Does something like making bread by hand “count” as expressive art, or craft? Should it? Here’s why my answers are, yes: I believe that everything we create by hand is an expression of our deepest soul, our aesthetic, and of who we have chosen to be as a human.
Making food is an ancient human activity, and was most frequently undertaken as a necessity to survival. But over time, humans multiplied, invented machines, developed mass-production and the ability to grow food in inhospitable places, and to raise and slaughter millions of animals for our convenience. Eventually, humans’ connection to making their own food waned and disappeared. We bought food from stores, plastic-wrapped, delivered from wherever. Tomatoes, tasteless and mealy, are nonetheless available in winter. We can eat tuna, halibut, and shrimp from distant oceans whenever we want. Lambs and turkeys come to us in packages, without heads. Scientists are developing plant-based meat alternatives in labs, and developing genetically-modified plants that will grow in poor soil and dominate lesser-yielding plants. All of this bounty created, disembodied, harvested and delivered, far, far out of an individual’s realm of connection.
Unless one grows their own food, we are dependent upon agribusiness, chemical companies and science for our food. And not everyone is able to grow their own food. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2015, U.S. cities are home to 62.7% of the U.S. population, but comprise just 3.5% of the land area. And certainly, agriculture is not a (pardon the pun) growing business anymore. It’s hard to do, and the return on investment is not good.
But, we can choose to cook our own food, and to bake, and express ourselves through what we make. I got into bread baking for delight of learning how to make something I loved. Since leaving Europe and San Francisco, I had not easily found decent bread (great crust, rubbery, sour tasting inside) elsewhere, so I wanted to learn how to make sourdough bread myself.
“Baking makes me focus. On weighing the sugar. On sieving the flour. I find it calming and rewarding because, in fairness, it is sort of magic – you start off with all this disparate stuff, such as butter and eggs, and what you end up with is so totally different.”— Marian Keyes
Luckily for me, around the time I got interested in bread baking, Jim Lahey of the Sullivan Street Bakery in New York City (right around the corner from where I lived in the Village) published a wonderful recipe for a no-knead bread in the New York Times. For months, I baked loaf after loaf, using Lahey’s very approachable recipe, then others, experimenting with cast iron Dutch ovens, enameled cast iron covered baking pots, and terracotta pots. I tried all kinds of flours and different yeasts–even trying to harvest “wild yeast,” got different bowls to help the bread rise, and loved every moment of the experiments. Of course there were lots of laughs as I fumbled the wad of dough between bowl and board, or tried to get the somewhat gelatinous lump of dough into the preheated Dutch oven–I swear, it moved of its own volition! And there was also frustration as loaves came out uneven–with dark crusts, but uncooked centers (I hate electric ovens and stoves), or somewhat tasteless.
But, most of all, I remember with delight, what the dough felt like when I was kneading it–that happy, rubbery, bouncy push-back of a healthy dough. I loved trying to grow a really sour sourdough starter (my nephew succeeded, but not me), and the mad scientist aspects of that endeavor. And I never failed to wonder at the miracle of bread rising. It was something *I* made–coming alive, taking form, becoming a beautiful, delicious smelling and tasting loaf that I would savor slowly, deliberately, and mindfully, noting things I wanted to change, and things I wanted to repeat in my next loaf.
“How can a nation be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?” —Julia Child
There’s nothing special about wanting to bake bread. The desire to make my own bread arose from a combination of a stubborn, child-like insistence that “I can do it myself–and better,” and my endless curiosity about things; like what makes sourdough sour, and is eating handmade bread different than the experience of eating store-bought bread? Each loaf, each experience of making and eating the bread was unique.
Yes, baking your own bread is different than buying something in plastic from a store. I’m sure that the mindfulness I brought to the experience of making bread contributed hugely to the engagement and enjoyment I had. I shared my fascinating of bread baking with my nephew, Richard, who went on to be an excellent baker, perfecting a sourdough starter that I envied, and baking wonderful, bubbly crusts on his loaves. I will ask him about his experience and see what he experienced during his year or so of baking bread. I am fairly sure that he will express similar feelings of openness and contentment, of a kind of limitlessness of thought and feeling. And a sense of awe as the magic powers of yeast begin to work on a lump of flour and water…
“If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s home and eat with him… people who give you their food, give you their heart.” –Ceasar Chavez