Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Dare I Bake?

Good things come in threes.

The bread plot deepens.

My dear friend Pat gave me a book of techniques and recipes for baking bread. I had started baking my own whole wheat bread a few months ago. My efforts, though amateur, filled me with delight during many toast mornings and many peanut butter and jelly afternoons. Making yet another decision which isolates me from the supermarket, I have sworn off store bought bread, if I can help it.

With this book I realize I may have started down a road whose destination I scarcely could have perceived. The first sentence I read spoke to sentiments I had already come to cherish in other contexts:
Although modern equipment seeks to duplicate, and thereby nullify, the hard work of the baker, in the actual bakery setting there is no true substitute for skilled hands (66).
Skilled hands! I have written before about longing for manual work with tangible results, even hinting at an inclination for cooking. Author Jeffrey Hamelman continues:
However, for someone aspiring to be an artisan in the historical sense of the word, that is, a skilled manual worker whose hands are integral to the creation of the product, a firm mastery of hand technique is required (66).
The claim that baking bread can connect one to the past, to a mode of being which has been largely forgotten, is exciting. Hamelman also makes it clear that this is skilled labor, not to be learned lightly or in a short period of time, and not to be despised.

Hamelman elaborates by discussing what exactly an artisan is:
One asks, is the baker an artist? An artisan? These days artisan and baker are often combined into one term, as if the unadorned noun baker needs further enhancement. To me, the baker is no artist, for an artist creates something new: This is the domain of poets and painters.

The skilled baker, working with his hands, doing the same work each day, takes his place with the artisans of history: the potters, coopers, carpenters, and smiths. His work may excel and reach toward perfection, but there is little, really, that is new for the bread baker to invent...The baker, each day, tries to perfect something that was worked out hundreds of years ago (86).
In light of that dignified, counter-cultural, and inspiring narrative, dare I bake? Dare I teach these hands to massage something other than a computer keyboard? Dare I meet the ancients at the hearth?

I would sure like to, for several reasons:
  • It seems a more universal skill than any other I possess. A baker can serve anyone, while (say) a programmer is of more limited use. It would be nice to think of returning to South Korea and having something to offer the people other than the English language.
  • It seems an excellent way to connect with my European heritage, since most of these techniques originated there. It would be another way to live as white and redeemed.
  • It seems to connect with other themes of thought which have occupied me in recent years, along the lines of what is lost through industrialization and mass production.
  • It seems an appropriate exploration of masculinity. After all, it was said to the man, "In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread" (Genesis 3:19). Infusing the wheat of the earth with water and air and then tempering it with the fire of the oven - yeah!
  • It seems delicious.
Time will tell if I find the time. If so, I will tell.


Katherine said...

Over the last few days, with nothing else to do with myself, I have found myself lost in the joy of making, from scratch, delicious things to eat. Though I've made is far less nutritional and substantive than bread—mousse and cookies and truffles, oh my!

Making food fulfills so many needs we have as people: raw hunger, of course; also the urge for creation and self-expression; and the need for gatherings and social bondings. Food made is food made to share with others. Some of my happiest moments with other people, when I have felt the closest to them and the most loving towards them, have been preparing some kind of meal for them.

I have bemoaned the lack of good bread here before. If you find yourself back in Korea—and in the presence of an oven—your bread-making will be a wonderful thing to offer. Keep at it!

l e i g h c i a said...

So is it still skilled labour if you use a Kitchen Aid?

Nicholas said...

By the way, I've been doing this continuously for 6 years now.