by Evelyn Bence
At a church coffee hour, I accepted the bag of ecru goo. “It makes Amish Friendship Bread. In ten days you can bake a loaf, and there’ll still be starter left over to pass along to others. You just mush the bag once a day for five days. Then you add sugar…” I read the printed directions and tried to comply.
An hour after bedtime on the third and fourth nights I awoke, startled. “Oh! I forgot!” Like colleague Carolyn who never arrived for our lunch. I rushed down to the kitchen to fuss over the neglected dough.
After five days I fortified the starter with the prescribed ingredients, feeding the leaven. Like Cam who invited me over for dinner whenever she roasted a chicken for her family.
The new nourishment fomented the brew. The next few days—mush more—the plastic bag nearly burst with gases. I heeded the instructions: “If air gets in the bag, let it out.” Like Sandra on a picnic, requesting a time-out. She listened only so long to my petty complaints against another friend before stepping away, “I have to get my head clear of this negative energy.”
On the tenth day, I added more liquid and dry and measured out five “separate batters”: three to give to friends, one to tend for another cycle, one to bake. Warning: “Do not use any type of metal spoon or bowl for mixing.” I looked for layers of meaning hidden in the message. Like C.C. who could find rejection in any conversation. Will disaster befall if I bake in aluminum?
The next morning I investigated a noise in the kitchen. One of the full Ziplocs had fallen to the floor, its center of gravity having shifted. Like Rhonda who offered me skirts she’d outgrown. How did that happen? Thank God, the seams held fast.
Finally, at the end of a dinner party, I tried to hand off three bags of the starter. Two friends protested: wide-eyed no’s. Jane accepted, politely. Weeks later I inquired. “The smell was getting downright peculiar,” she e-mailed. “Just didn’t work.” Like my attempts to connect with … why can’t I remember her name?
Dawn took two: “I can give them away at work.”
Per the plan, that left me with one bag of friendship dough to maintain. Day 1. 2. 3. Each handling increased my emotional investment, my responsibility to nurture and pass it along. And yet—I wanted to clear the calendar to be ready to leave town for the funeral of Elizabeth, an elderly friend who might die any day. What was I going to do with it? The dough was becoming inconvenient. Like Elizabeth who was tenaciously lingering.
By the end of the cycle of mushing, after the goo oozed out of Ziplocs and smeared across the counter, I considered giving up. I kept thinking of the adjectives of the postal litany: “Does your package contain anything liquid, fragile, perishable, or potentially hazardous?” I asked a federal water-quality expert if I could pour it down the drain. He paused before answering. Like Dawn when I proposed that we carpool across town. So I refrained.
I met Pat at Starbucks and begged, “Please. Pass it along. Throw it out. Anything. Just take it away.” Like Anne who came over and swept a trapped mouse into a paper bag.
I gave Cam a baked cinnamon-laced loaf, which obliged her to take a bag of the starter. Always blunt, she later reported, “It really doesn’t taste that great,” admitting she hadn’t read the instructions. She hadn’t sprinkled sugar on top, and she’d refrigerated the batter. By this time I had Googled Amish Friendship Bread.
“No problem,” I said. “Apparently cold just slows down the fermentation. In reality it’s quite forgiving.” Like a right-fine friend.
Editors note: If you’d like to start your own batch of Amish Friendship Bread, check out this website devoted to recipes and variations. Michelle, one of our editors, kept a batch of “the ecru goo” brewing for months in her fridge, baking dozens (hundreds?) of loaves of friendship-started quick bread before she finally passed the starter on to a willing recipient one final time.
Evelyn Bence is author most recently of Room at My Table: Preparing Heart and Home for Christian Hospitality (Upper Room Books), 52 anecdotal meditations that gently, humorously invite readers to welcome mealtime guests. She is an ongoing contributor to Daily Guideposts, and her personal essays have appeared in publications including Washingtonian, Washington Post, Christianity Today, Books & Culture, and US Catholic.