Baking Amends: A New Year’s Resolution that Smells Good

People Magazine, March 2004. Click to enlarge. (Click enlargement to make even bigger.)

In the late 1990s, I had been sporadically jotting down pieces of a story I’d had in my head for years. It was about a young widow who bakes cake—“Pology Cake”—when her misbehavior necessitates an apology. Unfortunately for those around her, this was a fairly common occurrence.

As the year 2000 was coming to a close, with my story still dismembered on random pages in a desk drawer, I met Karen Kiefer, a new neighbor who was pregnant with her fourth child. And though I barely knew her, I sent a dinner to her house when she gave birth to beautiful baby Rose. The meal included Irish Soda Bread. Little did I know this was like a secret handshake, ushering me into Karen’s world of bread and love.

A tradition handed down from her grandmother to warm the afternoons of her childhood, Irish Soda Bread is the currency of Karen’s heart, and she bakes it effortlessly and often. If a friend is sad, or she wants to reconnect with a neighbor, or she just wants to fill her children’s bellies with something rich and satisfying and infused with motherlove before heading out in the morning, she bakes a loaf. Or ten.

So by the summer of 2001, Karen and I were fast friends when she came to me with a great idea. (I soon learned that Karen comes up with great ideas even more often than she bakes bread.) She wanted to start a project that would help children express their innate generosity and would foster a life-long commitment to helping others.

“How about having them bake breads to donate to local shelters, food pantries and nursing homes?” she said. They could bake them with their families—any kind of bread would be fine—and then wrap them like presents, with notes and artwork. We could collect and deliver them.

“Sure!” I said. “Great idea!”

We planned to kick off Spread the Bread to coincide with National Make a Difference Day, annually held on the last Saturday of October. But before we could announce our intentions, September 11th blew the world as we knew it into the crystal blue sky over New York City, rural Pennsylvania and Washington, DC. And as the US became a no-fly zone, we all sat in stunned silence in our homes, barely able to understand, much less explain to our children, what had happened.

Fear, yes, but also a profound sense of powerlessness overwhelmed us. And as powerless as adults felt, children were even more at a loss. “What can I do?” I remember my five-year-old son asking me. What can any of us do? I remember thinking.

After considering our options, Karen and I decided to go forward with Spread the Bread. It was the only answer we could think of for what kids could do: you can reach out to others, you can show you care, you can harness the power of giving. You can bake and wrap and decorate and write notes of encouragement. And it will make a difference in your own heart, as well as in the stomach of someone who’s hungry or feels forgotten. It will matter.

The word went out. Hundreds and hundreds of loaves came back. The notes children wrote were so moving we sometimes cried. We decided to give bread to fire fighters, police officers and postal workers, all of whom were under incredible strain in the aftermath of 9/11. And the response from the recipients of the children’s generosity was tremendous: a nursing home resident who hadn’t eaten anything homemade in months; a shelter worker who said it was like Christmas for her clients; a postal worker who told us that he finally felt appreciated for what he and his co-workers were being asked to handle.

Spread the Bread continues to offer a way for children—for anyone—to express their innate generosity. There are Spread the Bread groups in forty-eight states and seven foreign countries, thanks to Karen’s never-ending stream of great ideas. And I finally finished my story about the Pology Cake-giving widow, never more certain of the healing power of baked goods.

Karen and I put our heads together again and came up with an idea for readers of Shelter Me and the legions of bread-spreaders—for anyone, really. It’s a New Year’s resolution to reach out to someone with whom you aren’t on the best of terms. Maybe you did or said something you regret. Maybe you just drifted apart. As Janie, the main character of Shelter Me, had to do time and again throughout the story, you could say I’m sorry or I miss you or I want you back in my life with the baked good of your choice.

We’re calling it “Baking Amends” and we hope you’ll give it a try. So think of what your baked-good receiver might like most, find a recipe (you’re welcome to use any of those in the “Pology Cake: Bake as You See Fit” section), and get to work! Check out Karen’s Spread the Bread website while it’s bakin.

Apologize. It’s easy, it’s the right thing to do, and now it comes with a homemade snack. Who could turn you down?