Rosemary’s Bread

Bread #10: Rosemary Olive Oil Bread

I delved into deeper waters this time around, taking the risk of combining two separate recipes, the Artisan bread recipe I wrote earlier about and a recipe for Rosemary Crockpot Bread (I, for one, was not brave enough to cook bread in a crockpot so I chose the cooking method detailed in the former recipe, but maybe in due time I’ll come around to it. If you’re brave enough, follow the link to the recipe; no doubt it’ll be delicious). Below is the result:

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It turned out pretty good, if I do say so myself. Though not quite the texture I was looking for (it seem to crumble a bit more than I’d like) the rosemary and olive oil flavors did pair very well with the ratatouille I made that day so, as always, no regrets.

Admittedly, when I think of rosemary my mind automatically gravitates to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, a film whose showcase of aromatic herbs is limited to the fictional foul-smelling Tanas Root and whose inclusion of food imagery begins with a discussion of cannibalism over a roasted leg of lamb, is followed by a roofied cup of chocolate mousse to cleanse the palette and facilitate the devil’s sexual assault on an unconscious woman, and finishes with a series of satanic cravings for raw meat and chicken liver. Every food offering becomes a way of demonstrating control over the submissive or otherwise unsuspecting counterpart.

So, apart from the obvious, how does my spiral into the birth of Satan relate to my adventures baking rosemary into bread? Well, bear with me here, (pun only somewhat intended) as I first reveal the myth-inspired rituals related to rosemary.

Over the ages, rosemary has taken on a great many uses related to its varied significant. For instance, in the 14th century, the feet of thieves were bathed in rosemary root steeped in white vinegar to take away their strength, immobilizing them against the act of committing a crime. It’s also been nailed to walls above the bed or put under pillows to ward off any evil spirits haunting dreams at night, and has even been buried with the dead to ward off the bubonic plague’s wrath on those living nearby. In a sense, rosemary is the anti-Tanas root, fighting off demonic and destructive forces as opposed to fervently welcoming them into an unsuspecting female body. That being said, rosemary’s significance as it relates to women has unexpected connections to the more overt themes presented in the movie. For example, rosemary was often entwined in wedding wreaths and dipped in scented water to symbolize fertility, love, abiding friendship, and the remembrance of a woman before marriage. Extending this back even further, young girls are put on quest to find future husband with aid of rosemary, on St. Agnes Eve, a day that celebrating the pardon saint of virgins and young girls and a ritual well-documented in Keats’ poem, “The Eve of Saint Agnes.” And finally, there’s the century-old saying that “where rosemary flourishes, the lady rules,” suggesting rosemary’s historical role in the giving power of women.

So this brings us back to Rosemary’s Baby, a film where the woman is, at once, the most powerful entity, given her ability to bear the son of Satan, and the most submissive and unsuspecting, given every other thing leading up to that point. What is supposed to give her strength as she undergoes the amazing task of bringing life into the world (food, vitamins, and even the Tanas root) weakens her defenses physically and mentally, makes her vulnerable to being attacked inside and out and, by the end, leads her to forgoing control over their own body “for the good of the baby.” Her power within is transformed to being a tool to gain power over by those whose only source of power it connected to something outside themselves; devoted followers who long to be something more.

In a similar sense, rosemary, while signifying a woman’s power center, has been used to imply that this power may not be completely theirs to have considering rosemary’s role in fueling the desire of virgins to find husbands, ensuring a woman’s image before marriage is maintained in the eyes of a man, and making sure they’re able to bear children and, in some cases, provide an heir. Still, in its essence, rosemary is ultimately seen as a way of warding off evil and oppressive forces. At its root, it’s meant to be protective and empowering regardless of how the mythology becomes twisted by reality and vice versa.

With that in mind, I give you my play/parody of Rosemary’s Baby:

Rosemary’s Bread

            “It’s known to help with fertility,” says the old woman from across the street. She presents to me a bouquet of rosemary sprigs tied together with twine. “No better addition to a new home, don’t you think?”

