Stems and All

My journey to buy less, consume smart, use what's there.

My mother and her bread


I know it’s a bit of a cliche. But I really, truly am inspired by both of my parents – constantly. They live a life based on frugality and simplicity. They have embraced and lived a life of sustainability for more than 40 years, long before it became ‘hip’ to be green and eco-conscience and ‘use what you have’.

When they moved to Northern California in the mid-seventies, they had very little. Growing their own food, making their own bread, raising their own chickens, rabbits and geese (the rabbits and geese were kept more as pets) were just some of the things that they did out of necessity and being frugal with the little that they had – not trying to be cutting edge.

As it turns out, they were onto something a bit ahead of their time, something that newer generations are now starting to realize is just good sense: use what you have, be frugal, and save the environment. Novel concept, right?

Here’s one story about my mother and her bread, and just one of the ways that she truly inspires me…

I was born in Switzerland to a Swiss mother and an American father, trailing an older sister by a few years. After my father lost his job in the seventies, my parents made the decision to ‘start over’ in the land of promise and sunshine: California.

During the summer of 1976, we moved to a corner of my American Grandfather’s property in a small, dry Northern Californian town. Originally called “Hangtown”, it has since been renamed the less chilling name of Placerville. I was just over four years old.

Aside from the few acres of land that my Grandfather gave us, my family had little else. Somewhere, many miles and months behind us, dishes, furniture, and other household items were en route to us via wooden crates on a massive tanker ship, slowly crossing the Atlantic Ocean.

The furniture wouldn’t have been of much use that first summer in California. We were all living cozy in a small silver trailer that my Grandfather had loaned to us as temporary housing.

My mother is the oldest of nine siblings. Her father spent the majority of his life as a baker in a small village in the Eastern region of Switzerland, and from him she learned the essentials of baking. My Grandmother (lovingly called “Grossmami”), had somehow managed to raise nine healthy children, starting with my own mother at the tail end of World War II. From Grossmami, she learned frugal living and how to feed eight siblings through innovative cooking.

These skills came to be quite useful as we began our journey of re-planting ourselves in a new country.

Shortly after we moved, my mother made her first trip to the ‘market’. Armed with a few precious dollars and directions from my American Grandparents, my mother, sister and I headed down the dirt road that led to town. We entered the market – a local dive market called “Luke’s” – and were confused. There were no fruits, vegetables, loaves of bread, or rounds of cheese. Instead we were faced with shiny, colorful, packages and products.

My mother – being Swiss – was persistent. She approached the young woman at the counter. At the time, my mother spoke almost no English, but she managed to convey to the woman that she was looking for “brot”. After a few exchanges, followed by a nod and a smile, the young woman directed my mother to one of the aisles, and handed her “bread”. My mother looked at the perfectly packaged block of tan, spongy squares, and eyed the woman curiously. She squeezed the airy mass through the clear plastic wrap.

“Bread”, smiled and nodded the young woman. My mother, though suspicious, made the purchase. Once back at the trailer, she unwound the metal tie around the plastic wrapping, took out a center square of the product, squeezed the center portion until compressed, and finally took a bite. Transfixed, we watched. She chewed, paused, walked to the compost and spit it out. She said she would never again buy American “bread”.

The next morning, my American Grandfather (also known as “Tex”), drove her to an actual grocery store, where she purchased 25 pounds of flour, 1 pound salt, and a bag of yeast, all in bulk. We returned to the trailer, and even though the thermometer read 101 degrees Fahrenheit (which meant little to my mother who only understood Celcius), we proceeded to help bake our first batch of “Swiss home-made bread” on our new American soil, using just these 3 ingredients, water, and a repurposed cookie sheet.

More than 35 years have past, and my mother has still never purchased a single loaf of “American bread”.

This is just one of the many ways in which my mother inspires me.

Author: Jane Newcomb

“Stems and All” is my personal journey to become a more environmentally responsible human, live a more sustainable life, and practice sustainable consuming habits.

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