Love and Friendship


On Poetry, Our Daily Correspondent


Johannes Vermeer, Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid, oil on canvas, c. 1670-71

Do you remember Amish Friendship Bread? Basically, it’s like a chain letter, except you give people bags of gloppy, smelly starter, which they grow and mix with various strange ingredients, and distribute along with loaves of bread; the idea is you pass it along in perpetuity. It’s easy to find the recipe online. One—which attributes it to a “Mrs. Norma Condon of Los Angeles”—describes it thusly: “This is more than a recipe—it’s a way of thinking. In our hi-tech world almost everything comes prepackaged and designed for instant gratification. So where does a recipe that takes ten days to make fit in? Maybe it’s a touchstone to our past—to those days not so very long ago when everything we did took time and where a bread that took ten days to make was not as extraordinary as it seems today.” (Well, those days not very long ago when you made a bread with a box of instant vanilla pudding, anyway.)

Name notwithstanding, the bread apparently bears very little resemblance to anything made by the Pennsylvania Dutch. Wikipedia was good enough to address the issue, informing us that “according to Elizabeth Coblentz, a member of the Old Order Amish and the author of the syndicated column ‘The Amish Cook,’ true Amish friendship bread is ‘just sourdough bread that is passed around to the sick and needy.’”

As memory serves, I was neither particularly needy nor infirm the long-ago summer it came into my life, but, perhaps knowing that I liked to bake, a church friend of my grandmother’s brought me the Ziploc bag of starter, and I dutifully fed and stirred it every day before forcing sacks of it on three hapless neighbors, along with the obligatory mimeographed paper bearing the instructions and recipe. Not making it did not even occur to me: this was on the order of a sacred trust. And while the final product—which is somewhere between a gently-spiced snack and a dessert—may leave something to be desired, it’s true that making the friendship bread was a fun experience.

I think that was the last chain I ever continued. But then, in those early days of email, we all became reckless chain-breakers: there was simply no way to keep up with the letters and threats and benign pyramid schemes that filled our inboxes. And then you call their bluff soon enough you learn that no bad luck has befallen you. Or worse, that it has, and it’s too late. And after a certain point, they just stop coming. Maybe people can tell you don’t have the vocation to be a priestess of the chain flame, or whatever.

So I was surprised, the other day, to receive an email about a poetry chain. Participants were encouraged to send along inspiring bits of favorite verse to the lead name on a list and forward the chain to an additional twenty friends. My initial reaction was skepticism; I didn’t want to spend the time doing it, or flood my friends’ inboxes. But there were things about the email I liked—that it was specifically a one-time thing, that we were encouraged to use a poem or quote we already had in mind. So I did just that: I sent along the Keats sonnet that has been buzzing around my head to the name on the list, and, feeling a bit like someone’s aunt, passed the email on to friends.

Then the replies started coming in, from names I recognized and those I didn’t. There was a quote from Calvino’s Invisible Cities, and the lyrics to “Sunny Side of the Street.” I opened my email before breakfast to find a Persian poem:

The vegetables would like to be cut
By someone who is singing God’s Name
How could Hafiz know
Such top secret information?
Once we were all tomatoes,
Potatoes, onions or

and next time I checked, a link to Built to Spill’s  “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss.”

This was the shortest: “O little Purgatory, / the necessary expanse / between desire and duty!” (That’s Nicky Beer’s “Ode to the Perineum.”)

I was so inspired by this project that I began thinking fondly of that long-ago batch of Friendship Bread, even toying with the idea of reanimating the chain, maybe with a streamlined recipe. Delighted to see that no lesser an authority than Martha Stewart had provided a recipe, I clicked on the comments. “I very disappointed with Martha’s lack of understanding the recipe,” said one Mary. “She should have read and understood it before going on air. I thought it really made her look ‘silly.’ Also the Amish do not watch TV. The recipe does NOT even list the instant pudding so it is wrong also. What’s up with this? Martha can do better than this. She should do another show and do it correctly.” Bad luck.