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Illustration by Kumé Pather

It started one Friday with a phone call. “I’ve got two loaves of challah rising on the counter,” my brother said casually. “I’ll drop one off at your place in about an hour.” I was both surprised and delighted. Though my brother is no stranger to the kitchen, I’d never known him to bake.

It was the winter of 2021, Toronto was under lockdown, and I hadn’t seen my brother in weeks. If we couldn’t break bread together, at least we could exchange loaves. It would be an opportunity for a brief porch chat – masked, of course, with the length of one hockey stick between us. (Turns out we Canadians are particularly compliant when hockey references are involved.)

My Instagram feed was already bursting with images of skilfully scored sourdough. As terms such as “social distance” and “new normal” entered our parlance, recipes that we once considered too intimidating became part of our regular repertoire. The WASPs did sourdough, the Jews did challah and the overachievers did both.

The loaf was still warm from the oven when it arrived. It was a respectable first attempt – nice balance of sweet and salty, soft tinge of egg yolk, sufficient squishiness. The three strands were braided meticulously, though their tautness betrayed the hand of an amateur, as did the slightly blackened bottom. I smiled, mainly out of appreciation but also with a hint of schadenfreude over the bread’s imperfections.

Six years my senior and annoyingly talented, my brother ventures everything without the shroud of self-doubt that envelops me always. But baking? That’s where I was outrivaled. I got through seven years of graduate school thanks to a well-honed habit of “procrastibaking,” my attempt to show a tangible product for the day’s labours, which otherwise involved grappling with some impenetrable essay by a hard-to-pronounce European philosopher.

First thing the following Friday, I headed straight for my KitchenAid mixer. The plan was to return my brother’s generosity, but I also wanted to show my chops. His too-tight triple-strand creation would pale in comparison to my magisterial four-strand weaving. My two small children – brutally honest food critics that they are – would surely eat twice as many slices of mine as they had of his, and then beg for French toast the next morning.

As the tradition developed over the next few weeks, the quality of the challah steadily improved. My brother’s loaves were immaculate. “I now weigh each strand to ensure uniformity,” he said with just a hint of smugness. I countered precision with complexity, upping my strand count from four to six. This involved watching no fewer than three YouTube tutorials, but I passed the technique off as second nature. His next move was to use locally sourced organic bread flour. I came back with a sprinkle of roasted Japanese sesame seeds. He upped the ante by introducing fresh yeast, an obvious provocation. My next salvo involved an entire jar of farmers market honey, which had cost $16 plus a massive temper tantrum from my toddler, whose insistence on holding the jar made him drop his artisanal Popsicle on the ground.

We couldn’t stop. To do so would be to admit defeat, and not just in terms of culinary prowess. Ceasing to bake challah would be like revealing your failure to change out of pyjamas that day. A perfectly braided loaf, however, is the paragon of domestic harmony. It says: Sure, we’re facing an unprecedented global crisis, but that won’t stop me from taking the dog for an early morning run, turning my work in before the deadline, feeding my well-mannered children a kale and cherry tomato frittata (made with veggies harvested from the garden, naturally), or baking bread before the weekend.

They say misery loves company, but not like survival loves competition.

The porch drop-off ritual only amplified the rivalry. Being invited to a sibling’s porch is a travesty of hospitality: Great to see you, please don’t come in. Exchanging niceties by the front door is not being together; it’s literally being on the threshold of together. When you stand on someone’s porch you can’t see the overflowing kitchen trash can, the dried droplets of pee under the toilet seat, the living room carpet clumped with dried Play-Doh, or the perpetually grumpy teenager lurking behind closed blinds.

Not being together – really together – helped sustain the illusion that we’ve got it together.

But as the pandemic dragged on, momentum waned along with social skills. My days were spent feeding ravenous toddlers while contemplating a career change and the apparent end of the world. I made one pair of loaves with an inconsolable one-year-old on my hip, both of us covered in a combination of flour, olive oil and tears.

“No challah this week,” I texted my brother one morning. The first cracks in the façade we had collectively constructed were now visible. “No prob, hang in there,” came his reply.

I didn’t have it together. But neither did he. And the moment we could admit that was the moment of togetherness we’d been yearning for all those months.

Rachel Seelig lives in Toronto.