a living. Mother Nature isn't always kind to the farmers who feed the rest of us. This year She started spring with a long stretch of uncharacteristic cold and rain, delaying planting.

Then just about the time corn and other temperature sensitive crops begin to grow, She''ll sometimes send a “a flash drought.” Not this year, though! This was generally a good year, and though things were late, there was plenty of water. When those waving green vistas turned gold, the harvest began well.

Now, in wide swatches to the east of us, where the six mule teams still pull threshers and barefoot women hoe kitchen gardens and hang clothes on lines, the corn stands high and tasseling. If we can just get a few more inches of rain into the ground, this year should provide a spectacular harvest of maize too.  

When I lived in England long ago, I was thrilled to enter my neighboring square stone Saxon church and see great loaves of bread, three and four feet high. Some had been baked in special lidded pans, but many others were carefully fashioned by hand. A stiff hard to hand-mix dough is necessary, with a nice egg wash at the end to make them shine. (It's more about keeping its shape and less about being good to eat.) Some of those loaves were shaped like sheaves of wheat and others like men. They were leaned against the altar rail among the more usual floral offerings.

When I asked who the men were, I was told that they were “John Barleycorn, the life of the fields.” This was in a pub where I sat decorously drinking a Baby Cham besides my glamorous mother--so perhaps that particular informant was thinking of the hearty, earthy local ales that were being drunk all around us. (I'd hear the phrase again, some years later, back in the States, sitting in an art house in Cambridge, MA, while watching an extremely disturbing British movie called The Wicker Man.)

Another gentlemen, of a more scholarly bent, protested. He said that these loaves were a living link to the past, to the powerful Celtic sun and smith god, Lugh. Yet another man, this one in a green tweed jacket, disagreed. He claimed the loaves represented an even more ancient Celtic divinity, a god of vegetation, one who was born, died, and resurrected again every spring, on and on, for more than a thousand years all across the British countryside. That divinity's name--since the genocide of the Roman occupation--had been forgotten.

St. Just in Roseland, Cornwall

Years later, and now baking my own bread, an Uncle who owned many, many farms presented me with a bucket of wheat that had come straight from his harvester. Cleaning out the residual dust and chaff and then grinding it into flour took time, but the bread I made from this had an extra dimension of taste, a nutty sweetness that apparently gets lost even from the finest brands of commercial flour.

 Now swaddled in a/c and so distanced from our original place in nature, enthralled by our gadgets, the Loaf Mass reminds me of a time when all humans grubbed dirt. They endured summer heat and desperately prayed for rain, hoping to raise enough food to get them and theirs through the next winter.

The impulse remains to say thank-you to the earth and the living gifts she bestows which sustain us. August always begins in my house with the baking of a few celebratory loaves, no matter how goll-durn hot it is outside.      

~~Juliet Waldron
See all my historical novels @

Also available at Smashwords, Kobo, B&N...