St. Helen of Ephraim: Saint of Home Baked Goods

St. Helen of Ephraim: Saint of Home Baked Goods

Baking is both an art and a cultural glue in Mormonism.  Latter-day Saint (LDS) Women meet monthly at “Homemaking Meetings” to trade recipes, practice their skills, and learn nuances of domestic arts.  Mormons bake for many reasons – to put wholesome food on the table, to master culinary skills, to remember their mothers and grandmothers, to connect with their children and grandchildren, to impress others with their abilities, to woo a husband, to win bake-offs, to outdo their neighbors, to keep a dying art alive – and to convert non-members.  Sometimes gifts of homemade food come with a conversion agenda baked right in.

During the time of Helen, when women still commonly made bread and cakes from scratch, baking skills were particularly lauded in Mormon culture. Helen grew up in Ephraim, Utah, a small town centered around a post office, a few shops bordering US 89, farms, Snow College, and LDS chapels.  Helen’s father was a barley and wheat farmer.  Her mother grew vegetables and fruit trees in a backyard Victory Garden, which Helen and her siblings helped weed, water, and harvest.  The family had little spare money, relying mainly on the food they could produce.  Despite limited cash flow, Helen’s mother and father always made sure the family had enough to eat and was neatly dressed, though penny candy and store-bought clothes were infrequent luxuries.

At first, baking was a have-to for Helen.  As her mother baked rather than bought bread and sweets, Helen helped her mother bake large batches of bread, biscuits, and egg noodles every week to feed her and her five siblings.  Her mom reminded her that this was all good practice, because “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” Helen wanted to have a family of her own someday and figured baking skills couldn’t hurt.  Still, some weeks it seemed to Helen like all she did was bake.  Though she longed for more time to knit, read, and hike, and even considered working in the Parachute Plant in Manti during WW II, she decided instead to help her hard-working mother by cooking, caring for her younger siblings, and doing household chores.   As the oldest child, Helen was usually the one chosen to deliver her mother’s specially-baked goods to friends and family to help mark special occasions or to soften hard times.

With so much practice, Helen became proficient in the kitchen.  Though she cooked casseroles, sauces, Jell-O salads, and stews for her family, she found she liked baking best.  The process of grinding, sifting, kneading and baking became a meditation.  Plus, she loved the smells of bread browning, strudel crisping, and cookies baking.

One year, when Helen was around twelve years old, her mother encouraged her to enter chocolate chip cookies, lemon squares, and wheat bread to be judged at the State Fair.  Three blue ribbons increased Helen’s enthusiasm to enter that year and every year afterward.  To increase her chances of winning “Best of Show,” Helen began experimenting with spices, butter types, and the potency of eggs.  She poured through years of collected cookbooks published by the local Mormon women’s group, The Relief Society, and learned to bend recipe rules.  As Helen refined her skills, her reputation as a fine young baker started to spread, as did attention from the local young men.  Baking soon became a way for Helen to gain respect.  Helen also used her skills to soften the hearts of many non-Mormons with her delicious conversion cookies and fluffy fellowship loaves; always baked with the hope that her food might lead someone into the Mormon fold.

Just after her 19th birthday, Helen entered the temple and married a handsome and articulate young man newly returned from missionary service in Europe.  They met at a ward social.  She watched the handsome returned missionary serve himself a piece of her carrot cake from the potluck table.  After taking a few bites – he was particularly impressed with the frosting that had some flavor in it that he couldn’t quite place – he asked around to find the baker, was introduced to a blushing Helen, courted her, and fell in love with more than her cooking.

As a married woman, Helen baked nearly every day in her little kitchen, surrounded by red gingham curtains and tablecloths, and by flour sack dishtowels decorated with the name of each day of the week.  Helen baked despite morning sickness, demands of small children, household chores, and church callings.  Even though boxed cake mixes now commonly graced store shelves, Helen preferred to bake from scratch – sifting the flour once for most things, and three times for special cakes.

Sometimes, in a pinch, Helen would make due with store-bought ingredients, but not often.  Eggs usually came from her neighbor’s chickens rather than egg cartons, butter from a sibling’s cow, and grain from her father’s farm. Most of Helen’s neighbors didn’t understand her obsession with authentic ingredients, but Helen insisted that real vanilla tastes better than artificial, that whole milk makes a moister cake, that the eggs of home-fed chickens have a richer yolk, and that freshly churned butter tastes best.

