My donning of the bread-baker’s apron was not just a clever escape from an increasingly unethical predicament. More than that, it was a return to simplicity, to usefulness, to deeper and more satisfying meaning.
One of the reasons I changed careers a decade ago–from overpaid hi-tech exec to wage-earning food worker—was because I wanted to have a trade that I could take anywhere and perform at any time. To do something useful, something beneficial and immediate. To have the option of moving off to some small town somewhere and just making food. The art of cooking is the most useful of arts, the most beneficial of crafts, and is certainly immediate in its application. As the saying goes, “Everyone’s gotta eat.”
Working now as a bread baker, I find myself even more connected to craft. It’s one of the oldest of the culinary arts, with a legacy of sustenance that almost predates history. And yet, with all of its longevity, it hasn’t become obsolete or passé. It is as vital to our enjoyment—if not to our sustenance—as it has always been. Its current renaissance as popular craft, with so many small-batch bakeries popping up and everyone talking about “artisan bread,” illuminates a core characteristic of bread baking: it is still an art form of challenging mastery.
The elements of flour, water, salt, and yeast each possess their own inertia, and will do what they are going to do. As a bread baker, my job is to work in concert with their impulses, to act or react at the proper time for developing the best flavor and texture for the bread. It’s a well-scripted art and an improvisational art simultaneously. I accept that I will always be a neophyte.
While I work to achieve a base level of competence, however, the pieces I make are still useful. They don’t pile up like so many unfinished canvasses or studio tapes. I don’t have incomplete projects lying around, or lopsided vases or an archive of poorly-lit negatives. What I have is still useful and sustaining. My test pieces, however unhappy I am with them, are still enjoyable with a spread of jam or tapenade.
Most of all, my hands are busy with honest business. I make my pieces with pride and identity, knowing that they will be enjoyed. The ones I make next week will be enjoyed even more. Upon each is the indelible print of my hands.
Beyond fulfilling the need for nutritional sustenance, bread supplies a greater assemblage of nutrients for an artist: anticipation for the outcome, desire for ongoing exploration, the promise of long-term mastery, and active learning for a lifetime. Everyone needs a good slice of that for dinner.