I don’t know how to respond. My mother’s words came to mind, her warning: Your first child is a swerve off the map, make no mistake. Calculate wisely the plunge into your next life.

I nod my appreciation then slip the bundle of sprigs into the souvenir mug Gabe picked out on our honeymoon to the Grand Canyon. I was here, it says, right above a cliff overlooking the deflated soufflé of earth below. Gabe comes up from behind and wraps his arms around my waist.

“Rosemary for Miss Mary Rose, isn’t that fitting?”

“Mmmhmm.”

At our affection, the old woman bares her teeth in a grin.

“How lovely,” she says, “to be young and in love. Oh, you two are a picture.”

She clasps her hands together and holds them against her chest like a bridesmaid taking stock of the wedding ceremony while swooning over an immaculate vision of her own. I smile back at her and then finish showing her around so we can get back to unpacking.

“We don’t have much,” I tell her. “We thought a fresh start would be nice.”

“Quite, quite,” she says. “I can tell already, you’re going to be quite the homemaker.”

“We’ll see,” I say, avoiding eye contact. “Actually, Gabe’s more particular about that kind of stuff.”

It’s not true. I don’t know why I said that. Honestly, neither of us really give of crap though he tends to horde a bit more for sentimental reasons, his childhood plates and books and souvenirs from places deemed worth remembering. I have two boxes compared to his twelve. It doesn’t matter though. The old woman doesn’t process what I’ve said.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” she says. She slaps a palm against her forehead then pulls out an index card for her pocketbook and hands it to me. “It’s a recipe for rosemary bread. You know what they say, ‘a family that breaks bread together, stays together’, or something like that. And we certainly want you guys to stay together. We predict a long and fruitful marriage in your future. Oh, wouldn’t be nice to have a little one running around. We haven’t had one of those since—”

“I’m sorry, we?” Gabe interrupts. He’s now at my side with his hand on my shoulder, as if the old woman has just proven herself a threat.

“All of us in this neighborhood.” The old woman explains. “We’re very excited about you two.”

“I didn’t realize we were so highly anticipated,” he says. We share a look, our eyes wide with mock-flattery.

“Oh, yes!” the old woman says. “Quite, quite.”

“Well, we really should work on getting settled.” I say after a pause. “But thank you for your…hospitality.”

“It’s my pleasure, dear. My pleasure. And you absolutely must bake that bread. Right away! The sooner the better. Four generations that breads been passed down and, well, it did result in four generations.”

She winks and I hold up the recipe card. Gabe snatches the card from my fingers and scans it while bobbing his head, the way he does when feigning interest for something.

“We certainly will,” I say, sticking out my hand and causing her to take a step back. “Thanks again and it was very nice to meet you Mrs—” I realize too late she never told us her name.

“Caster. Like the oil, people say. But it’s spelled like the sugar and I prefer it.”

“Like the sugar it is then,” I say.

We shake hands for what seems like a full minute before I finally wave goodbye and shut the door behind me. Through the peep hole, I watch as she flounces back towards her condo before veering left to one crowded with bird-shaped pinwheels. A woman, still in her bathrobe, comes out to greet her and I turn away as soon as they both start pointing in my direction.  From atop the kitchen counter, Gabe smiles wide from above his raised fist.

“Any thoughts?” I ask.

He waves the recipe up in the air.

“Just that we must bake this bread. We absolutely must! I mean, how else would we ensure a healthy harvest after we plant those seeds in you. Fruitfulness is key.”

“Is that right?”

“Quite, quite.”

Gabe leaps off the table then grabs me by the hips and pulls me against his waist. I lean against his shirt which still smells like the Fritos he ate during our six-hour car drive from Miami to the suburbs of central Florida. He kisses my greasy cowlick and I sigh into his chest.

“We should finish unpacking,” I say.

“No bread then?”

“Not unless you want to bake it.”

