Most of us encounter smells and tastes and sounds that immediately transport us back in time. We don’t even realize it, but there we are. If I catch a whiff of Old Spice, I am a 10-year-old girl again, talking with my Papa Bill seated in his fake leather yellow recliner chair and listening to talk shows on his AM radio If I hear the song Purple Rain, I am with Beth Storey, a high school friend, driving around in her muscle-type car and singing at the top of our lungs. And if I take a bite of my mother’s homemade molasses bread, I am on Prudence Island. Just like that.
My mother’s homemade bread is actually not my mother’s recipe. It came from Kay Sullivan, the wife of my father’s first cousin Bob. Since my father was an only child, Bob and Kay were more like an uncle and aunt to us. The Sullivan family (two parents and eight kids and always a dog and cat, and sometimes a pig) lived next door to us for many years. Kay was one of my mother’s most trusted confidants.
My mother was 34 when she moved to Hingham to help take care of her father-in-law. She didn’t want to move into my father’s childhood home. She had three children under the age of 10, with another almost on the way. And let’s just say the house, built in 1727, needed some work.
My mother tells the story of coming to visit shortly before they moved in and finding Papa Bill seated in the kitchen with bowls and buckets strategically placed around the kitchen floor to catch the rain coming through the roof. “Well, we have a little problem Alice,” he said.
Kay embraced my mother from the very beginning. My mother says Kay was a more easy-going parent than she was and she tried to follow her example and roll with the punches better. What I remember most about Kay is her laugh. She had a hearty laugh, the kind of laugh done with conviction. My mother and Kay used to take walks together. Not so much to improve their physical health, but more their mental one. It is important to have people in your life you can vent to without judgment, especially when you become a mother and feel overwhelmed, which happens on occasion. My mother said she had that with Kay.
Now back to the molasses bread. Kay came to visit my mother on Prudence Island and spotted an old-fashioned bread maker in our shed left by the previous owners.
My mother thought it was an ice cream maker. Kay said she had a recipe that my mother could use to test it out some day. And so she did. Many, many times in fact.
My mother would often enlist our help in kneading the dough before it went into the oven. We were supposed to get out our frustrations as we punched. I can remember pounding the dough with my fists, “Mr. Keating, why did you give us so much homework?” and thinking I was the funniest person to ever walk the planet.
Our kitchen on Prudence Island was tiny. The laminate-covered counter where my mother did all her cooking measured probably 3 feet across; that may be generous. But my mother cooked amazing meals in that tiny space with an antiquated gas oven. She didn’t need high-end stainless steel appliances. Her “can-do” attitude was her secret ingredient. It always has been.
My favorite way to eat the molasses bread was hot out of the oven and covered with my mother’s homemade blackberry jam, made from picked berries growing wild on Prudence Island. You know the scene toward the end of the movie Ratatouille when the dour food critic takes a bite of the vegetable dish referenced in the title? The flavors trigger a flashback to him as a sweet little boy, standing in his mother’s kitchen, soothed and loved. Homemade molasses bread is my ratatouille.
These days my sister Kathleen is the keeper of the recipe, so to speak. She often hands out loaves of molasses bread as Christmas presents to grateful friends and relatives. When she was first married my mother gave her an old-fashioned bread maker for Christmas. She is a talented cook and she recently agreed to help show me the steps. I would share her recipe, but Kathleen tends to tweak/improvise and I would be afraid I might miss a step. But if you ask nicely, I bet she would make you a loaf.
NOTE: My original intent was to spend one year living more like my mother but I have too much left on my original list. I think I might need two years. Maybe three.