Bless This Bread

For years, my mother— and my grandmothers before her—made Irish soda bread throughout the month of March in preparation for St. Patrick’s Day. It became a tradition to bake the loaves not only for the family but for the neighbors, friends, and even the priests in our parish, a way to share the love of our Irish heritage. And, I came to realize, no matter how early Ash Wednesday was or how late Easter was, St. Patrick’s Day and our bread-making always fell somewhere in between.

In recent years, the tradition has been passed to me and now my daughters, with the grandmothers gone and my mother making only a batch or two to satisfy my dad’s craving (though he has not an ounce of Irish blood in him). When my brothers and I were growing up, no one in the family could bare to “give up” bread of any kind for Lent. Instead, we “gave out,” delivering loaves in mid-March, each marked with the sign of the cross and a bright green ribbon.

Our recipe card, with its torn edges, egg yolk stains, and remnants of flour in the creases, clearly reminds the baker to “cut a cross one inch deep side to side,” not always an easy task with that sticky dough. A brief prayer of “bless this bread” was added to give thanks. Though my mother said the technical reason was so the heat could penetrate to the thickest part of the bread for more even cooking, we all thought that the other, more spiritual reason was so much better. The cross we make through the center, I was told so many years ago, is a reminder of the crucifix and the Catholic faith of Ireland that has descended, like the recipe, to us. And when lifted from the oven, today as in years past, that cross is deeply embedded into the bread, an outward and natural sign of devotion.

The girls and I started our baking last week, purchasing extra flour and a large carton of buttermilk for the task. Though we leave out the caraway seeds (a throwback to my youngest brother turning up his nose to them as a child) and add a cup of raisins, it’s otherwise as close to my great grandmother’s recipe as you can get. The crosses were visible; all I needed was some bright green ribbon. Joking that this is his favorite holiday, my husband Patrick was ready to bring a plateful into work, and I was ready for deliveries.

As much as we delight in the baking, it is the cross and the “giving out” that remains central to this St. Patrick’s Day tradition, always in the midst of Lent. In the sharing of this traditional treat, sometimes dry but always deliciously familiar, we find joy and community as we literally “break bread” with friends—many not Irish, some not Catholic—in this time of penitence and discipline. We may hold off on chocolate, social media, or trips to Starbucks during Lent, but never the Irish bread, best enjoyed warm from the oven with a touch of butter and a prayer of thanks.