“Excuse me? We’re not doing carbs,” the woman said. She handed the basket of rolls back to the waitress without looking at her, hardly pausing in the story she was telling about her latest trip to Cabo.
Her companion shuddered, eyes averted from the basket being whisked away, and when the story was done, loudly commented that people should ask before they shoved bread in your face. If the salads weren’t so good, she would never come to a place that tried to force feed you carbs like that.
At the next table, a woman who had been eavesdropping, since she and her husband were thinking about taking a cruise, snorted. The woman who had been talking about Cabo glared over at her. She looked at the roll the other woman had just buttered, then raked her up and down and smirked. She turned back to her friend and the story about how her bikini top had come untied.
The woman holding the roll stared at their flat abs and glossy hair, the rings that flashed on their fingers, the gleam of their manicures. The woman sighed and gave the roll to her husband, who ate it and another, while she edged the basket further away from herself, full of longing and guilt.
But when the waiter came to ask if they wanted a box for their leftovers, the woman suddenly straightened. She looked around. She looked at the crumbs that were all her husband had left in the basket.
“Could we get some bread to take home, too?” she asked.
“Of course!” The waiter glanced at the other table. “We have plenty of bread today, I would hate for it to go stale.”
“Thank you,” she said sweetly. “I just don’t think this salmon tastes as good without some fresh buttered bread.”
After the waiter left to bring them more, her husband turned to her.
“But you didn’t eat any bread,” he said, confused.
“Shhh, don’t worry about it,” his wife said with a smile.
“Aw, I used to love the pancakes here,” the teenager said. She pointed to the rows of syrups lined up in their tray. “Remember trying them all? One for each pancake!”
“Blueberry is the best,” her friend said wisely.
She picked up the little pitcher of blueberry and made the lid open and close over the spout like a mouth. When she put it down, her hand was sticky and she used three napkins trying to get it clean.
“But look at me now,” the teenager said, pointing to her egg white omelet. “I’ve become everything I hate! Spinach! Mushrooms! Blech!”
“This is exactly what my mom would order,” her friend agreed. She hesitated, feeling very daring. “What if . . . we got an order of pancakes and shared them?”
The teenager shrieked in horror. “Can you imagine? I haven’t had gluten since my sophomore year! It would be terrible!”
“But, do you have celiac?” her friend asked, puzzled.
“Of course not.”
“Should we save these bananas?” the mother asked.
“No,” her daughter said, nose wrinkled. “They’re all brown and gross.”
“I could make banana bread. I used to have a recipe. I’m sure I could find it.”
“Is that a dessert?” her daughter asked. “I thought we only had dessert on Saturdays.” Realizing her own mistake, she hurried to say. “But it’s a bread though, not a cake. So it wouldn’t really be dessert.”
“No, you’re right,” the mother said. “The recipe calls for chocolate chips. We would have to wait until Saturday, and these will be far too gross by then.”
The mother threw the bananas in the garbage.
“I cannot believe we had to cancel our cruise,” the woman said, glimmers of light dancing off the rings on her free hand as she gestured in annoyance. “I mean, what even is a pandemic? And wouldn’t we be safest on a boat in the middle of the ocean?”
“Tell me about it,” her friend said. “We’re supposed to be on a secluded island with only, like, five people there to take care of us at the beach house. How could we get sick?”
“And what am I supposed to do with my kids all day? They only need to spend two hours playing math games on the laptop, and then they’re done with virtual school!” the woman said. “And what am I supposed to feed them? They always ate school lunch; and we’re not supposed to go out to eat!”
“It’s the worst,” her friend agreed. “Three times a day, I have to find food in the house to feed them, and they hate kale and grilled chicken breast.”
“My kids asked for peanut butter and jelly!” The woman commiserated. “Do we even have peanut butter? I told them to look at the school menu and see what they would actually be having for lunch. I cannot imagine with all the allergies kids have that they would be serving peanut butter at school, and they weren’t. They were supposed to be having a burrito. I have no idea how to make a burrito!”
“Stop it, you’ll just make me hungry for those amazing taco salads we had last week,” her friend complained.
