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November 2, 2012

I think of them whenever our electricity goes off -- the generations of human beings for whom this was the way life was,  people who rose with the sun and slept with the moon.   People whose houses were always cold in winter.  People who could not read  at night unless by candlight.    They far outnumber us: electrification is a newcomer to human experience.  

At times like this, I long to see them.  I sit by the fire with a shawl covering my legs and another my shoulders, and I worry about their attire: if it was this chilly, how on earth did the women endure the décolletage we know characterized their dress in Jane Austen's time?  How did the men of the 18th century endure knee pants?  Or might we have imagined the whole thing, egged on by the hyperactive imaginations of their portraitists and our filmmakers?   No, we did not: some of their clothing remains.  You can visit it in museums.  

Their great-grandchildren queue up anxiously to buy matches, for water in bottles, for ice in bags, fretting about the endangered contents of our freezers.   We dread the absence of our electrical genie before it occurs, calling and texting each other about the impending disaster.   Have you lost power yet?  What about your mom?  Does she have power?

"Power," we call it.   We have no power.  This is our third day without power.  As if the departure of electricity were the loss of all our power.  It is not.  It is the loss of SOME of our power, not all of it.

We were almost out of bread before the hurricane hit, and our oven is electric.  This was the opportunity for which I've been waiting for years: the chance to test a contention of my grandmother's that has always seemed nonsensical to me.   She never liked the newfangled stove my mother had. You can't control the fire, she would fume, like you can in a wood stove.  

What?!?  The stove of my childhood was primitive indeed by today's standards, but it had dials with exact temperatures on them.  

No, no, she insisted.  It doesn't get hot fast enough and you can't adjust it fast enough.  Wood is so much easier.

In memory of her, then, as well as out of necessity, I decided to bake our bread in the fireplace.   I banked hot coals up around my iron pot and put the lid on, leaving it there to get really hot. Then in went the bread and back went the lid.  My internal dialogue with my grandmother began:

Me:  This  won't work.  It's a waste of good flour.  There are no temperature gauges.

My Grandmother:  Yes it will.  People who couldn't even read have been baking bread like this for thousands of years.

Me:  Maybe I need to bake it longer? How will I know?

My  Grandmother: Trial and error.  That's basically how we know everything.

Half an hour into the baking, I removed the lid and looked at the loaf, expecting something pasty and unappetizingly pale.  But no: it was brown and gorgeous -- browner, in fact, than it is at this stage in my fabulous new oven.  Hmmmn.

In fifteen minutes, it was done.  It looked wonderful.  I sliced off the heel when it had cooled.  I don't really eat bread any more, but this was an emergency.  I had an argument with my dead grandmother to win.

Damned if the woman wasn't right.  It was good.  Better than in my new oven?     I'm not sure.  I'd better have another slice.
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