Monday, November 15, 2010


Bread has been called "the staff of life." In Finland, that staff is the traditional ruisleipä, or rye bread. To Finns, American white breads taste pasty and excessively sweet. My cousin Mika used to tease me by telling me that for bread Americans ate something more like pulla (Finnish sweet dessert bread). In Finland, the real bread is rye bread, and there's some at every meal -- breakfast, lunch and dinner. And when Finns leave their native land, ruisleipä is what they miss the most. You just can't seem to get it anywhere outside of Scandinavia.

Traditional Finnish rye bread is completely different from America rye bread -- much more soft, moist and savory. I couldn't get enough of it when we were over there, and I've been missing it terribly since our return to the States. After searching in vain for an ethnic bakery in the Twin Cities that might sell it, a friend of mine finally suggested I make it myself. The recipe is in Beatrice Ojakangas' The Finnish Cookbook, a tome that no self-respecting Finnish-American home (including mine) is without. So this past weekend, I began the process of learning to make for myself the Finnish staff of life.

It is a process, because Finnish rye bread is a sourdough bread. That means I can't just dump a bunch of ingredients into our bread machine and have a fresh loaf a few hours later. First I had to prepare a sourdough starter, which involves putting a flour-milk mixture in a warm place, and letting it sit for a couple of days. Once the sourdough starter is nice and ripe (you can tell it's ready when it's full of bubbles and starts to smell a certain way), then you can prepare the dough.

The rest of the dough consists basically of rye flour, salt, yeast and potato water -- nothing really too special. The secret ingredient is the sourdough. Without that, Finnish rye bread won't be Finnish rye bread. It simply won't have the savory flavor that Finns crave -- and that this Finnish American craves! But in order to do its work, the sourdough takes more time. You start the dough by mixing the sourdough starter into potato water, adding another cup of rye flour, and then letting that mixture sour for another day or two! Only then will you finally have a preparation that is ready for the additional flour, salt, and yeast that will complete the dough.

Once the souring process is finally done and the dough has been mixed, there's still several more hours of work to do... Letting the yeast rise, then punching it down, letting it rise again, then punching it down again. The repeated rising and kneading, rising and kneading, and rising again is what gives the bread the second quality that makes Finnish rye bread distinctive and delicious: it's softness.

I was describing the process to my friends Reuben and Melanie on the way home from Church yesterday, and they both laughed. "That's a lot of work to make some bread!" said Reuben. Yes, it is. But it's really good bread!

This has been more than an exercise in culinary nostalgia for me, though it's been fun to have my Finnish cousins cheering me on on Facebook! The thing that might sound a bit strange is that this has also been a profoundly spiritual exercise for me.

Of course, making this kind of bread has taught me the value of patience. No amount of will or desire (hunger for tangy, soft rye bread!) could change the fact that this kind of bread can only be made by waiting the requisite amount of time (3-4 days for this batch!) There's nothing I could do to make the fermentation process go any faster. Certainly, I could create the conditions for the fermentation process to happen (mix the ingredients, and then place them in a safe, warm place), but after that, the only thing to do was to allow nature to take over and wait. Were I to grow impatient and end the process too early, the result would be failure.

It's the same with us. The Lord mixes the ingredients and then puts them in a warm, safe place -- in our hearts. And sometimes there's nothing to do but to wait. To let those ingredients do what they do over time. It's the waiting process that permits important transformations to take place, that allows us to become what God intends for us to become. There's just no substitute for patience.

