Food as sport divides up fairly tidily into two categories, contact and spectator, with a bit of media, a few big talkers around the fringes and vast secondary economies cashing in on every aspect of the game.
The active mode, growing, brewing, cooking, canning and baking, has experienced a surge under the current food movements, which have catapulted millions of Americans into their gardens and kitchens much as the back to the earth and self sufficiency communities of the seventies sent young hippies into growing and baking communes. Of course the-bus dwelling, pot-growing Hippies didn’t have Arclinea kitchens and Whole Foods markets, and their clumpy all grain breads and biodynamic grain gruels were usually barely edible, but the sentiments of the two factions are similar.
The current culinary moral imperative – know your food, calculate your water footprint, save the planet – traces its roots straight back to the children of thee summer of love, and that’s a pity, because it misses the point of the downright fun of playing with your food. Dogma is a poor reason for embarking on the creative process that ends up with golden loaves of bread and shelves of Mason jars filled with jewel toned jams.
The spectacular thing about home production for me is that it doesn’t require justification or social motivation. It’s fun – a joyous, sensual, self affirming process starting with a flat of berries, a dead fish or a bag of flour and progressing through a series of motions and senses to a completed, delicious, lovely edible item you can either share with your friends or hoard for yourself.
My favorite food for play is bread. I inherited the knack for it from my mother and aunt, the McClintock sisters, who may have begun making it out of the frugal fiats of their Scott’s heritage, but were skilled enough to create identities for themselves from their successes, Maxine (my mother) winning the Pillsbury bakeoff from which she brought home a pile of swag which included the newest GE stove, a mink stole and a mixer, and Jimmie, who baked her way to the top of her Tidewater society, getting up at 5:00 am daily to pour herself a pint of beer and set up the starter for the day’s bread and food. The smell of rising yeast and fresh loaves was and is for me synonymous with home.
Unlike pastry, bread is not a science. It is an instinct, hedonistic, atavistic and Dionysian. It draws on living things and earth, yeast, bacteria and the gluten strands, which thank the baker for brutalizing the cells of the grain by forming chains to hold water and air. American breads are – or were – mid things between bread and pastry. By the time I reached adulthood, you had to go overseas to experience the infinite possibilities of leavened grain.
Fifteen years after the war I had the good fortune to land in Europe with the limitless offerings of regional bakeries not yet impacted by the gargantuan food corporations which would eventually decimate them when European women began to demand convenience and price without realizing the quality it would cost them in their foods. Master bakers still ruled, and the preferred shops were easily identifiable by the lines of disciplined shoppers stretching out onto the sidewalk.
In Germany, where I landed, there were “Semmel” – hard crusted, soft centered breakfast rolls with a pinwheel on top, which cost me a few clothing sizes – and “vollkorn”, dense, black-brown, moist breads baked with entire grains and berries. Smeared with pate or white cheese sprinkled with herbs, it was dinner. The German word for dinner is not “Abendbrot” or “evening bread” by chance. Each town or village had its own signature baked goods, and every other country – France, Sweden, Austria added to the wealth.
A few years later I found myself in Switzerland with my own kitchen and mixer with a mill/grinding attachment. Since our back yard was bounded by a hundred or so acres of wheat, barley or depending the season, corn, baking was a given. Every housewife knew how, had her own recipes and tips, and everyone wanted to share. On holidays we baked with the kids. Our kitchens and homes smelled like fresh loaves. Bread was a social connection, a metaphor and a health food. That was twenty years ago, and it could not last.
About a year back I got bit by the baking bug again at Rainbow Grocery. I had gone for something else, but one minute I was standing in front of bins of hard wheat and soft wheat, rye, graham, 00 and high/low gluten flour, and the next I was at checkout with $20 worth of different flour varieties.
They shouldn’t say that something you stop doing and then start again is “like riding a bicycle.” They should say “It’s like making bread.” Once you learn, you never forget the right feel of the dough, the look of the surface and even the sound of the dough slapping against the butcher block. It’s hard for me to understand how I went for so many years without the ceremony of cutting off the hot heel of the oven hot loaf and smearing it with butter.
A lovely friend, whose previous incarnation was as a baker and celebrated pastry chef, says there’s an old village (that’s redundant – there are no new villages) in the Canton of Vallais outside of Geneva, where the local bakery gives weeklong baking courses for making the original breads of the region. It would be in autumn. Maybe I’ll go.
In the meantime I have a sweet dried apricot rye that brings happiness from the moment the yeast bubbles to the last end crust of the double loaf. I’m in the game again, just for the pleasure of it.