A couple of weeks ago, after some 20 years of effort, I finally secured a starter for Amish Friendship Bread. (Actually, “effort” might be too strong a word, since my exertions consisted primarily of watching languid thoughts meander across my brain: “Wonder if someone will ever offer me a starter for Amish Friendship Bread?”)
I’d first encountered Amish Friendship Bread when someone gave a loaf to my grandmother, and other family members had received loaves over the years. The concept was fascinating: The loaf began as a starter consisting of soured dough. The starter, filled with living cultures and bacteria and God knows what else, functioned as the leavening agent. You had to “feed” it to keep it alive, and as it grew you passed the excess along to your friends–hence the name “Friendship Bread.” Legend has it that the starter originally came from the Amish, who passed it around their community along with the recipe. But someone in the community obviously let the secret slip, and before they knew it people like me, who couldn’t even harness a buggy, were wanting to make it.
Once, in my late 20s, I asked my Granny about a loaf she’d received. “How do you make the starter?” I said.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “Someone has to give it to you.”
“But how does that person make it?”
“Well, they get it from someone else.”
“But someone HAS to know how to make the starter.”
“I don’t know,” Granny repeated. “I’ve always just heard you had to get the starter from someone. I guess it’s a secret.”
“But it has to start somewhere.”
“I think you have to have a friend give it to you,” Granny replied, probably worrying, “And how will she find any with questions like these?” quietly to herself.
I gave up. I was in grad school, and we didn’t hang around with the kind of people who gave loaves of friendship bread to each other. That was for women who made crafts and attended PTA meetings. My friends wore black, hung out in smelly coffee houses, and believed that literary theorists like us were well on our way to eliminating war, hunger, and racism. Or at least to offering a scathing critique of those who were trying.
And then there was the problem of the bread itself. Resembling a forlorn, sunken loaf of bleached banana bread, it tasted like a gluey, sickeningly sweet cross between a liquified cinnamon roll and a week-old birthday cake from the supermarket. I was able to choke down no more than a slice or two before I had to throw out the remainder of what my Granny gave me.
Still, I longed for a starter of my own. I wanted a Foucault-loving friend who would show up on the door of my apartment in a black turtleneck, a cigarette dangling from her lips, and hand over a loaf of Friendship Bread with a starter in a hand-crafted wooden bowl with the recipe carved on the side. But that friend never materialized, and my desire for starter went the same way as my plans to take the Orient Express clear through to China and marry George Clooney.
And then just the other day Carol in my office piped up, “Would you like a starter for Amish Friendship Bread?”
Would I like to marry George Clooney? (Wait. I can’t answer that question in the same way anymore. Let’s rephrase.) Do I think Fred Wise is the best husband on earth? And so I eagerly awaited the arrival of my starter, in its wooden bowl covered with a towel and accompanied by a hand-lettered recipe on a home-calligraphied index card.
I was a little surprised, a few days later, to find a Ziploc bag on my office chair, filled with what appeared to be yellowish glue, with a two-page computer printout from the Internet taped to the side. The instructions told me to “mash the bag” every day for 5 days, add 1 cup plain flour, 1 cup sugar, and 1 cup milk on day 6, and mash the bag again every day until day 10. On that day I was to create more starter by adding flour, sugar, and milk to the bag, separating the starter into more plastic bags for my friends, and then baking a loaf of bread that included “1 lrg. Box instant vanilla or choc. Pudding” in its ingredients.
Experience with Microsoft AutoCorrect suggests that the errant capitals here don’t stem from an 18th-century love of creative spelling, and I have a strong suspicion that you won’t find “instant” anything in most Amish kitchens. Still, I believe in my Friendship Bread. Ignoring the “friendship” part by hoarding every new bit of starter for myself, I’ve embarked on a new project to create a recipe that I will actually like. As I type this, several bags of starter lurk about the kitchen–enough to make 32 loaves of bread.
There have been two failures so far, one an apple-cinnamon version and a whole-wheat variety that was good warm but tasted like sawdust once it had cooled. But there was also a very successful apple-black walnut bread, and two new whole-wheat versions have just emerged from the oven. I will post recipes as soon as I get the starter thing figured out. I’ll have to find an Amish lady. Or check the Internet.