To become a Saint, beyond the ordinary “every member is a saint” status all Mormons claim, requires a miracle.  Helen’s first miracle happened just after the last of her children left home to start a family of his own, when her kitchen was finally quiet, almost serene.  Helen was baking a batch of chocolate chip cookies, as she had a hundred times before, but this time, she created something miraculous – a batch of cookies completely free of hidden agendas.

To this day, Helen is not sure exactly what happened.  In her words, “miracles are just like that, mysterious.”  Standing in her kitchen that day, wearing her ruffled apron, her hands covered in bits of dough, she realized that she was enough, that she had always been enough, and that anything she baked would always be enough.  She didn’t need to impress the neighbors. She didn’t need to lure anyone into the church with food; the message of the gospel was either something someone wanted or something they didn’t.  The baked goods didn’t matter.  They never did.  On that miraculous day, a humble batch of cookies flowed simply from Helen’s innate creative spark and her love of baking – simple, authentic, and therefore, perfect. Like sourdough starter, the energy of this miracle multiplied and divided, opening portals to even more miraculous foods.  With nothing left to prove, she was free.

Finally untethered from agendas she had hidden even from herself, Helen became alchemical.  Her kitchen became a bridge connecting her past to her future.  As she baked sugar cookies she remembered her childhood – cutting shapes from chilled dough, baking, frosting, and decorating while she and her mother chatted about their lives.  As she baked bread, she remembered her great-grandmother, who baked seven loaves, always served with fresh butter and honey, every single day until her nine children were grown.  As she baked cakes, Helen remembered the sweet rich flavor of yellow cake with thick cocoa frosting, baked from scratch by her mother’s mother – always served in a rectangular metal pan with a sliding metal lid.  As she baked biscuits, she remembered Southern style homemade biscuits, served hot with melted butter by her father’s mother, fresh from the cast iron stove at the family cabin.  As she baked pies she remembered apple pie, with red-hot cinnamon candies melted right into the filling, baked by her father every Christmas and Thanksgiving.   As she arranged cookies onto plates she remembered driving her children over snowy roads to deliver Christmas gifts to neighbors.

Helen connected with future generations by giving each grandchild a collection of her best recipes, written in her spidery cursive on fancy recipe cards, always in blue ink, and usually marked by a greasy thumbprint or an incidental dusting of flour.

After the miracle of the agenda-free cookies, everything Helen baked was blessed.  The pores of her cookies, bread, sweet bread, pastries, and biscuits were infused with love.  She intuitively knew who needed her food, and when to deliver it. There are stories of Helen appearing almost magically at the bedside of a sick child holding a plate covered with pieces of extra pie crust, baked golden and sprinkled with brown sugar and cinnamon.  Freshly-baked loaves of bread anonymously appeared at the doorsteps of people struggling with hunger.  Helen’s homemade egg noodle chicken soup could cure even the worst cold or flu.  Helen’s rarest gift, a tiny one-person pie filled with the recipient’s favorite filling, could cure serious illness better than a priesthood blessing.

There were other miracles too.  People say that Helen could divide the dough for her loaves to fill as many pans as needed, regardless of the amount she started with, and that she never ran out of ingredients when she baked for someone in need.  She baked fruit cakes people actually wanted to eat, pie crusts so light they needed filling to keep them from floating out of the pan, wheat bread as airy as store-bought bread, and biscuits lighter and fluffier than those made with Pillsbury dough.

Helen passed her secrets to a few worthy disciples who continue to bake agenda-free, love-filled, and miraculously healing baked goods to this day.  You may have eaten food blessed by her craft.  It would have arrived just when you needed it.  You might suspect St. Helen’s influence, but the baker would never tell you if they were a disciple, even if you asked.  If the flavors were unique, the timing perfect, and every bite filled you with love and vigor, then maybe, just maybe, a morsel of St. Helen’s magic touched your life.

St. Helen is the patron saint of bakers, nutritionists, healers, the baking-challenged, and the pure in heart.  She can be invoked simply by calling her name in times of hunger, sickness, or sadness.  St. Helen favors aiding people who genuinely enjoy creating with dough, people trying to love more selflessly, people striving to be free of hidden agendas, and people who want to bridge gaps between generations.  St. Helen likes offerings of handwritten recipes, especially those written in blue pen, cookie cutters in unusual shapes, real vanilla extract, and thrice-sifted flour.  She loves the color red, especially in gingham check.  Her day of celebration is August 1, when she takes a loaf of barley bread, breaks it into pieces, and scatters it for birds and small animals to enjoy.  Helen encourages everyone to offer bread to all creatures freely, especially on her day of celebration.

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