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  • Willow Feller

It All Started With the Starter

Updated: May 11, 2023

Who remembers the Amish friendship bread fad? Anyone?


Or am I the only one who baked so much of this sweet dessert bread in the 1980s and 90s that forcing its consumption ended up as a very unfriendly entry on the family chore list?


"Did you eat some friendship bread? No playing outside until you eat some friendship bread."


"Get back here, girls--you know you can't play Oregon Trail until you eat some friendship bread first!"

For those of you who participated in this baking craze some thirty years ago, I bet you can recall that first Ziploc bag of tan-colored yeast starter you received from a friend, maybe at a get-together or a bible study. It would have been accompanied by a handwritten or photocopied instruction note. (Or "Xeroxed" as those of us old people who remember feeding dimes into the Xerox copier at the public library say.)


Sharing our goopy bags of friendship bread starter in 1985 seemed so fun and innocent at first. I was living in Canada and was pregnant with my third child when one of the craftiest of our crafter ladies in our circle served us slices of the super sweet, cake-like bread and then gifted us each with a squishy bag of starter.

What we didn't know at the time was that we had just been handed a project. She might as well have foisted a puppy on us that we hadn't asked for. Her original friendship bread starter had birthed a litter of portions that needed to go to homes or it would all die. So her "gift" essentially committed us all to the work of maintaining the starter and its constant reproductive habit--a 10-day gestational cycle that resulted in mountains of a high-calorie dessert misnamed as bread. Even my big-appetited family couldn't work their way through the avalanche of loaves that fell out of the back freezer every time we opened the door.


As in all trends, the novelty wouldn't last long. It only took a half dozen baking cycles for a resurgence of one's acne and the acquisition of doughier love handles to convince one to finally flush the starter down the drain and put an end to the madness.

******


Another type of starter bubbled to society's surface sometime in the early 1980s. It, too, was distributed among Christian circles, but not in plastic bags. I received my first several portions through radio broadcasts, books, and cassette tapes.


This heady, vigorous starter originated from a deliberate introduction of politics into the American Christian church in 1979. By the early 1980s, it had grown into a political/religious movement headed by an organization called the Moral Majority.


I, along with many of my Christian friends, accepted a portion of its starter and concocted our own versions of bread to share with our neighbors. After all, none of us could argue with the movement's purpose--to reestablish traditional family values and advocate for a return to the Christian principles our nation was founded on.


This was no sneaky starter. It didn't creep into the American Church quietly, unseen. It rode into the public consciousness as an exciting idea delivered by a group of bold leaders riding together on the back of a white horse. Originally stemming from the Southern Baptist Convention, but later incorporating other church denominations, the Moral Majority broke ranks with the traditional Baptist adherence to the separation of Church and State and headed straight into lobbying for conservative political causes and backing Christian political candidates.


Like oxygenated fuel in a race car's tank, an unabashed mixture of patriotism and religion sped the movement's platform ahead faster than anyone could have predicted. Christians became enamored with the idea that God would use sanctified politics to stem the growing tide of immorality in America. The leaders promoted the exciting idea that voting wisely was akin to shooting bullets accurately--straight into the heart of the enemy.


This yeast, this American political leaven, spread fast throughout the evangelical world and produced mountains of puffy, cardboardy, packaged loaves of bread with which to fuel its soldiers in God's army. This bread, concocted as it was through human means, though, packed none of the nutritional punch needed to sustain anyone thrust into an unwinnable war.


Following on the heels of the Vietnam War, this battle to liberate the captive hearts and souls of Americans was destined to falter at some point. The true enemy was not a new enemy, and no amount of conservative legislation or Supreme Court decision-making can ultimately defeat the source of all immorality. As author and teacher Steve Brown says, "We’ve made enemies of those to whom Christ has called us to win with the Gospel of Jesus. Instead, we’ve made morality the god to which we are trying to win the lost world." 1


"We’ve made enemies of those to whom Christ has called us to win with the Gospel of Jesus. Instead, we’ve made morality the god to which we are trying to win the lost world." 1

The source that fuels our nation's most dangerous enemies is sin. Good ol' garden variety human sin, injected into our DNA from the dawn of humankind.


And the only one with the power to defeat sin at its source didn't ride onto the scene as a mighty general on the back of a galloping steed.


Our Messiah, our Saviour, our Bread of Life rode into battle on the back of a donkey colt--a symbol of humility and meekness. Disregarding the politics of the day in which he lived, Jesus went straight to the heart of society's problem. That is, the sin in my heart and yours.


******


A majority is only a majority until it becomes a minority. Without the ability to truly legislate sin away, the Moral Majority retreated into the background just enough to allow a left-wing president to take office in 1993.


Of course, there have since been resurgences of the Moral Majority's ideals, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing. God does ask His people to take a stand against societal corruption and involve themselves in politics at times. He even calls some individuals to step into a political career. And thank goodness for our brave Christian brothers and sisters who work tirelessly to fill that calling! But their occupations should not become a preoccupation for the rest of us. We shouldn't attach the field of politics to the advancement of the Kingdom of God any more than we would with the medical field or the sphere of education.


Moreover, a much more effective way to battle evil is to slay its source, not engage in an endless whacking against its symptoms that constantly pop up in different areas like sneaky moles.


Friendship bread made a brief reappearance in my life in the mid-1990s. In a bout of amnesia similar to that which causes a woman to forget how much pain and sleeplessness comes with a newborn, I accepted a pregnant bag of starter about ten years after the first time. This starter produced an even sweeter dessert by incorporating a box of instant pudding into each batch of batter.


This round of more potent friendship bread entered our home at the same time the Nano/Giga Pets craze did. Anyone remember those?


With three school-age daughters at the time, we endured the presence of these weird toys that demanded as much of their owners' involvement as the friendship starter did from me.


Come to think of it, a lot of 90s trends required extra work and upkeep. Take house decor, for example: why merely slap a coat of paint on a bedroom wall and call it done in three hours, when one could slave for several days over sponge painting and stenciling those same walls? Or why leave a simple mini-blind as the only window covering when one could fuss for days over sewing, pleating and poufing jewel-toned bubble valances to adorn those same windows?


Similarly, trying to maintain a legislative fence around societal immorality gets time-consuming and expensive and exhausting for everyone after a while. Especially when, in 1998, the President himself is accused of indulging in dreadful immorality. With a few notable exceptions, the players in the Religious Right began to tire from the lack of nutrition in their less-than-friendly friendship bread.


At some point, the busyness of life takes its toll on moms and children alike. The friendship starter gets neglected, starts to smell strong and is finally dumped down the toilet where the mom justifies its disposal as "reviving the action in the septic tank." (Hmm. Maybe a metaphor for politics somewhere in that sentence? Nah, I think I'll just leave that one alone.)


The Nano chicken and the Giga frog eventually died slow deaths from neglect in the depths of backpacks and junk drawers, and the kids went on to puff-painting and bedazzling anything that sat still for too long.


Yet, the timeless leaven of the Bread of Life, weathering all trends as it does, continued to quietly infiltrate multiple aspects of our society. Like a wild yeast strain, invisible yet always present in the air around us, Jesus waits patiently for us to believe in him and open our endeavors to his transforming takeover--the takeover of our hearts, not our government, that is.












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