Cinnamon Rolls, Banana Bread, and Peanut Butter Bars:
The Tradition of Giving
I vividly remember walking the five blocks home from Rigby High School and being so hungry and tired that I could not wait to get home and have a snack and take a nap. I walked through the back door, and more often than not, I was greeted by the smell of fresh bread, cookies, cinnamon rolls, or soup. This was a regular occurrence, one which consistently meant two things: Mom was baking and someone in our small community needed Mom’s service.
More than twenty-five years later, nothing much has changed except that two more generations in my family have also picked up the traditions of cooking and serving. I bake cookies, banana bread, or make fresh salsa and deliver these to neighbors, the college students I teach, colleagues, and members of my church congregation. Likewise, my daughters make desserts, soups, and salads. My mother is still baking goodies, particularly cinnamon rolls, for anyone in need – whether the need be physical, spiritual, or emotional.
Most women, whether they work inside or outside their homes, know that actions speak louder than words. I am a folklorist by profession and so over and over again I ask women around me questions, trying to discover what drives them to serve and to create. One everyday aspect of a woman’s life is the connection between serving food and serving others. Many women explained that preparing food, and also sharing this, is a sacred act – one of giving of themselves.
One way women give is in the sharing of food items – cookies, zucchini bread, sourdough rolls, jam, garden vegetables. These take on new meanings as they go from one hand to another, as the motivation of the giver and the response of the receiver are of one heart. My sister-in-law, Kristin, said that sharing food with one in need can be one way of saying, “Let me worry about the mundane; you worry about what is going on.”
For generations women have been encouraged to make each others' lives a bit more smooth by sharing of their time and energy, and being considerate of the needs of others. Friend, Shirlene, wrote, “I loved it when my mom took food into another home, because she always made enough for our family too! I think that’s important to do. As a child I felt my mother was serving her own family also. And it made me feel special along with the family she was serving.” Neighbor, JoAnne, told me that her “desire to serve is the motivation” for caring for others. Young friend, Natalie, two generations younger than JoAnne, makes a similar statement when she writes that sharing comes, “mostly because you feel gratitude for what you have, so you feel like you should help others.”
I bake muffins. My mother bakes bread; my daughter bakes brownies. We all give a portion away, because my mother’s mother, Geneve Jensen, said that if you wanted food to go further and taste better, you must give some away – that fishes and loaves adage. My mother, me, my daughters, my friends, my sisters – we give of ourselves. The women of my family all carry the distinctiveness of being “someone who shares.” As well, food is a reflection of the definition we assign ourselves. Mother can be defined by her great bread and making a little go a long ways, Sheri – her creative cooking, Maria – her down-to-earth wholesome and hardy food, and I’m known for taking a recipe and making it my own. However, all “Walker Women” have a reputation for their baking and cooking abilities. I’ve even heard, “Oh, Walker food, you’re lucky!”
As a child, I learned to cook “helping” Mom by stirring the batter for pancakes, tearing lettuce for a salad, or measuring water for a pan of spaghetti noodles. I saw my mother serve her family – daily she committed acts of service as she “served” her own family, whether on paper plates with deli sandwiches or on Sunday china complete with roast beef, mashed potatoes, and homemade rolls. I also began to learn about service when, as the first batch of Cowboy Chocolate Chip Cookies came out of the oven, I watched my mother put them on a plate, still warm, and ask me, “Run these over to the Dinsdale’s, I know the boys love these cookies.” And in turn, eating Mrs. Dinsdale’s cookies, sent in the same manner. As a young mother, I repeated those same acts – what I had learned at home, and I began to teach and reproduce this process with my own children, “Please take this plate of Peanut Butter Bars over to Mike and Barb, tell them thank you for being our neighbors,” and “Let’s go pick some tomatoes from the garden and take a bag to Jordan’s; they don’t have a garden this year.” Neighbor, Kaye, wrote that she believed the food she makes for her family and friends is a source of comfort for them. She shared, “They know I make it with love.”
The food made feeds our bodies; it serves a practical purpose, but the stories and people behind the recipes and the food feed our souls. The recipes are physical, tangible reminders which trigger memories, thoughts, and ideas. This becomes apparent in a poem written by Virginia Newman in 1962, and published in the “Relief Society Magazine,”
“No Half Loaf, This”
Friendly were the words you said,
Tendering the loaf of bread,
Oven warm and savory;
How much that gesture meant to me,
Almost a stranger, lonely too,
And gladdened by the sight of you.
I would repay you if I could.
Oh yes, the bread was extra good.
(I’d like the recipe some day.)
But let me ask you if I may,
How you acquired the finer art
Of nourishing the hungry heart?
I never had the knack, somehow.
(I’d like that recipe right now.)
Many of the women I have spoken with shared that giving food is their way of saying, “I love you,” “I care about you,” “I’m thinking of you,” “I want to celebrate you.” Young mother, Megan, writes that one evening her friends offered to bring her family dinner. “They brought sandwiches from Subway. It wasn’t hard, but it showed they cared, and it helped ease our burden after a long day.”
Friend, Holly, shared that giving of herself, her food, was relatively easy, “I don’t think [twice] about making an extra casserole or a cake or whatever while I’m already in the mess.” College student, Noelle, shares this about the time she was the recipient of food, “When I broke my elbow some of my neighbors showed up at my apartment with cookies. It touched me, even though the gift was not a meal. It was nice of them, and I felt like they truly cared.” Sharing of food often means the sharing of both the fruits of one’s hands, and often, the offering of one’s heart – and it is a safe way to cross boundaries without the fear of being rejected. My sister, Maria, mentioned, “I think when you do cook for someone else it gives you a sense of sharing yourself with them that isn’t too encroaching, but maybe it will open the doors if there is more of a need there than what meets the eye.”
Today the pattern of serving others, with food, plays forth because of repetition, imitation, and adaption. Traditions do change, but this adaption keeps the tradition of giving of oneself through service, via food or otherwise – alive. However, gifts of food have changed over time. We may not be sharing casseroles and home-made bread, but instead a plate of bakery cookies made from frozen cookie dough, or even store-bought rolls and deli salads. Yet giving or receiving, whether it is homemade bread or a bag of fresh garden vegetables, is still appreciated, and this has not gone out of style. My friend, Anne, explains, when writing that she believes service among women is genetic, “Maybe even the DNA; we all seem to know how and to know what it means!” Yes – I tend to agree – this notion of giving is deep in me.
I have the blessing of living next to my parents. I watch my mother as she bakes and delivers rolls, bread, muffins, desserts, garden vegetables to her neighbors (I’m so glad I’m her neighbor!), and my daily meals are now my in-laws meals as well; I don’t think twice about this – the sharing and the receiving, this all is a part of who I am. And the beauty of this “deep in my bones” type of service is that my children are doing likewise – Jenna makes wonderful salsas and main dishes, and her photos of food make my mouth water. Meili makes desserts that are creative, tasty, and beautiful, and she is teaching her three-year old daughter (my beautiful grand-daughter, [almost 7]) to see time spent in the kitchen as time for togetherness, enjoyment, and an opportunity to bless someone’s life. We do this all without a second thought, and often we cook, serve, and share, together.
Nonetheless, because of my grandmother and mother, I have learned that sharing food is the ultimate act of serving – and that receiving is the ultimate gift. Mom, thank you – for teaching me how to cook and how to serve. And rest assured that this process will continue – for generations to come.
Tyli summer of 2008, cutting grapes for a relish tray.