What baking bread is, and what it isn’t

Recently, my dad taught me to make bread, that most cliché territory of romanticized domestic life. For many people, the idea of baking bread means baguettes in France and living on the frontier and going back to a simple life when people had time to spend at home making their own food. The contact of hands on dough, kneading back and forth across a table, and all the sensuousness of that image. Food is sex, it’s life in tactile form. It becomes part of you on a daily basis. Bread, the most basic of all food in the West, is what fell from heaven when there was no food in the desert. It is sensual, requires time and patience, and we eat it almost every single day in some form or another. When you have nothing else, you have bread.

This was one of my first loaves.

But all of that romance isn’t part of my experience learning bread. I don’t particularly care for France, or baguettes for that matter, and living on the frontier sounds like unwashed, frigid hell. For me, bread has changed the way that I experience food, the way I think about my dad, and the way that I see myself.

After ruining a few basic loaves, I respect food just a little bit more, particularly the people who have created it for me. Those people are usually forgotten, even though they  put work and time and thought toward creating something that keeps the rest of us alive. It’s not such a simple thing as we have come to expect, the creation of that food, but we have made it so by buying fully-made frozen burritos at the grocery and ordering takeout on Friday night by hitting the speed-dial. We forget that each thing in that burrito had to come from somewhere, and that it had to be changed somehow and given to the other ingredients to make it into food that nourishes us. I order soup from the Vietnamese place down the block from my office and I wonder how they made the broth and how much time it took. How they learned and who they learned from, and what that knowledge means to them.

I am also beginning to see my dad not just as my father who went to a famous culinary school, then ran a bakery for fifteen years and became known in our town for his pastry and dough, but as a master who practices a complex art that I never had the maturity to respect until now. I am humbled that I was so close to someone who has a knowledge this deep and rare, and that I never bothered to explore it. “My dad bakes,” I would think. Bakes. I had no idea what that meant, how much he had to know just to make three of the things that he filled his sheet pans with. I’m ashamed that I took it for granted and never asked him to teach me. Most of all, I’m grateful that I am learning now.

This was one from the next round.

Because I now see myself as a student of that art, and every time I pull a new bread out of the oven, I feel a sense of power that I have created something that never existed in the world before. It makes me think I can learn and do anything. Because every time I put flour, water, salt and yeast into a bowl and plunge my hands in, I put myself into a classroom of one. The entire rest of that night, I engage in a conversation between me and the bread, me and my dad, and me and the yeast. We are all working together on this thing, but I am the only one who can make it the right way or mess it up. And just because it rises doesn’t mean it’s made right. I close my eyes to feel the structure while I’m kneading and I think about the bread while it’s rising in the pans. Until it’s baked off and I consume it, it consumes me.

“You make bread?” Someone says. “I made bread once. Making bread is fun!” I have to just smile, because it would take too long to explain. Any housewife can dump four ingredients into a bowl and glom them together, let the thing rise, and stick it in the oven. Poof, it’s going to be a bread in the technical definition. That’s what the ingredients want to become. But that housewife will never know bread, and I am not standing above a mixing bowl for the same reason she is. It’s not enough for me to be able to impress dinner guests for the rest of my life with “homemade bread.” I want to be able to make a ciabatta in the morning and a brioche in the afternoon, to be able to control the texture and the rise and the growth of the yeast. When I get good enough that none of my loaves have blisters on the crust and all of them have unique and complex flavor, then I will know that I am good enough. Bread is so much more complex than I ever thought, and if I can master it, then I can do anything. But mastering it will take a long time.

That one came out the best.

And that is what makes me think that I am falling in love with it. Not bread itself, but that process of putting myself into a classroom. Of knowing very little and having a sense of being very small, and being hungry for more.

This is my brain on bread. This is my brain now.


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