“If I had known this was going to happen, I would have ordered, like, so many more and put them in the freezer,” the woman said. “Can you freeze a salad?” She paused. “I wonder what even is in our freezer? Do you think we have any burritos in there?”
“I hope I do,” her friend said. “Or at least some tortillas. We don’t even have bread, let alone peanut butter!”
“My grandmother used to bake her own bread,” the woman mused. “In fact, when we got married, she gave us all the things you need: the mixer, the pans, everything! She said the key to a successful marriage was never letting your husband eat something from the store that you should have baked yourself!”
“I know, right?” the woman said. “But I still have the mixer . . . I wonder if I still have the pans?”
“Moooom. MOM! Moth-er!”
“What am I supposed to eat? You said I couldn’t go out with any of my friends! There’s no food in this house!”
“Make yourself a sandwich,” the teenager’s mother called from her office. “I’m trying to work!”
“A sandwich? With what?”
“This bread is stale!”
“Young lady, I am about to start a video call! Make yourself some food and be quiet!” A pause, and then a whisper shout, “And make lunch for your brother, too!”
The teenager sighed and looked at her little brother. He was playing on a tablet that was strictly for school. She didn’t remember learning to maneuver a blocky Disney character across a road when she was in fourth grade.
“What do you want to eat?” she asked him. She knew how to scramble eggs. And she could probably wash some grapes if they had any.
“I wanna samwich,” he said without looking up from the tablet.
“This bread is gross!” She made another lap around the kitchen. “What about eggs?”
“We’re out. Also, don’t use too much toilet paper,” he said.
He shrugged, and a blocky blue character shaped vaguely like a genie dodged a cart of melons.
“Use the bread from the porch,” he said.
“What bread from the porch?”
“I dunno, when I let the dog out there was bread on the porch,” he said.
“Where is it now?”
She went to the door and found a beautiful crusty loaf of sourdough bread and a jar of pale goo. There was an anonymous note of instructions about the care and feeding of the goo, which turned out to be a “sourdough starter.” The teenager put the jar and the instructions in the garbage—like they had time to take care of a jar of goo! and made herself and her brother sandwiches.
The bread was still warm.
The bread was delicious.
“That was amazing!” she said, licking honey off her fingers.
“I want more!”
“We have to save it,” she said. “For mom. And like, tomorrow’s lunch.”
“We’ll just make more,” he said.
She took the jar and the instructions out of the garbage and wiped some honey off the paper.
“Does it count as math?” her brother asked, hopeful.
“Yes,” she said decisively. “Also science.”
The girl looked critically at the recipe. “We’re not Amish, though. Is this like, offensive to their religion?”
“I don’t think it’s actually Amish,” the mother said. She squished the gallon-sized Ziploc bag that had appeared on their doorstep that morning. “There aren’t any Amish around here, I doubt they would cross the mountains in their buggies just to drop off a bread starter. And I don’t think Amish people use baggies. Or printers.” She pointed to the clip-art decorated paper that had come with it. “But we won’t be able to bake it for over a week.”
“Also, it says to use vanilla pudding,” the daughter said. “That’s boring. Do we even have vanilla pudding?”
“There’s no reason why we can’t use other flavors,” her mother said, looking in the cupboard. “We have chocolate. And banana-flavored.”
“We could add chocolate chips,” the daughter said, with a little more enthusiasm.
“That would be much tastier,” her mother agreed. “As long as we don’t forget to mix it and add to it this week.”
“Like we have literally anything else to do.”
Her mother frowned. “I hope it doesn’t die. I had something like this a long time ago, a neighbor gave it to me. But it died.”
“It says not to use a metal whisk to stir,” the daughter said, looking at the instructions. “That shouldn’t be too hard.
“Oh, and we have to separate it and pass some along.”
“You can doorbell ditch the neighbors,” her mother said. “It will give you something exciting to do!”
“Will they want an Amish bread starter?”
“If they don’t, they can just throw it away.”
“Thank heavens we’re not going to Cabo now,” the woman said, phone clamped between ear and shoulder, a gallon of whole milk in one hand.
