Kneaded to Death
A Bread Shop Mystery
Santa Sofia is a magical town, nestled between the Santa Lucia Mountain Range and the Pacific Ocean on California’s Central Coast. I’ve always seen it as the perfect place. Not too big, not too small. Historic and true to its commitment to remain a family-oriented place to live. They accomplished this goal by having more bikes than people, concerts in the park, and a near perfect seventy degrees almost year-round.
I had been gone from my hometown since college but had come back when a horrible accident destroyed our lives as we knew them, taking my mother far too young and leaving my father, my brother, and me bereft and empty. We were still struggling to make sense of what had happened and how a nondescript sedan had backed right into her as she walked behind it in the parking lot at the high school where she’d taught.
“No one saw anything. It was a hit-and-run,” my best friend, Emmaline, had told me sadly. “She never saw it coming, and the doctors say she didn’t suffer.”
That made no sense to me. She was run over by a car. There had to have been pain and suffering, even if it was brief. I relived what I imagined were my mother’s last moments. The split second when she saw the truck backing up, realizing that it was coming too fast and that she couldn’t get out of the way in time; the impact when it first made contact, hurling her back against the asphalt; the force of the vehicle as it rolled over her. I caught my breath, swallowing the agony I knew she’d felt.
The final result of the tragedy was the emptiness of being back in Santa Sofia without her. The place where I was born and raised no longer filled me with the comfort it used to. Things were different now; six months later, I was still trying to pick up the pieces.
Since I was a little girl, taking photographs had always been my saving grace. Capturing the beauty or heartbreak or pure, unbridled emotions in the world around me showed me how small I was in the scheme of things. At the same time, it allowed me to revel in the moments I captured, treasuring each one as a work of art in and of itself. My mother had given me a camera when I was nine years old and constantly in her hair. “It’ll keep you busy,” she’d told me, and it had. I had picked up that camera and had never put it down again. Now I had a degree in design and photography. I’d started a photography blog to keep my creative juices flowing, posting a picture a day. I’d had a vibrant business in Austin. But I was floundering. Since I lost my mother, finding inspiration had become a challenge. My voice had been silenced, it seemed, and I had nothing more to say with the images through the lens.
This lack of direction and the loss of my creative vision are what led me to Yeast of Eden, the bread shop in Santa Sofia. I might be able to end my dry spell if I could find inspiration somewhere. Somehow. But now, as I stood at the doorway, one hand on the handle, I wondered what in the hell I’d been thinking. Baking? A pan of brownies from a boxed mix? Sure. A batch of chocolate chip cookies, courtesy of the recipe on the back of the Nestlé package? Definitely. But from-scratch bread? Not in my wheelhouse. Baking was a far cry from finding beauty through the lens of a camera. The mere thought that I was even contemplating this bit of craziness clearly meant that I was under duress.
True, I’d been to the local bread shop every day since I’d moved back to Santa Sofia. Truth be told, the place was becoming my home away from home, but that did not give me the right to think I could actually make the stuff. And it certainly didn’t mean baking would solve my problems. Grief had to run its course. I knew this, but the reality was that I’d never not feel the emptiness inside.
An image of my dad popped into my head. “What did you bring today?” he regularly asked me. It was becoming almost a joke, because I’d already cycled through nearly everything Yeast of Eden had to offer . . . twice. Baguettes. Sourdough. Croissants. Rye. Wheat pumpernickel. Focaccia.
There were so many choices, and I loved them all. But I did have my favorites. The flaky, buttery croissant in the morning or a crusty sourdough roll at lunch—these were the staples. On a sunny day, the pumpernickel with sliced turkey and cheese hit the spot. When it was rainy, I bought a round loaf of French bread, turned it into a bread bowl, and filled it with homemade chowder.
But this time I wasn’t here to buy bread; I was here to get my hands dirty, so to speak. To plunge them into a bowl of dough and knead, knead, knead. And somehow, despite logic and despite reason, I knew that it was going to be life changing. I had no idea how . . . or why, but as sure as I was standing on the cobbled sidewalk in Santa Sofia, and as sure as the breeze off the Pacific Ocean blew through me, I was 100 percent certain that the bread-baking class at Yeast of Eden was going to send me on a new trajectory.
But was I ready?
Before I had the chance to answer that question in my head, the door opened, and a woman in a colorful caftan and red clogs, hands firmly on her hips, emerged. Her iron-gray hair was cropped short and loose, playful curls danced over her head, and her green eyes, heavily flecked with gold, stared me down. “Ven aqui, m’ija,” she said to me in Spanish, as if I could understand her. Which I could not. “You have to come inside to change your life.”
I jumped, startled. “To change my . . . what? I’m sorry. What?”
“You don’t think I recognize you? You, mi amor, are here every day. You have discovered the magic of this place, and now you want more.” She smiled, her eyebrows lifting in a quick movement that seemed to say “I see this every day.” “Come in. We’re all waiting.”