“I feel like there’ll be a riot if we don’t,” he jokes.

He taps his chin with his forefinger as if deep in thought then empties our lone bag of kitchen staples onto the counter before rummaging through the boxes for a mixing bowl. I consider offering my help but decide to leave him to it and search for the box labeled bathroom instead. I’m desperate for a bath long enough to crater my fingers and toes.

Alone in the bathroom, I’m struck by a vision of the entire neighborhood congregated in some nearby annex, discussing how to prepare for our arrival. The set-up is eerily similar to the Southern Baptist church my grandmother used to drag me to: fold-out chairs, pecan sandies on a plastic platter, a podium raised on a portable stage, someone with an enlarged Adams apple spraying the mike with his enthusiastic call to action.

We suburbanites are a dying breed, he shouts. People never want to settle down anymore. There’s too much to do and see, they say. That’s the age we live in. All the world is open to them. Images from within every crevice and corner of the atmosphere flood their vision daily. No wonder the roots aren’t sticking like they used to. So what happens? Nothing grows. The garden of Eden grows bare. The fruit of paradise rots away. And what can we do about it?

Mrs. Caster shoots up from her chair.

Put them to bed and plant them deep, she yells.

The neighbor in the bathrobe joins her plea.

Bless the babes and raise them well, she says.

The entire congregation rises to applaud and hum their praise.

Amen, the enlarged Adams apple rolls out. The word echoes throughout the room. Prepare the ritual, it says.

Mrs. Caster nods then kneels down to tear at the floorboards until her fingers bleed and cherry-wash the sprigs of rosemary now sprouting from the open space. She brings it to the basin set up next to the podium and washes the blood away with oil anointed by the keeper of the Adams apple.

Let it be as written, he says. I will greatly multiply pain in childbirth and in pain she will bring forth children. Yet her desire will be for her husband, and he will rule over her.

Praise be, she says, for whenever a woman is in labor she has pain, because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy that a child has been born into the world.

Now let us be fruitful and multiply, he says, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.

Praise be, the congregation shouts.

Praise be, Gabe shouts, the bread has risen.

My mother comes forward to tell me that it’s time to prepare ourselves for sacrifice.

Not to worry, she says. You’ll come back in another life.

I sink down into the bath to escape my thoughts. The water is scented with rosemary and it fills my nostrils. It burns. I push myself up to stand and almost lose by balance from the weighted balloon that’s replaced my stomach. My breathing becomes labored and I need to sit back down. The world goes dark for a while and then I hear my name. Gabe is calling for me.

I open my eyes and the door opens and there Gabe is with a sprig of rosemary in his hands. I look down to my deflated stomach and then back up at him as if he’d orchestrated both it’s the rise and fall.

“Are you all right?” he asks.

“Yeah,” I say, though the word shakes.

His eyes narrow but he doesn’t press. Instead he hands me towel and lays my clothes out over the bathroom bar.

“I have a surprise for you in the kitchen,” he says, “whenever you’re ready.”

He leaves and I watch the water swirl down the drain while wondering where the hell in this world we wandered into and whether I’ll ever be able to face it. I then get dressed and take slow steps towards the kitchen, weary of the ritual that awaits.

“Check it out,” Gabe says, waving me over to the window sill. I come up next him and take in the display of  stolen canyon rocks surrounding a single sprig of rosemary with our wedding toppers placed on either side, facing each other. They’re smiling at what seems like a desert bloom, a refuge from the barren landscape though most likely it’s a mirage destined to disappear when it fails to satisfy the demands of their travel weary bodies.

“So when will the bread be ready?” I ask, still looking ahead.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t even know how long it rests for. She only gave us half the recipe so I guess that’s up to us.”

Gabe shrugs then grabs my hand and gives it a squeeze. I squeeze back and then try to figure out, again, what I’m looking at. Maybe it’s not a mirage, I think. Maybe it’s an imprint from a previous visitor; a small way of saying I was here and now you are too. I consider what to make of it.

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