Sunday, September 21, 2014

Give us this day our daily bread

Do you know that the origins of this favourite food is about 7,500 years old?  Our Stone Age ancestors used to crush barley and wheat  on stone and make solid cakes. Ancient Egyptian tombs contained loaves of bread and rolls. Greeks and Romans accepted bread as a staple food. Bread and wheat were especially important in Rome and considered  more important than meat. Leavened and unleavened bread  is mentioned in the Bible. The cylindrical clay oven was developed by the Egyptians to improve bread making techniques. Other civilisations such as the Incas, American Indians and Asian, Indian and African cultures were also experimenting with bread making.

A Bakers' Guild was formed in Rome round about the year 168 BC. The bakers in Rome at this period enjoyed special privileges. The members of the Guild were forbidden to mix with 'comedians and gladiators' and from attending performances at the amphitheater, so that they might not be contaminated by the vices of the ordinary people! 
The Guild of Master Bakers is still alive today.

In Chennai, my ma-in-law was expert at producing bread snacks, a skill I absorbed from her.  Bread was then not easily available, and one had to buy bread from Spencers, Mc Rennet or Adyar Bakery. Spencers closed down its unit in the eighties, but they do have a long history of bread making, going way back to 1911 in Madras.

Modern Bakery came much later, and at the time could not compete with the other breads in terms of texture and taste. A bakery which made , incredibly soft white bread was Verghese & Sons Bakery with its main supply store in CP Ramaswamy Iyer Road. Being fond of bread as a family, the Bakery would supply us a loaf of bread every day or more if we needed it.. One find day our bread man stopped his deliveries. We waited for months but there was no signs of him. A visit to their  head office confirmed our fears. The place was sold and the legendary Verghese and Sons Bakery had closed down.

Many women of my generation begin to bake bread at home at least the more enterprising of us.. We could change the flavour, spice it with herbs or spike it with pepper, or add nutrients like bran, soya flour etc.. In the sixties yeast was not easily available. We could get tinned yeast in granule form which didn’t work well most times. What was best was bakers yeast from the bakeries, which could not be kept for long. Though the loaves might be denser than the ones from the bakeries, the quality of home baked breads were assured, and  the joy of seeing your own bread taking shape was something.  .

Bread is available today in so many avatars. You get seven grain bread, whole wheat bread, bread with rye etc in supermarkets like Niligiris, and you can have a nutritious bread of your choice in places like Amethyst, Hot Bread chain stores or French Loaf. The clubs bake excellent bread, we pick up brown bread from the Gymkhana Club regularly. The Madras Club offers excellent bread for sandwiches, which is their speciality.

Today I have acquired a bread machine which I bought in the US.  It is a boon and you can experiment with all kinds of bread. I add kothimili or methi leaves for flavour or make it a sweet bread  with molasses and egg. You just place the ingredients in the order specified in the book, and close the lid and switch on. The machine kneads the flour, rests the dough and then bakes the bread, but it takes anywhere between 2 ½ hours to 4 hours.

Bread is versatile in its various forms…you use it to mop up curries or stews, toasted it forms ideal  accompaniment to soups, and it forms a base for delicious toppings Bread can be dried and used for crumbs, and left over bread can be used for puddings. For the tiffin box, I used to make bread bombs, bread dipped into water and squeezed, flattened, and stuffing placed in them and deep fried. I would toast the bread and make imaginative toppings for tea time. Or grind a green masala, blend it into beaten egg with some milk, dip the bread slices and fry with a little oil. Add a blob of tomato ketchup over each slice and serve hot!

We have bread once a week for breakfast and serve scrambled eggs on toast, a spicy Spanish omelette or just sunny side up! What a versatile food, and a great substitute when you don’t feel like having rice or chapattis.

Happy bread day!