The recipe book I've been following told me that I would know the sourdough starter was ready by the "pleasantly sour odor." It is indeed hard to describe the happiness I felt when, at the end of the second day of waiting, I sniffed the starter and immediately recognized the scent. It smelled like sourdough bread! I was ecstatic. But I recognized something else about the scent. It was also the scent I've smelled on occasion just before dumping out the contents of a milk carton that's been sitting too long in our refrigerator. And then it struck me. Normally, if I smelled this smell, I would consider food to be rotten, bad, only worthy to be tossed into the trash or poured down the drain of the kitchen sink. Instead, now, I treasured that smell! I loved it! It made me extremely happy! And what made the difference in emotion? Certainly not the actual physical fermentation process. This food had transformed in exactly the same way as other food I had previously considered "bad." The difference in emotional response came from the realization that the fermentation process could have a purpose, that it could be used to produce bread with a unique and delicious savor that could not be produced any other way.

So much of my life has been spent bemoaning the fact that I am different, and wishing that I could be something other than what I am. Why, indeed, would God make me this way? Why would I be gay? Why couldn't I be attracted to women instead of men? And so much energy has gone into feeling I have somehow "gone bad," feeling like there was nothing left for me but to be tossed out in the trash, literally. (Isn't that what suicide is? A kind of throwing oneself away?) But yesterday, the Spirit told me through the scent of the sourdough that I was -- I am! -- exactly what the Lord wants me to be, what he needs me to be. Without that different savor, what would I be? Just the same of what the Lord already has plenty more of. The Lord needs me to be me if he is to accomplish through me the unique purpose that he has for me to accomplish. The Lord has mixed the unique ingredients, and he's put them away in that warm, safe place in the fleshy tabernacles of my heart, and now he's waiting and watching -- along with me! -- to see what I will become. To let that unique mix of ingredients do its work, to do what it is supposed to do.

This applies not just to figuring out the purpose of being gay. A week or so ago, I met my friend Reuben for lunch, and we had a heart-to-heart talk. I shared with him some of the pain and loneliness I've been feeling lately, and the realization that I could not walk the journey I need to walk alone. And he shared with me some of his own struggles. My friend Reuben is very heterosexual, and very happy in his marriage to his wife (and I'm very happy for them!). But somehow, we've recognized in each other gifts that the other needs. Reuben's unique blend of passion and compassion have enabled him to empathize with me in ways that other members of the ward and my elder's quorum cannot, and have enabled him to be a friend to me unlike any other member of the ward. And my unique blend of passion and compassion have, he confessed to me, strengthened his testimony and his faith. The two of us as friends have become so much stronger and so much more valuable than we would be separately.

Yesterday, in elder's quorum, our president spoke to Reuben's unique desire always to dig deeper into gospel principles, and what a strength that desire has been, how it has enabled Reuben to find a richness in the gospel that others might never find, because their passion is not the same. And I feel privileged to know of some of the pain and struggle -- the difficult stuff! -- behind that passion to dig deeper, that hunger to know! In other words, Reuben could not be Reuben without some of the pain and doubt. But that's what will make his faith and his testimony invaluable. Those are the qualities that will enable the Lord to use him in ways that the Lord could use nobody else.

Every single one of us is precious in that way. It's often those aspects of ourselves that we most despise, that we would wish away if we could, that make us most valuable, that the Lord uses to prepare something extraordinary!

We've also all been through that last part of the dough making process. It's not just the fermentation that makes the bread. It's the rising and the kneading. We've all experienced that expansive rising process. Those times when we can see the growth, when we feel great. And then -- out of nowhere! -- something slaps us down. Something punches us in the gut. (Maybe a certain conference talk by a certain general authority.) And it seems like all that growth has been lost, like everything we thought we knew, we don't know after all. But that "punching down," that working over, that "kneading," is actually preparing us for more growth. It's actually making way for another cycle of rising. And those ups and downs are a crucial part of the process. That's what "softens" us. It's what creates in us that invaluable quality of humility that enables us to be used by the Lord to accomplish his extraordinary purposes.

Jesus said, "I am the bread of life." Perhaps that meant more to people in ancient times who could not buy bread at the grocery store, who knew what the bread-making process required.

But Christ also said, "Be ye perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect." If we want the savor of that bread, we need to be prepared to go through some heartache.

But it will be worth it!


