From Northampton to Philly, With Love (And Yeast)

Emma O’Neill-Dietel
Smith College, Northampton, USA

i. state street

Most people don’t keep yeast packets in the ashtray of their Honda Odyssey, but on the day my dad came to bring me home there they were, wedged between his Swiss Army Knife and a pile of parking meter quarters. He had called me when he was a few minutes away to tell me that he had to stop at the store first to see if they had any yeast left.

“Are you making bread when we get home?” I asked. It seemed like the strangest thing to do at the moment, but within a few days it would seem that everyone I knew was baking bread. My dad explained that we were flat out of yeast and it was apparently nowhere to be found in the entire city of Philadelphia. So while he had come up north to take me home, his equally important mission was to secure some yeast. He grumbled at the amateur bread bakers-to-be who had pillaged BJs and Trader Joe’s of their yeast supply ahead of the impending apocalypse. But fortunately there was a bountiful yeast supply at State Street Fruit Store, thanks to the year-round population of professional bread-baking lesbians inhabiting Northampton.

When my dad picked me up, I stared at the yeast as we drove out of the parking lot and past State Street. The little packet had the same color scheme and bold font as a 5-Hour Energy bottle. I would have mistaken it for medicine or chemicals if I didn’t know better. The packet screamed “FLEISCHMANN’S RAPID RISE INSTANT YEAST – FAST ACTING.” It made me uneasy. I don’t know where I thought yeast came from before that day. I think I always pictured it in an old jelly jar on a grandmother’s pantry shelf. I turned one of the packets over in my hand, trying to feel the contents through the glossy exterior. My hands were shaking, so I put it down and closed my eyes.

ii. hungry ghost

On the edge of town we stopped at a gas station and my dad tried to coax me to eat something for the first time in days. He presented me with juice, cheese, chips, pretzels, until finally he pulled out a massive paper bag from Hungry Ghost, our favorite bakery in town. I could smell the fresh bread before he opened it, and all of a sudden I was hungry again.

He launched into his customary presentation of the bag’s contents. He took pride in listing off food items, whether he had bought them or made them, whenever our family was together.

“You’ll see in there I bought some muffins, they’re cranberry and pecan, and there’s a danish too. There’s a loaf of rye, and another one, I’m not sure what that is, it might be a—” I took the bag out of his hands and unfurled the top. I tore into the first loaf I found at the top of the bag. I heard the clunk of my dad slicing a block of grocery store cheddar with his Swiss Army Knife on the center console. As fast as I could eat the bread, he was supplying me with slices of cheese to eat with it. I tore off chunks of bread with an urgency that left me covered with crumbs for the rest of the drive.

As I ate, I remembered a book I had read as a child, in which a girl uses what little money she has to buy bread for a starving woman and child on the street. As a child I imagined the famished woman eating a loaf of Wonder Bread, bleached and spongey and flavorless. I didn’t understand why the people in the story treated the bread like a decadent cake. But sitting in my dad’s Honda in the gas station parking lot, I understood that good bread, especially shared with someone you love, was nothing short of life-affirming.   

When we got home, my dad stashed his yeast packets away. We had little need for home-baked bread. Like my dad and his yeast, I squirreled away the bread he had brought back from Hungry Ghost. I ate slices of bread with cheese or jam or butter or just plain and toasted. I worried it would go stale, yet each day I made my slices thinner and thinner so it would last. There wasn’t much use in trying to slow myself down though. I ate that fleeting tie to my life before like it was air.

iii. sarcone’s

In my family, no one really reached the bread-baking stage of quarantine, despite my dad’s abundance of yeast. Spirits were so low in our house that even bread dough wouldn’t have been able to rise. My dad made frequent trips to Sarcone’s, our local bakery, just to have something to do. He knew without asking to buy me the little fist-sized dinner rolls and the pepperoni bread that I had loved since I could chew. I sat out on our deck with him, me with my bread and a podcast, and him with his bread and an adventure novel. I don’t know if my dad understands the way my stomach turns when I’m anxious, but he knows my favorite bread, and most of the time that’s enough.