Once upon a time, when I was working as a safety consultant, I was doing an inspection at a nursing home in a very rural community. It was one of those rare, and wonderful facilities that truly took to heart the need to honor and care for their elders.
I learned very early on, the three people you need to make friends with at a nursing home are the kitchen manager, the administrator, and the maintenance supervisor. So, on one of my first visits, I was walking through the kitchen visiting with the kitchen manager who had worked at the facility since she was a young woman -- and at that time, she was older than some of the residents. While we were walking through, we got on the subject of making bread. She explained that she made bread and rolls every day, from scratch and had since she'd started there. Now she had one of those fancy Hobart mixing machines with the dough hook on it, but she'd always done it by hand before they got it. I realized very quickly I was the one being interviewed and she was testing me to see if I had any baking skills.
On the next visit, I arrived early and found her waiting for me. You can give me a hand today while we talk -- because she knew I wanted to ask her about safety and what kind of training they'd done and what management was doing to keep them safe.
I walked into the kitchen and found a bowl of dough mostly mixed, but not quite done. "Can you knead that dough?" she asked, glancing down at her own hands, gnarled with arthritis, and then started talking about the last safety class she'd had.
Without really thinking about it, I took off my ring, tucked it in my pocket then went and washed my hands and set to work. I dusted the bench with flour, and began working the dough, listening intently as she told me about how the maintenance man had thrown his back out helping Mr. Brown up off the floor when he fell.
She went on to tell me that this was the last year I'd get to interview her because she was retiring in just a few months and soon, she'd be moving in -- she was 86 years old after all. What else was she going to do? All her kids and grandkids lived in town, so it just made good sense. She'd been teaching all the new kitchen girls her recipes, except for one. "Which one is that?" I asked.
"The one you're working on now," she said. "I've never given out my dinner roll recipe - not in the seventy-some years I've been perfecting it." When I mentioned it'd be a shame for that recipe to be lost, she promised me it wouldn't be. "I'll find someone to give it to, but I have to be sure they won't let it die. So, how long do you usually knead your dough?" she asked me. "Depends, I explained. It depends on what I'm making. Rolls and breads, I usually go about seven minutes, so the gluten has time to develop." Then she asked me about how much flour I used on the bench. "Depends on how humid it is," I answered. "Do you mix your yeast with water and sugar?" To which I answered, "Sometimes I'll use a little honey if I have it, but sometimes it doesn't need anything, I guess it just depends on how fresh the yeast is." It was probably every bit as thorough as the interviews I did with her every year.
When I finally picked up the ball of dough and examined it, she smiled as I held it out for her to see. "That's it," she said. "Soft as a baby's bottom. Well done." The whole process took less than fifteen - okay maybe 20 minutes, but I promised I'd see her the next year, and asked if she knew what room she'd be in. She told me and I promised I'd check in on her when I came back. I went on my way and finished my inspection. The administrator told me later that he'd never seen her let anyone knead her dough, and he was really surprised she'd let me give it a go.
Not long after that, I got a letter from the nursing home. Written in a shaky hand was a simple recipe with a note someone had typed up. "You passed the test. Please, keep my recipe alive," it said (or something to that affect.)
She passed away a couple of years later, but I was able to report back that her recipe had become a family tradition in our house, which made her smile so brightly. I always think of her this time of year, after I've spent seven to ten minutes kneading my dough by hand (I don't have one of those fancy Hobart mixers like she had). The smell of yeast is heady in my kitchen tonight, and I'm feeling rather sentimental. I made a promise to her all those years ago, and to this day, at least twice (if not more) a year, I make her recipe just as she would.
Sometimes I can hear her ghost in my ear whisper "That's it. Well done."