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The Blob of Guilt

Friends don't give friends Amish friendship bread.

April 21, 1999|NANCY WRIDE | Times Staff Writer

That's my conclusion after a yeast blob known as bread starter, bestowed upon me last year by a seemingly fond neighbor, sat in the freezer for months, pressuring me like Edgar Allan Poe's telltale heart.

I had unwittingly accepted an edible chain letter--and would suffer the consequences.

Dipping in for an ice cube or frozen waffle, I would see the forlorn mush in its clear plastic freezer bag and think: This weekend. I will make that bread this weekend.

Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas all went flying by, sans the festive aroma of homemade bread. Surely, I thought, it would keep at 29 degrees, in the good company of Polish vodka.

By Valentine's Day, the burden of the uncooked blob weighed against my conscience like a stack of unread New Yorkers. I pulled out the 50th-generation recipe copy and let the starter thaw.

I had failed to read the recipe's fine print, the part beneath the giant words "DO NOTHING" that mentions spooning this friendship goo into plastic bags and giving it to three friends, who should give it to three more friends and so on.

With this math, freezers across America might be laden with ancient bread starter. Then again, who couldn't find three friends willing to bake bread?

As it turned out, I couldn't. Every one of my local pals seemed to be hip to this conditional gift.

"Is that friendship bread starter? Do not bring that thing near me," said one friend. "No way," said one of the 10 women in my book group the night I hosted the gathering. I had gingerly opened the freezer and dangled the bag of batter for takers. "I can't deal with the responsibility."

Even the superior-but-lovable vegetarian, who brags about making tomato sauce from his home-grown produce and whole-wheat loaves from scratch, rejected it as "too much work."

I shared his lack of commitment, but finally I read the directions beyond "Day No. 1: Do nothing." On Days Two through Five, squeezing the bag once a day was all that was required. I could do that. Or so I thought.

The batter sat on top of the refrigerator for several days, and I guess I forgot to squeeze the bag on a couple of them. Out of sight, out of mind. I was to add a cup each of flour, sugar and milk to the blob on Day Six, but I got around to it on Day Nine.

This put me way behind on the squeezing, so I finally found myself ready to actually cook something on Day 15.

By now, it was a matter of principle. I would make this friendship bread if it killed me. I did, and it was delicious, but I will never make it again. I remain devoted to cooking, but this was my first and last chain bread.

My grandmother was queen of home-made bread, her baking of sourdough loaves infusing the house with the aroma of comfort and safety. I still remember my mom's mint green bowl, the largest that Tupperware made 30 years ago, perched on the washer in the cool dark garage, a mound of dough rising beneath a tea towel.

As kids, my brother and sister and I would peek under the cloth daily, looking for any sign of progress. That wad of dough seemed to take forever to rise. Then as now, I wondered: Why bother?

That is the burden of this gift. If someone gives you Amish friendship bread, there is an implied agreement that you will bake it; otherwise, aren't you rejecting the gesture?

My beautiful and sweet neighbor Dina had given me the blob of starter--along with a bite of her friendship bread--one afternoon so long ago that all I remember is that both of us had suntans.

She was preparing homemade wedding invitations on handmade paper for nuptials that would take place on a rugged Italian Riviera bluff near castle ruins. Even we neighbors were invited to attend the wedding, paid for by Riunite after Dina wrote a winning essay describing her dream wedding.

That's the kind of person she is, and that should have been my first clue. My husband and I did our invitations on a computer.

I had been so touched by Dina's friendly gesture--we all work days, so our relationship consists mostly of porch hellos and quick exchanges over borrowed eggs--that a few essential pieces of information escaped me. Small things, like the fact that my husband and I have no bread pans. Or that the ingredients call for three cups of sugar. As a diabetic, I would scarcely be tasting this.

But I had walked merrily home in the glow of good will and tucked the blob in my freezer. Every so often I would think: I will bake that bread as a gift.

Last week, I extracted the freezer-burned containers of starter. I made a few feeble-hearted attempts but failed to unload them. I made a couple of loaves and then, while they were cooling, I thawed out the rest of the friendship bread starters and poured them in the trash.

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