I have stopped saying,  “Wish you a long and happy life” for anyone’s birthday.  Happy yes, but long?  Instead it is better to wish  good health and peace of mind for the coming years. The life span in India was around 65, when people  died peacefully at home with the family around them. Today thanks to technological advancements and the wonder of surgery, life is prolonged and it is quite common to hear of people living well into their nineties and touch the score of “100 not out”!

When children nurture their parents, with loving care, they remain in fairly good health. Even if  they fall seriously ill, they get bailed out and resume their normal lives.  What one should examine is the quality of life led by senior citizens.  If they are lingering, besieged with ill health, dogged by mobility problems, lonely and without family around them the long life they have been blessed with is certainly not rewarding. The “children” who are caregivers, are themselves elderly with their own health problems,  and find it difficult to physically care for their aged parents.

Unable to handle finances themselves, the aged parents hand them over to their children, keeping “a little something” for themselves.  Unfortunately a little something is not enough to keep going, and as a result, it is the children who finally have to shell out enormous amounts of money to pay hospital bills, and the guilt syndrome compounds the burden of old age.  What then is the answer?

Medical insurance is a necessity, taken when one is in good health. The premium increases as you grow older, but believe me it is worth it. A major surgery and a weeks stay at a good hospital, cost Manorama  a tidy sum of ₹ 2 ½ lakhs and since she was in her nineties she had no insurance cover. Rangarajan her cousin, in his eighties, had a successful orthopaedic surgery, but developed post operative complications, which forced him to stay over three weeks in hospital costing him ₹ 3 ½ lakhs. Home nursing, or even trained help, costs about ₹ 350-400 per day for one shift, and the attenders will not do anything more than look after the patient. Full time maids are a thing of the past.

Setting aside money to cover contingencies is not an extravagance. Just think of it as money spent and not available to you. This way the health deposit will earn compound interest and comes in handy in times of crisis.  Not all of us can afford to put away a large sum of money.  Here is when understanding children can contribute to the fund which in turn will help them deal with the situation. Better this than buying unwanted gizmos like i pads, smart phones and gadgets which are redundant as they don’t know how to use them. This again is a sensitive issue, and none of us really wish to go to our children with begging bowls! Old age is layered with ifs and buts, without any guarantees that everything will turn out fine, but at least one can plan and hope for the best. When we are flush with youth, energy and success, old age with its attendant problems seems too far away to be of concern, and when the wave hits you, it is too late to retract or start the planning.

Retirement homes are now possible without any of the stigmas that were previously attached to them. It just means change of residence, often to the outskirts of the city you live in, and sometimes to another area entirely. The challenge of  compromise and giving up the old style of living falls on the elderly. Imagine a life without wondering if your maid/cook/driver will turn up! Or having to worry about what to cook and how to get to the hospital or bank! One drawback is that you live with a community of old people without the young to walk in and out to rejuvenate  lives.

This led me to start a voluntary organisation called Udhavi. I formed a core group of dedicated volunteers, drawn from our circle of friends, and a couple of them are also Club members. We offer assisted living.  Our spotlight is on  the elderly who live on their own without their children, most of them living abroad. Udhavi offers visits to people, conversing with them, offering to accompany them to the bank or shopping, maybe a movie, and teaching them small skills like computer lessons etc. We do not take up household work.

With the alarming reports of old people being murdered for financial gain, the elderly who need help are withdrawn, and they would rather suffer than let strangers into their home. Amazingly volunteers have poured in, but we have been judicious in selecting them. Regardless of status we  go in for police verification so that we safeguard the elderly and assure them that this is done. We have trained about 40 volunteers, each  ready to offer  help  and many of them seniors themselves.

Another important aspect is that we are preparing a data base of home nursing facilities visiting doctors etc. Udhavi is still in its infancy, but we plan to go ahead full steam, and are planning seminars and workshops, and making life meaningful for the old and the infirm, and none of them need to  feel a low sense of worth, but need to squeeze every drop of happiness that is legitimately theirs.

We might merely scratch the surface, but even if we light up 10 lives for the year, it gives us a great sense of fulfilment.


Sabita Radhakrishna