Doing the Work
(by Deborah Lindsay Williams)
The other day I made dill bread. Or maybe it was last week. Hell, maybe it was last month. It’s the nine zillionth day of shelter-in-place/lockdown/quarantine, whatever you want to call it, and the passage of time has become a foggy smear. We live in the United Arab Emirates, and because of the pandemic, there will be no traveling to cooler climates this summer. Daily temperatures hover around 110 F. with 75 percent humidity and—and, as my iPhone app likes to say—a “wind chill” that sends the temperature even higher. It might seem weird to bake when it’s that hot outside, but within the uncertainty of pandemic life, the baking’s precise calibrations offer small moments of control.
The recipe for dill bread is in a big white binder that I put together when we moved to the UAE from New York almost a decade ago. In the binder are a mishmash of recipes: handwritten or emailed notes from friends and family, pages ripped from newspapers and magazines, copies of favorites from the cookbooks I couldn’t lug with us when we moved. I’d never thought of the binder as particularly personal (it’s just a binder, after all), but almost every time I take it down from the shelf, my 15-year old son says, “When you die, I’m keeping that binder.” Which is comforting, if a tad morbid.
Dill bread has been in our family for probably 50 years, but it’s not some ancient old-world secret. It’s linked instead to the world of Chicago politics back in the days of the first Mayor Daley, whose Democratic machine ran the city—and most of Illinois—from 1955 to 1976. (His son became mayor too, but without his father’s cronyism.) To be a non-Daley Democrat was a tricky business in the 1970s, but that’s where my mom put her energies. Our kitchen counter was often stacked with huge sheets of cardboard that listed all the registered voters in our neighborhood, and she would take us on her door-knocking expeditions, me trotting along on chubby toddler legs, my younger siblings in a stroller, as she tried to drum up interest in whatever progressive candidate was running.
Dick Simpson, who was running for alderman of the 44th ward in 1970, is the one who brought dill bread into our house. I remember nothing about this person, although Wikipedia tells me that he won the election, butted heads with Daley, and got an ordinance passed that helped prevent redlining. More importantly for us is that the Simpson campaign distributed a set of skinny purple folders printed on the outside with an explanation—in the form of a recipe—about why he’d be a good alderman. Inside, the folder contained recipe cards from progressive Chicago Democrats—and that’s where dill bread came from. There was also a recipe for guacamole, helpfully translated as “avocado dip.”
When I was little, the appearance of that purple folder on the counter meant that the house would be full of the scent of baking bread, and that for breakfast, I could have a piece of toasted dill bread, spread with butter. Delicious then, delicious now.
When I think about that folder now, however, what I see is that my mom was demonstrating the importance of doing the work. Bread-baking in the 1970s, before bread-making machines, before we’d all discovered the famous “no-knead” recipe, meant work: mix, rise, punch down, rise again. No shortcuts. And so too with advocating and agitating for change: As a kid, I didn’t understand the need for all the neighborhood canvassing, the endless phone calls (usually with the cord of our wall phone stretched from one end of the kitchen to the other end, so she could stir whatever was on the stove), or the receptions, bake sales, leafleting efforts. Change takes work: no shortcuts.
Whenever I tell her what a great example she set for us, she demurs, says that it wasn’t much and that others did much more. But what I see is that she did what she could with what she had: three little kids, a Don Draper-ish sort of husband, and not a ton of money.
I have that 44th ward recipe via email (in my white binder) because the card itself is now translucent with smears of butter and time, and is impossible to read. (The email ends with “eat. grin. love you. ma.”) Depending on when I’m baking, I try to call my mom (not always easy because we live nine hours apart). We always agree about how amazing it is that such an ugly dough can produce such a delicious bread—and then we talk about politics. As an expat in the Emirates, there’s no opportunity to be involved with local politics, but because I am my mother’s daughter, I’ve done text-banking for U.S. gun-law advocacy, helped first-time voters register through Democrats Abroad, raised a little bit of money for MSF (Doctors Without Borders): not much but something.
I hope, somehow, that my kids will get the same message from my white binder of recipes: Do what you can with what you have.
Deborah Lindsay Williams is a writer and Clinical Associate Professor of the Literature and Creative Writing Program at New York University/Abu Dhabi. She can be found at clippings.me/debwilliams.
1 package dry yeast
1/4 c. warm water
1 c. cottage cheese
1 egg, at room temperature
2 T. sugar
1 T. minced white or green onion
2 t. dill seed or dried dill
1 t. salt
1/4 t. baking soda
1 T. butter, softened
2 1/4 – 2 1/2 c. flour
additional softened butter for brushing
Soften yeast in warm water, and let stand 10 minutes.
In a small pan, heat cottage cheese to lukewarm.
In a large bowl, combine dissolved yeast, egg, sugar, onion, dill, 1 t. salt, and baking soda.
Stir in warm cottage cheese and softened butter, mixing thoroughly.
Add flour, about 1/2 c. at a time, beating well after each addition.
The dough will be shaggy and sticky.
Cover with a lightly moistened cloth and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour.
Punch down and turn dough into a greased 2-qt. casserole or 9 x 5 loaf pan.
Cover and let rise again until doubled.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Bake for 35 – 40 minutes, or until the top is nicely browned and the bottom sounds hollow
Brush with additional softened butter and sprinkle with salt.
Cool for 10 minutes before removing from pan.