Bristol woman gives away hundreds of homemade loaves

CATHERINE WILLSON LEAVES a couple loves of bread she baked on a bench in front of her home in Bristol for anyone to take. She has baked and given away more than 200 loaves of bread over the past 13 months. Sometimes she gives them to friends and neighbors, sometimes to local businesses and organizations, and sometimes bakes for strangers.

I find it a really meditative thing to do. I like the rhythm and pace of making bread.
— Catherine Willson

BRISTOL — Catherine Willson knows she gave away 225 loaves of homemade bread between March 20, 2020, and March 20, 2021, because she’s been keeping track in a notebook.
She started off just giving bread away to friends.
“Around loaf 30, I’d sort of run out of my friends, so I gave it to people on my street,” she told the Independent. “I was on a board, so I brought it to board members. And it just sort of went like that.”
Kimball’s Office Supply. The Bristol Post Office. The folks at Bristol Electronics and the ski patrol at Mad River Glen.
If the Bristol Food Shelf planned to be open on a particular Friday, Willson would spend the week baking exclusively on its behalf.
In the fall she began posting on Front Porch Forum.
“I will be baking loaves 140-150 (hopefully!) right up to Thanksgiving,” she wrote in a Nov. 21 post. “If you want a loaf of homemade sourdough bread for your Thanksgiving meal, let me know, and I’ll put your name on it and leave it on my porch.”
The post generated a deluge of requests, Willson said, but she managed to fulfill them all.
The Saturday before Easter she took two loaves to the family, whose house in Middlebury was severely damaged by a March 26 tornado.
And sometimes she just leaves a loaf or two on a wicker bench in front of her house, with signs that say “Bread Today” and “Free.”
Occasionally Willson gets thank-you notes, like the one from a young child who drew a loaf of bread, captioned by her mother as “loaf of bread,” and wrote a brief note, translated by her mother as “I really liked it. We ate bread and jam with it, and butter.” Willson keeps that one on her fridge.
In some ways, the act of baking and giving away bread has been simple and straightforward, but the inspiration for this project was rather more complicated.
As Vermont entered COVID lockdown last spring, Willson sat down and reflected on a previous time in her life when she was limited to her home because of a health situation.
“In 2005, my husband, Tim, was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and he was very sick for the year,” she said. “I was really confined to the house. I couldn’t go much farther than 10 or 15 minutes away — a phone call — so that I would be able to be there.”
Tim died in 2006.
Among other things, he was an avid sourdough bread baker.
“So in some ways baking bread is actually a connection to him, a connection to us,” Willson said. “I find it a really meditative thing to do. I like the rhythm and pace of making bread, which was really good for me, because I think after Tim died, I did what everyone tends to do, which is stay busy, stay busy, stay busy. And what this (in 2020) actually gave me was an opportunity to NOT stay busy, to really stay present, and to do something that honors him. In that way it became something larger than just baking bread.”
She decided she would make no-knead bread — “put all the ingredients in a bowl, cover it with plastic, let it sit for 15 hours, form it into a loaf and bake it.”
Before long, however, there were no ingredients to be had.
“I was kind of laughing at myself, thinking I had been so unique and brilliant, and you couldn’t buy flour or yeast anywhere because everybody had the same idea,” she said.
Then Willson made an amazing discovery.
“A friend of mine had some of Tim’s old sourdough starter,” she said. “She had kept it alive. I had had some, too, but in my move to Bristol I’d killed it, and I thought, ‘Oh well, that must be my signal that it’s time to let go.’ And here (my friend) was saying, ‘Oh, no, no, we can bring this back.’ So it’s kind of cool. I’m using the great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchild of Tim’s starter, which feels really poignant and sweet.”
Sourdough itself is amazing, she said.
“You just use water and flour, and the starter has a little bit of yeast in it, and it multiplies and grows as you feed it, and the more you bake, the more the yeast and whatever magic fairy dust that’s in the air keeps your sourdough going.”
Willson plans to keep baking, gifting and counting until she hits loaf 365. Then … she’ll see.
Perhaps the pandemic will be over by then.
In the meantime, “somebody somewhere deserves a loaf of bread, wrapped up with pretty ribbon,” she said. “Especially during COVID.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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