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Sunday, March 6, 2011

A personal history of bread and baking

By Chris Siciliano

Roseburg sourdough
The first time I baked bread was in early September, 2008. Gena and I had just moved into a house in the Rosewood neighborhood of Columbia, South Carolina. Cola-town, South Cackalacky. The official home of boiled peanuts (awesome) and Palmetto Bugs (not so awesome). This was our first place together and already we were less than enamored of our landlord. Not a bad guy, just more enthusiastic in his landlording than we were used to, stopping by often and without warning. It was our first place together and we knew already that, despite our landlord, we had made the right decision. Gena planted tomatoes and zucchini beside the garage out back. I watched the backyard pecan tree with anticipation, waiting for the nuts to fall, not yet knowing how well they would complement golden raisins in the rustic French farm loaves I later taught myself to bake.

The first time I baked bread I was just beginning my last year in graduate school (English), working on my thesis, taking two classes, and teaching another. I spent most of my day at the computer, pecking out page upon page of lesson plans, essay analyses, essay responses, emails to students, professors, classmates, family, friends, etc, etc, etc. Only occasionally did the tap, tap, tapping of the keyboard taper off into oblivion, and if that awful keyboard-silence marked the end of something, it was more likely the end of my rope than it was the end of my daily workload. I've heard it said that graduate school is not like real life, that real life exists only outside the boundaries of the University. Real life or not, in graduate school the work is difficult and unending and it often turns your brain the consistency of bread dough. Now that it’s over, I find I sometimes miss it badly.

Whole wheat pecan golden raisin

The first time I baked bread I needed distance from the essay I was writing. Pacing the house from room to room, I was looking for a way to divert my attention: a worn-out baseball glove and tennis ball; a guitar played poorly; recurrent visits to the ever-tempting bounty of the refrigerator—almost anything would do, even the glossy pictures in an old cookbook. Two weeks earlier, a friend had gifted Gena a book about bread, an outdated relic from the 1970’s and something I’d totally ignored until then. In it though were wonderful full-color photographs of obscure (to me) breads and pastries, pretzels, bagels, and flatbreads. Captivated by those delicious-looking photos, I decided to try a recipe, the first and supposedly easiest in the book: basic Italian white bread. Who knew that from just one loaf full-blown obsessiveness would emerge.

The first time I baked bread I used too much flour. I didn’t know how to measure correctly and, when the recipe called for three cups, I packed them so tight it took damn near an act of congress to get the flour loose again. Not surprising then that the dough was far too stiff to knead easily and ultimately made for an overly-dense, too-dry bread, much like an aromatic paving stone. But man alive did that stone taste wonderful! Gena likened it to the rustic, crusty loaves she ate while studying years ago in Malta. I noticed similarities, albeit distant, to the perfect bread of my memory, the bread my grandparents made—and still make, five loaves at a time—for us grandkids on holidays, get-togethers, and weekends up-North. The golden crust. The creamy white crumb. And the smell. The slightly nutty, slightly sweet aroma of, well, fresh-baked bread. There's simply no better way to say it.

Roseburg sourdough crumb

Big eared bread

Humans and cereal grain and even yeast must have co-evolved, adapted over millennia to work together perfectly, a team on which each member does its part to improve upon the whole—grain to provide the sustenance, yeast to make it more palatable and to preserve it, humans to organize and endlessly replicate the dance. A triangle so beautiful even Pythagoras would blush. For my money, beer is evidence enough of this symbiosis. But if you’ve ever smelled a kitchen during bake-day, you’ll notice something elemental seeping phantom-like through your neural pathways, a scent to call up the shadowy specter of early civilization, even times before. If Ben Franklin was right and beer is proof that God loves us, then fresh-baked bread is proof that heaven exists—what else could smell so good?

And this is why, on some level, my first homemade loaf of bread left me feeling troubled. When I pulled it from the oven, I was absolutely astonished to find that the recipe had worked, that I had made bread—bread!—in my own kitchen, with no special equipment, and with only four, readily available ingredients: flour, water, yeast, salt. No factory necessary. No machinery. No chemicals. Until then I didn’t think it any more possible to make bread at home than I thought it possible to build my own car, or refine my own oil, or compose my own symphony or…well, you get the idea. The problem though is that bread is so easy. Flour, water, yeast, salt. Mix, knead, rise, bake. That’s it. That’s all there is to it. There are nuances, sure, and ways to complicate the process. But there is no mystery. Why is it then I believed that producing bread, the very staff of life, was beyond my ability, that like a new pair of socks, bread could only come from (a) my grandmother or (b) the supermarket. This disconnect bothers me still. And not just a little. It makes me wonder what else I can do. It makes me wonder why the disconnect at all.

The first time I baked bread was an experience nothing short of revelatory. I was proud of my inaugural loaf to an absurd degree, misshapen and dry though it was. A more recent attempt produced not one but three loaves, and not your basic white bread either, but rich-tasting five-grain sourdough with flax and sunflower seeds. These were much better tasting than that first historic paving stone, and better looking too. Anyway, I’m hooked now, thoroughly addicted to the pursuit (and defense) of good bread. It sounds crazy I’m sure, but to me, when I really think about it, there are few things more important. It’s the staff of life, for crying out loud. What could be more vital?

Five-grain sourdough

Unabashed breadhead Chris Siciliano is a writer, teacher, and the managing editor of The Buzz. He lives and bakes in Grand Rapids, MI, where there's always something rising. A version of the above post appeared last year on Chris' now-defunct blog, The Bread Defender. Reprinted with permission.

1 comment:

  1. The first time I tasted your bread was in your kitchen before a dinner of salad and mushroom risotto. It was a fantastic meal and even better friendship.

    Thinking of your bread also reminds me of Columbia--of leaving Columbia, specifically. You gave me a loaf of bread for my drive North, and I ate some but took most to my friends' home in Virginia, where I stayed that night. That night we had it with a great dinner--full of laughs.

    I'm fortunate here in Bingo to have a colleague who also makes bread, and I've told him and his wife about your breads. Whenever I eat his bread, I always think of you guys.

    Thinking of bread also reminds me of my grandma and my aunt, both of whom have passed away. I think of my aunt's daughter and her daughter, who still know how to make the family recipe and do so for every holiday.

    Thinking of your bread reminds me how fortunate I am to have such good friends and family. I hope you guys are well!