Building Community Through Baking: Mary Wright’s Kitchen Chronicles

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Twenty years ago in 1999, Bethlehem’s Touchstone Theatre created an arts and cultural festival to help the community through the devastating closure of Bethlehem Steel. “Steel Festival, The Art of an Industry” aimed to celebrate everything Bethlehem had become during the years in which  the plant was in operation. Two decades after the first Steel Festival, Touchstone again invited the community to come together and to think about the strengths of our community as well as the unique challenges that we face in our post-steel city. In October, Touchstone presented “Festival Unbound,” which they defined as “ten days of original theatre, dance, music, art and conversation designed to celebrate and imagine our future together (October 4 – 13).” As with the previous festival, this series of events powerfully allowed for communal reflection on Bethlehem and our collaborative visions for our city’s future. 

As a Lehigh student, I wasn’t here to see the final days of Bethlehem Steel. In fact, Bethlehem Steel has been shut down for as long as I’ve been alive. I haven’t seen the changes the community has undergone, nor have I seen the struggles. But, I wanted to understand, and I wanted to experience more than just the Lehigh microcosm. When I heard about “Festival Unbound,” I knew it was my opportunity to feel closer to the city I’ve called home for the past two years. Attending Mary Wright’s “Kitchen Chronicles” allowed me to achieve much more than this goal. I was introduced to both the community and its people through the simple yet moving act of sharing a meal. 

Conceived, written, and performed by Touchstone member Mary Wright, “Kitchen Chronicles” sought to bring people together through storytelling within a kitchen. The inspiration behind the piece can be found on her website’s blog. She reflects on a workshop experience with master storyteller Jay O’Callahan where she was prompted to imagine the life of a kitchen implement. Wright “fell in love with” the exercise and has used it countless times since; indeed, this exercise led to her writing of  “Kitchen Chronicles.” To develop the performance, Wright put out a call for “folks who are interested in chatting with me about experiences, about favorite kitchen lore, about spices and spatulas.” She eventually gathered  24 hours of interviews from families and people all around the world.With this authenticity as the basis of her performance, PBS 39’s show kitchen was transformed into one that embodied every aspect at home. 

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when I walked into the studio, but it certainly wasn’t being sat at the head of a table with almost a dozen strangers. The table was set with mismatched cutlery and plate sets—a look that reflected the hodge podge of dishes my own family esteems as our prized china. Our table also had two floral centerpieces whose bases were old apple pie filling cans. Every aspect of our table setting had been touched with a care that hinted at the special evening we had in front of us.

I let my eyes wander around the room and soon realized I was the youngest person sitting at any of the audience tables, a factor that made it difficult to not feel slightly out of place. Before I could ruminate much more on it, Wright put on her trusty apron and began the show. “Kitchen Chronicles” was part cooking demonstration, part audience-immersive experience, part hilarious comedy, and part poignant monologue. As you probably can tell from this description, Wright’s performance was very similar to life: you never knew what was coming next. 

Throughout the entirety of the show, Wright shared her most poignant memories from the kitchen, as well as those she’d garnered from the interviews, while she prepared the apple pie dessert pizza that filled the studio with the warm, cinnamony smells of holiday baking. One of the early memories she shared involved stepping into her grandmother’s kitchen when Wright was only eight years old. She managed to slow down time as she described how everything on her grandmother’s table—the plates, silverware, milk pitcher—was set “just so” for breakfast (even down to the butter knife that you never used to spread the butter on your own toast because why would anyone want your crumbs?). It was in her grandmother’s kitchen that Wright was introduced to the artistry of bread-making. 

Wright seamlessly switched back and forth between the naive voice of her eight year old self and the poised knowledge of her grandmother as they embarked on the task of mixing, kneading, and proofing bread. 

Her words and imitation of her eight year old self kneading with all her might took me back to similar moments in both of my grandparents’ kitchens. I remembered sitting on my grandma’s dining room floor with her special hand crank mixing bowl and turning the lever until the sticky bread dough made my tiny arm give out. I thought of the kitchen table that was unique to my visits with my grandpa. The butter, jam, and honey were always neatly and evenly placed next to a perfectly sliced stack of his homemade bread, beckoning you to try to eat as many slices as you could before the day’s loaf was gone. Wright’s performance allowed me to relive some of my favorite memories from my childhood, and the recognition on other audience members’ faces told me they’d also been sent back to their own family’s kitchen tables. 

It wasn’t long after Wright began baking bread that her family gifted her with a stable source of recipes: cue the 1978 Betty Crocker Illustrated Cookbook. She pulled out her original copy from the stack of cookbooks behind her and held it up so we could observe its detached binding and tattered pages. It was obviously well-used and well-loved. It was from here that Wright drew inspiration for the meal we shared that night. She moved through the kitchen with a grace that I imagined her grandmother exhibited as she combined the ingredients for the easy dough recipe she now knows by heart. She didn’t even need to flip to page 40. All the while, Wright provided us with her best cooking tips. As she mixed her dry ingredients, she told us, “A wooden spoon is imperative.” When she began mixing, she admonished us to “Never use a metal bowl.” Refusing to give into perfectionism, she reminded us “it’s okay if your measurements aren’t precise.” Though she was technically following a recipe, she did it with an easy joy that reflected the best part of cooking: creating with others. 

