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The Men's Bread Club

December 20, 1998|ROB GAUTHIER | TIMES STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The idea of baking Christmas bread for friends and family started innocently enough for Harlan Kline. Kline, a chemist, had tinkered for a couple of years with a few bread recipes he baked as gifts for friends at his church. But when he invited some buddies to help with the baking on Christmas Eve more than 30 years ago, he had no inkling that he was starting a rowdy holiday tradition.

By 1976, the men of Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church in Diamond Bar came to think of the morning of Christmas Eve as baking day. And baking day for this group of men means not only gathering to mix flour and water, but sharing cigars, Scotch and lively conversation. It's a time to check in with each other and see how everyone's lives are going. It's a day that for more than 30 years has reflected the lives of four men in their prime, the group's core members: Howard Knipple, Gene Eckenstam, Ted Meyers and Kline.

As Kline's son-in-law, I've attended the event sporadically for the last few years. Last year, armed with my cameras and a tape recorder, I went in search of the deeper meaning of "baking day."

Kline, now 63, isn't sure why only men participate, but he believes it amounts to something like the guys getting together for a fishing trip. They just did it, not really thinking about what would evolve.

"We see each other, for the most part, once a week, on Sundays," Kline says of baking day's evolution. "[But] to me, this has always been a special time of doing something together."

The day is so important to Kline that, after suffering a heart attack in early December 1995, he refused to cancel that year's baking day. "It became more important for me to be able to do this," he says. "With all the major changes that I made [giving up smoking and alcohol, changing his diet], it let me know that I was going to be all right and I could continue living."

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"It was more fun in the beginning when we were younger," says Ted Meyers, who has been the church's pastor for nearly 30 years. "We didn't have arthritic hands and everyone could drink."

With the cool light of morning glowing through the dining room window, Meyers, who also works as director of mental health for a group home, reflects on how members of the baking group have changed. "As we've gotten older, the stresses in our lives have changed. I used to come to this thing pretty harried," he says. "I was tired and there were always a lot of things to do." These days, Meyers arrives more relaxed.

Toiling over large bowls, Meyers and Knipple mix flour, yeast, eggs, sugar, milk and butter, whisking hard while trading quips about their age and stamina. Greg Moses and Todd Eckenstam, members of the second generation, also toil. As a rite of initiation, the newest bakers must perform the most tedious job: crushing cardamom. Since I'm taking pictures, I'm excused and the job falls to Sonny Kothari, Kline's other son-in-law. Using a small marble mortar, Kothari works up a sweat grinding with a wooden pestle until the spice seeds are finely crushed. When I lift my camera to take his picture, his smile comes grudgingly.

Huge piles of dough are covered with towels and left to rise on the kitchen floor, to take advantage of the warm air circulated by the refrigerator. Nearby, Kline prepares the filling ingredients for Christmas wreathes. He mixes butter, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, raisins, cardamom and chopped walnuts. His house is now full of warmth and energy. Four generations of family come and go.

His 84-year-old mother, Arlene--the only woman to grace the group--watches over the proceedings and is consulted on every detail. Arlene, known to all as Nana, lives in Kutztown, Penn., but she spends her winters in warm Southern California and has guided her son's culinary efforts from the beginning.

Kline's grandson, Alex Gauthier, 7, rolls out his first-ever wreath. With a little help, he fills, rolls and shapes it, finally presenting it to his great-grandmother for final approval before baking. The smell of cinnamon and baking bread fills the house.

Gene Eckenstam's son, Todd, meticulously weaves strips of dough into a basket pattern over a cardamom cake. Kline passes by and notices a spot where Todd laid the dough over when it should have gone under. The room erupts in laughter. A member of the next generation is taking his lumps. Only slightly embarrassed, he unweaves the dough and starts over.

Having his son by his side means a lot to Eckenstam, a fund-raiser for the Huntington Library."It has become a part of our lives," he says. "I hope the kids will continue the tradition."

Howard Knipple says, "It's really just a few guys that get together, bake bread and drink Scotch on Christmas Eve," but then he softens his position. "There have been years where people had a crisis of one kind or another, and it's been helpful to be here. Not that they got any advice," he adds. "Just being here helped."

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