She kicked the door of her fridge closed with one bare foot. She needed a pedicure, and wondered vaguely if she should try and do it herself, or just let one of her daughters paint her toenails. Hazel had been asking to do it for weeks, and it wasn’t like anyone would see them.
“But you love Cabo,” her friend said on the phone.
“Oh, I do, I do,” the woman agreed. “But then I think of my dough starters! Who would take care of them? It’s easy to find someone to dog sit, but have you ever heard of a doughsitter?” She laughed. “And I’ve got the sourdough and the sweet one, for Amish bread now, too.”
“Oh, who gave you the Amish bread?” her friend said, jealous. “I’ve only got sourdough going. A friend said she’s doing Maori bread, which is kind of sweet, and that she would drop some off for me.”
“I don’t remember where the Amish bread came from,” the woman said. “But it’s the kids’ favorite. I use canned pumpkin instead of oil, super healthy even with the chocolate chips. I’ll get you some on the next dividing day.”
“Oh, you’re a sweetheart! My kids will go crazy for that,” her friend squealed. “And I’ll ask for a Maori bread starter for you, too!”
“Fabulous!” The woman said. “I’d better go, I’ve got to get a cup of milk, a cup of flour, and a cup of sugar into this baggie and give it a good squeeze!”
“Have fun! Byeee!”
“Honey, how did you make these pancakes? We’re out of Bisquick.”
“Bisquick? Please!” The teenager rolled her eyes, and her little brother grinned.
“We don’t do mixes,” he said. “These are sourdough blueberry pancakes with vanilla syrup.”
The teenager high-fived her brother.
“The next time you make a grocery store run,” the teenager told her mother. “I need fresh blueberries—these are frozen and I’m not sure I like them—and agave syrup.”
“Oh, okay,” her mother said, stunned. “Do you want to come? You could help me to drop some of this off at your friend’s house.”
“Huh,” the teenager said. Her brother groaned. “Well, we gave her some of our starter last week, and she’s already killed it. I’m not sure I want to trust her again just yet.”
“We could give her some bread,” her brother said generously. “One of the loaves yesterday was kind of small.”
“Yeah, maybe,” the teenager said. “I still can’t believe she lost the instructions, though. I mean, did she even look for them on Pinterest?”
“Oh,” the little brother said. “We need raisins! I just pinned a new recipe to our board. Cinnamon raisin sourdough bread!”
“Oh, what flavor is this?”
“I don’t know, was it pink?” the girl looked at her father, who had put the whole piece in his mouth.
“I can’t remember,” he said thickly.
“Well,” the girl said. “The pink ones are strawberry milkshake. The brown loaves are chocolate banana. The ones that look like plain vanilla are coconut cheesecake.”
“I love having a project,” her mother said, coming into the kitchen. “Are you ready to divide the starter and wrap some of the loaves?”
“Yes,” her daughter said. “We’ll have to drive for a ways, though. I think we’ve given starter to everyone in the neighborhood, and if we haven’t, then someone else has by now.”
“Hmmm, should we try and drop some off on the other side of the school?” Her mother said, eyeing the bags of batter, the six—well, five and a half—loaves. “What about your math teacher? Doesn’t he live in that blue house with the flagpole?”
“Already got him,” the daughter said. “It doesn’t matter if we know them, though. I’m just going to knock and then run. We could drop them anywhere.”
“That’s true,” the mother said. “I’m sure anyone would be happy to have a treat and a bread starter.”
“Who doesn’t love bread?” the father said, putting a piece of chocolate banana in his mouth. “This stuff is amazing!”
The woman buttered a roll and handed it to her husband. She picked up another and buttered it for herself. She hummed a little tune, happy and content.
“Just one more roll,” she said to her husband. “Then I need to do some drop offs.”
“Make sure you keep some of each for us!” Her husband said, and popped the last of his roll into his mouth, eyes closed with pleasure.
“Of course! But there’s plenty to go around,” the woman said.
On the kitchen counter, in neat ranks ready to be loaded into the car and driven to their new homes, were glas jars of sourdough and Maori starter, gallon bags of Amish sweet bread starter. An air bubble popped in one of the bags, with a happy gurgle. The woman licked her finger and picked up a crumb from the table, putting it in her mouth with a contented sigh.