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Essay: COVID-19 & Oatmeal-Raisin Bread

The COVID-19 pandemic has required everyone to find new ways to cope with the current, unplesant reality. For Barbara Miner, baking old recipes has helped her feel closer to her mother.

The gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic has many of us looking for respite, some kind of emotional or physical escape. Something to take our minds off of the rising death tolls and inability to gather with our friends and loved ones.

For Lake Effect essayist Barbara Miner, it comes in the form of one of her mother’s recipes. She talks about it in her essay “COVID-19 & Oatmeal-Raisin Bread.”

It wasn’t until late-September that I realized why, back in March, I was obsessed with making my mother’s oatmeal-raisin bread. It wasn’t the actual bread I craved. Rather, the bread was an attempt to create a safe, 1950s bubble. Just like my mother tried, more than half a century ago.

I have spent much of my life rejecting the 1950s. But in this era of COVID-19, I am trying to understand that decade.

After I graduated from high school in 1969, I ran away as far and as fast as I could from all that the 1950s demanded of me: Behave. Conform. Strive no higher as a woman than nurse or teacher. Criticize but learn to co-exist with Jim Crow racism. And of course, don’t become one of those hippies protesting the Vietnam War.

But COVID-19 has given me a fresh perspective on the 1950s — no, not the decade’s cultural, political and racial straightjackets, but its attempt to bury a painful past.

In the early weeks of COVID-19, I succumbed to the consumer frenzy that took hold across the country. I bought way too much toilet paper, Lysol, and hand sanitizer. But when I tried to buy flour at Metro Market, the shelves were empty. I was in a near panic, saved only by over-priced, organic flour at another store.

I look back on those early weeks and laugh at my hoarding. But I don’t laugh when I think about the future. It is still too uncertain.

Mostly, I worry for my children, especially since they live more than a thousand miles away, and I don’t know when I will see them again. I want to magically conjure up a perfect world for them, just like my mother tried, more than half a century ago.

COVID-19 has given me a new admiration for my parents. They were both born in 1918, the year of the Spanish flu. At an age when they should have been planning their future, the country was in the grip of the Great Depression, followed by six years of a World War. They grew up surrounded by uncertainty, poverty, and death.

My parents rarely talked of those difficult years. Their focus was on the future. When that World War ended, and when it was clear the Great Depression would stay in the 1930s, all they wanted to do was create a wonderful bubble, a vaccine of sorts. They wanted a home, financial security, good schools for their children.

Looking back, it’s clear that the civil rights movement was not only long overdue, but inevitable. African Americans, having fought and died for their country during World War II, rightfully demanded their place in the American dream.

In the initial months of COVID-19, I focused on getting through the summer. I now fantasize about a post-COVID future. And my dreams are not that different from those of my parents in the 1950s. I want my children and grandchildren to be healthy, to be safe, to have a future. And I want to make them oatmeal-raisin bread.

Credit Barbara Miner
Barbara's mother's simple recipe for making oatmeal-raisin bread.

Looking at my mother’s recipe, I am struck by its simplicity. It has eight simple ingredients, with equally simple final instructions: “When lukewarm, combine all ingredients. Shape into three loaves.” There’s nothing about letting the bread rise, or how long it should bake. My mother knew that, give or take a bit, 375 degrees and 45 minutes was about right.

Whenever I make my mother’s oatmeal-raisin bread, at some point I am transported back to my childhood. I can all but smell and see the warm bread, waiting on the kitchen table as I come home from school. My mom, knowing children pretty well — she had six — made sure we each had a small, individual loaf, baked in a used chicken-pot-pie tin.

I don’t know when the era of COVID-19 will end, any more than my mother knew when World War Two would end. But I long for the day when I can make oatmeal-raisin bread for my children and grandchildren, served fresh out of the oven. Like my mother did, more than half a century ago.

Barbara Miner is Milwaukee-based journalist, photographer and producer. Her work has appeared in news outlets ranging from WUWM to The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Milwaukee Magazine and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.