1978 Betty Crocker Illustrated Cookbook, as seen on Amazon.com

Whether it was one Bethlehem family’s style of making pierogies or learning the origin story behind a family friend’s special holiday cookies, Wright introduced us to a world of people beyond those of us currently at her table. Learning about their traditions allowed us to know them, and each other, in a way that’s impossible without food. Before the night was over, I knew the couple to my right loved strawberry rhubarb pie, just like I did, but was hesitant when it came to pumpkin. They laughed when I described the American monstrosity that is sweet potato pie—complete with marshmallow—and made a promise to try it. The couple to my left spoke of the wonders of cheesecake and creme brulee, and I laughed as I recounted how I’d been addicted to cheesecake as a kid (I ordered it whenever a restaurant had it on its menu). I’d initially felt so different when I first sat down at that table, but I slowly came to realize that being a Lehigh student wasn’t a difference that separated me from the other people in the kitchen. 

Wright’s humor was encapsulated in both her song about stuffed dough and short skit about the most important kitchen utensil. With the musical accompaniment of  her husband Ben and their friend Bill, Wright proudly sang about loving dough filled with stuff—pierogies, raviolis, dumplings, etc. The entire audience was rife with laughter while Wright put to music what we likely all felt to some degree—who doesn’t love a good ravioli? Her performance also included a skit in which she took on the personas of various kitchen utensils and debated with others as to who was the most important for cooking. Wright’s genius was undeniable. 

By the time Wright’s finished dessert pizza came out of the oven and was passed around for us to try, the wonderful, warm smell of cinnamon and baked apples drifted up from each plate. Wright addressed the fact that we’d all entered the studio as strangers, but we were now leaving as family. Sharing a meal has the power to teach us about each other and forge bonds that are otherwise impossible. As we all toasted with our delicious pizza slices in hand, Wright closed with the sentiment that “food isn’t just food. It’s our family’s history and heritage.” Now that we’d all shared a meal, we were family. “Kitchen Chronicles” embodied everything it means to build a community in Bethlehem and beyond, and we’re all better for it. 

 

If you’d like to try Mary’s dessert pizza, check out the recipe below! 

(Recipe courtesy of Mary Wright. Copied in her words)

(photo credits to Festival Unbound online program)

Mary’s Pizza Dessert 

(with thanks to the 1978 Betty Crocker Illustrated Cookbook – pg 40 for the easy dough recipe!)

Makes 1 dessert pizza – can feed anywhere from 8 to 16 people depending on how you cut it. 

Preheat your oven as hot as you can make it, with a pizza stone in it, if you have one. If you don’t own a pizza stone, a heavy cookie sheet can work – you’ll have to adjust cooking times. 

YOU NEED:

Large mixing bowl 

Wooden spoon 

Pizza stone 

Pizza paddle 

Rolling pin 

Large well-floured surface to roll the dough out on 

Corn-meal for dusting the pizza paddle 

 

Ingredients: 

1 cup warm water 

1 package (or 2¼ tsps.) yeast 

2 tbs. oil 

1 tsp. salt 

1 tsp. sugar

2½ cups flour (with extra as needed)

 

FOR THE TOPPING 

1 can pie filling – (your favorite – I find apple and peach work really well. Or make your own if you’re really ambitious) 

½ cup brown sugar (or more, depending on how much crumble you like on top) 

¼ cup flour (or more depending on how much crumble you like) 

Pinch of cinnamon 

½ cup rolled oats (not the instant kind) 

 

FOR THE GLAZE 

3 tbs. powdered sugar 

Approximately 1 tbs. milk (or almond milk) 

 

NOTE: The combinations of ingredients for the topping and the glaze [are] really more about what you like and what looks good to your eye. As someone told me recently, “cook with your eyes.” 

INSTRUCTIONS: 

The warm water should feel like a really great warm bath, before the water starts to cool off. Place the water in a large mixing bowl (not metal). Sprinkle the yeast over the surface of the water and wait for it to “bloom” – Once the yeast has mostly dissolved, stir with a wooden spoon. 

Add the oil, sugar and salt and stir again to dissolve the sugar and salt. Add the flour. Mix well until the dough starts to come away from the sides of the bowl. Place dough on well floured surface and begin to knead it by hand until the dough is soft and pliable, not sticky, and feels “like a baby’s bottom’ as my grandma used to say. 

Let the dough rest for about 10 minutes or so. 

Meantime, cut up the fruit from the canned pie filling. Set fruit and all the sauce aside in a bowl. Mix the sugar, flour and oats to make the crumble topping. 

When dough has rested enough, roll it out to the size you need for your pizza stone. When you’re happy with the way it looks, transfer it to a corn-meal coated pizza paddle. Fix its shape if you need to. Do not press down on the dough once it’s on the pizza paddle. This will make it stick. 

Spread the fruit topping over the pizza like its sauce. Then sprinkle the brown-sugar crumble over it like cheese. 

Transfer the pizza to the hot pizza stone. (This can sometimes be tricky – if it doesn’t work perfectly the first time, don’t give up. If the dough sticks to the paddle at any point, just help it along with a dough cutter or spatula.) 

Bake for approximately 10-12 minutes (depending on just how hot your oven is). Keep an eye on it, when the edges of the pizza crust look nice and brown and the top is bubbling nicely, that’s when it’s done. Remove from the over. Set it to cool on your (cleaned) cutting board. After a minute or two, drizzle your glaze topping on it and let it continue to cool until its set enough to cut. 

Enjoy! 

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