Reuben said...

John, you continue to be one of the most inspirational Mormons I know. Although, I'm beginning to suspect you only like me because of my "pleasantly sour odor."

J G-W said...


Reuben, I think we were all smelling that way after our bike trip to Stillwater.

All the same, odor or not, I can't imagine life in at the Lake Nokomis Ward without you! :)

MoHoHawaii said...

Amen to what Reuben said. It's funny-- I could have posted the same comment, word for word. :- )

alan said...

Hehe, comparing yourself to bread is cute. It makes me imagine the sour bread with a personality of "I think I can, I think I can," and then when it's all baked and steamy, it's quite pleased with itself, knowing that the sour process (and the rising and punching down repeatedly) was well worth it -- because it knows it's so much better than those American white breads.

I lived in Germany for many years as a kid and grew accustomed to Dampfnudel, a bread that is sweet and soft on the top, but salty and crusty on the bottom. Instead of baking it, you cook it in a closed pan of melted, salted butter, which is how it acquires its traits. I imagine it has a lot of yeast in it to make it rise into the yummy puffballs it does. Anyway, I've also tried to find it everywhere I go, but no luck. I probably should just make it someday like you did ruisleipä.

Kiley said...

That was a great analogy. The process is so important. All the talk of sourdough bread and starters is making me hungry. (I made a sourdough starter a few years ago and used to make bread all the time. Incredible.)

I admire your faith.

Stephen said...

That was really interesting

J G-W said...

Mohohawaii - If I like people who smell odd, it's only because it makes me feel less out of place. :)

Alan - Go for it... Find a recipe, and see what you learn making Dampfnudel! We'll have a Moho bake-off.

Stephen, thanks!

Kiley - Of course, the cool thing about sourdough is once you've made your starter and baked your first loaf, you don't need to make another starter again, as long as you save some of the sourdough in the fridge. (I'm sure there's a parable in there somewhere too!)

I was reading that back in the day, Finns used to prepare their bread dough in stone bowls. Apparently they never washed these bowls. Bits of dough would get stuck in the cracks and crevices of the bowl. Before starting a new batch of bread, they'd pour a little water into the bowl, and that would mix with the old, dried out dough, and that would become their sourdough starter!

Kiley said...

That is so interesting! Stone bowls. It makes sense. The older my starter got the better the bread tasted. I had to throw it out eventually because I can't eat flour anymore... That was a sad day.

J G-W said...

That's what I've heard about sourdough... That the flavor gets better over time. I've also heard that each sourdough has a unique flavor.

mandi said...

We call white bread "cake bread" in our house.
Bread making is such a therapeutic experience- if you don't take your time with it, it doesn't turn out. Almost like it needs to be pondered and contemplated to be complete.

J G-W said...

Mandi - So true! That's what I mean by it being a spiritual experience...

The cookbook I pulled this recipe out of said that "lazy" bread-making makes better bread, i.e., taking a break occasionally in between kneadings to let the flour absorb moisture and to let the yeast grow makes the dough happier and more "lively"! You can't rush it, so bread making is an opportunity for contemplation and learning patience.

I know people will think I'm crazy for saying this, but you kind of develop a relationship with the bread.

Neal said...

Thank you, J G-W. That was a beautiful post.

J G-W said...

Thanks, Neal!

Paul said...

Hey, not to ruin your spiritual message found in the ruisleipa dough, but you CAN get real Finnish sour rye bread in the US -
Go to the Bread Store on the website and then order the real stuff (not the American-looking loaves). It's exactly like Reissumies type bread in Finland. You can just keep the extra bags in the freezer until you're ready for the next fix. Spend that Finnish bread making energy on making pulla.

J G-W said...

Thanks for the tip, Paul. I'll have to check that out. I'll pass that information on to my Finnish friends here who have been asking around, wondering where they could get ruisleipä!

All the same, there's something very satisfying about making it yourself!