breaking bread


proud bread mamma: the first baguette I made entirely by myself

I’ve been ensconced by dough lately. I start my days at 3am now, coffee mug in hand as I quickly and quietly descend the stairs in my building and into the UberX waiting for me outside, and head off to my new job at a French bakery. Without fail, the driver is surprised that I’m not drunk. (I like to think that I make their night shifts a little more humane by having a sober conversation as we drive down the big hill on the way to the bakery.) Once I get there and flip everything on — lights, ovens, fans — and I get down to business. I’ve worked out an almost militant-type order of doing things (thanks to the tutelage of my counterpart who mans the ship on the other days) that involves cookies, muffins, at least four types of croissants, kouign amann, and of course bread. Bread is why I’m there at 3am. Time to bake the bread. Time to see what we’ve created. Time to break open the bread and see what it looks like inside — poke it, squeeze it, analyze the crumb and the crust and how they live symbiotically together. Time to make people happy. My favorite part of the morning is around 6am when the baristas come in to start setting up. The music kicks on, pastry shelves start to fill up, and after three hours by myself I finally have some human contact. My favorite barista always asks me as soon as he gets in what I’d like to drink, and my answer is always: COFFEE! I have no idea what he puts in it but he makes it perfectly, it always comes to me with a heart in the foam (it’s the little things), and it can keep me going for another seven hours. God bless him. My days start this way now and usually end about 10 hours later, at which point I’m covered in a flour snowstorm and dough tornado. And I’m finally beginning to love it.

walnut country levain bread

sometimes i like the bread i bake, this was one of those times

I just finished Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and no book has made me think, and question, as much as that one has in a long time. In the preface he says so accurately, “I’m asked a lot what the best thing about cooking for a living is. And it’s this: To be a part of a subculture. To be part of a historical continuum, a secret society with its own language and customs. To enjoy the instant gratification of making something good with one’s hands — using all one’s senses. It can be, at times, the purest and most unselfish way of giving pleasure.” He’s right. When people ask me how I’m not fat baking as much as I do, I say because I don’t bake for me, I bake for others, and I give it away. And I bake with kids because I love to see the joy in their faces when they finish icing a cupcake or putting sprinkles on a birthday cake. It is pure unadulterated joy. But then there are those other times.

My first few days of baking alone at the bakery would count under the umbrella of “those other times.” And follow suit with the rest of what Bourdain exposes in his expose about the culinary industry. It’s tough. It’s grueling. I burn myself. It can be thankless. It can get into your head and have you asking yourself why the F you are doing any of this in the first place. I asked myself that often during my first few days.

I had a great conversation with my bread mentor the other day about the passion of a baker. The real, gritty, animalistic, can’t-do-anything-else-but-this kind of passion. It was like he was personifying the pages Bourdain wrote. And I needed to hear it. Boy did I need to have that conversation, exactly at that time. And part of me thinks so did he, it’s always good to remember why we do any of this. I needed to remind myself that I have some of that in me. How much of it is yet to be determined, but at least I know that I have some of it in me. Enough of it to leave my old life behind and jump into this one. Any rational human being would shake his or her head at the idea of it all — no health insurance, practically no money, insane hours, intense physical labor, scars, etc. etc. etc. And perhaps this rational human being might shake his or her head directly at me, if I didn’t have some of a baker’s passion in me. But those who know me know better. And thank God for them. They keep me going.

Le Marais bread shelves

the bread shelves at Le Marais beginning to fill up with my loaves

So does the bread. Thank God for the bread. Because no matter how crazy an 11-hour day can get, how mad I can get at myself for not scoring one loaf deep enough or over-proofing another, I’m still making bread. I leave at the end of my shift and look up at the racks of bread and smile. I made those. “The instant gratification of making something good with one’s hands.” That’s exactly it. And that’s exactly what I was missing in my old life. Sitting at a desk, in the corner, without purpose. No one knew what to do with me, so there I sat. No more team, no more boss, no more support, no more purpose. I would venture to guess that it is probably one of the worst feelings in the world. At least it felt like that to me. Reading Bourdain’s book, I realize more clearly now that everyone questions the job and the industry they are in, at some point or another. Or at a lot of points. How could we not, we’re human. But what I think it all comes down to is the balance — how many days do we question it and how many days do we smile. Smiles of pure satisfaction. Smiles of unadulterated joy.

For me, it all goes back to breaking bread, the social sharing of food. And in its most simplistic form, that’s why I’m doing this. I love feeding people. So on the days when I feel like I’m breaking my back more than I’m breaking bread, I remember that. Every time I question why the F I’m doing any of this, I remember what my teacher Tracie said to me one day in the kitchen at school in Ireland, “You love food and food loves you.”

the crumb of my walnut and pear bread

in baker’s speak, the inside of the bread is called the “crumb” — lots of holes are a good thing

At the end of his book, Bourdain talks about how the food industry has changed since he first started in it. Still largely Latin in workforce, the great three-star kitchens are now “staffed by the itinerant sons and daughters of the middle class” bouncing around the world and often working for free. “People with perfectly good jobs as stockbrokers and attorneys chuck it all to attend culinary school — enamored by the perceived romanticism of a cooking life. Most of this latter group are, of course, soon ground beneath the wheel.” And that very well might be me one day. But not yet.

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