Stephanie Quinlan: Thanksgiving and social media can make a sweet combination

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PITTSFIELD — For the fourth year in a row, social media has helped create a holiday miracle: bringing a community of bakers together to bake nearly a thousand breads to add to local families' Thanksgiving meals.

"I lost my mom in 2016," said Thanksgiving Baking Angels creator Lisa Fletcher-Udel. "I know she would be so happy to see that I used my knowledge and baking skills to continue to give back to the community. So for me, this project is part of her legacy."

A MISSION

The Baking Angels have been part of the annual Thanksgiving Angels food distribution out of South Congregational Church's food pantry since 2015, when Udel made it her mission to gather like-minded home bakers on Facebook to add donated sweet breads to the turkey, stuffing, veggies and pie already given by the hundreds to needy families. Each year she invites Facebook users from all over Berkshire County to bake zucchini, cranberry, banana, and pumpkin breads — nut-free and sometimes gluten-free — and take shifts handing them out at the always-busy distribution time the week of Thanksgiving.

There are bakers like mom Kandy Munson and her two children, Chris and Alexis, who stay in their pajamas to make a joyful mess in their kitchen in order to, as Kandy says, "give someone else a piece of your family for the holidays." Her pictures on Facebook capture the wondrous holiday spirit of childhood.

There are student bakers whipping up over 200 breads every year in the Bakeshop at Williams College. Jill St. John, Finance Director at Williams' Dining Services, recruits students through social media and email blasts who then take shifts to "measure, mix, and bake the breads," says St. John, and then "help with labeling, wrapping, and storing the breads." She and her husband load up their cars and drive them down to Pittsfield to stack them on South Church's pantry shelves.

Folks from Guardian Life Insurance, Yachad Youth Group at Temple Anshe Amunim, families from Knesset Israel Synagogue, classrooms at Lenox Preschool, ladies from the Rookwood Inn and St. Charles church and mothers and grandmothers aplenty all join in the effort to beat eggs, scoop flour, mash overripe bananas, and wrap up holiday cheer in neat 9-in. by5-in. bundles.

Often, prayers and well-wishes accompany the baking ingredients as well. As home baker Tracey Richards says, "As I pack each loaf, I say a prayer for the family who will receive it for them to have happiness and peace."

At the distribution the Monday before Thanksgiving, the long line ran out the door as families gathered, in efficient fashion, to receive their Thanksgiving feast. It was chilly, and as the sun went down a cold drizzle set in. But the line didn't dwindle until long after dark. Long after the sweet breads ran out.

It's evident in the Berkshires — and especially during the holiday season — that certain dichotomies exist. Quaint rural streets are home to rich and poor. Grey-haired diners sit at restaurant tables next to tattooed millennials. Smart phones ping, and it's anyone's guess who picks up: a well-traveled second homeowner or a bartender working a double shift.

At South Church's food pantry, with long tables heavy with donated sticks of margarine, cans of green beans, and double boxes of Stovetop stuffing, the dichotomies blur — just a little. At the sweet bread station, women share favorite bread recipes. Younger generations prefer banana and cranberry breads, while the baby boomers know the secret scrumptiousness of a moist zucchini bread. One man, in his mid-50s and a too-large knit hat, beamed as he picked out a zucchini bread from the pile: "I haven't had real homemade bread since my grandma made it for me as a kid."

GLEAMING EYES

When eyes gleam and memories flash like that, you know the holidays are here.

For all its faults, social media has its place in the world. And not only, as some may tell you, to share funny videos of cats or take political sides. That's just the crust. What's real about today's method of communication — what really matters, when all is said and done — is that it has the miraculous ability to bring together people from both sides of the Thanksgiving table. To bridge gaps; to find common ground. Even, as the Baking Angels will tell you, if that common ground is found in front of a kitchen oven, covered in all-purpose flour.

A free-lance writer, Stephanie Quinlan found the Thanksgiving Baking Angels on Facebook, baked 10 breads and volunteered for a distribution shift.


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