Sunday, December 25, 2016
Yeast of Eden
What is it about bread making that seems so ancient, so authentic, so nostalgic? It's just bread and it's not like you can live on bread and water alone. Why don't other forms of food preparation seem as romantic? I mean, no one tears up wistfully watching someone make a pot of soup, even though it's packed with a lot more flavor and nutrients. The closest thing we have is making spaghetti sauce and tasting it from a big wooden spoon. Ah, the good old days, we think, before sauce came from a jar.
I'm just as bad. When I think of living off the grid I imagine all the bread I'll bake in my wood burning oven. After all I'd need the carbs to live that kind of life. But our not so distant ancestors didn't survive on grain alone, in fact it was more about fat than anything else. Gathering nuts, rendering lard, making soap, cooking in grease, cooking over a sizzling spit, and making thick gravies is way more primeval and true to surviving away from modern civilization (although if you watch presidential politics you have to wonder whether we've evolved at all into a civilization.)
So what is it that drove me, other than Michael Pollan, to think that baking bread would soothe my troubled soul. I think maybe it's the process - the mixing, the kneading, the rising, the baking - that inspires. It's alchemy of the highest form, this metamorphosis of grass seed into fluffy loaf, all controlled by our own actions. There's no curtain to hide behind, no wires, no distracting puffs of smoke (well, hopefully,) just some hard work, a little yeast, and an oven.
True to form I am not satisfied with making bread the "normal" way with those little packets of yeast. purchased at the grocer. I am determined to capture yeast out of thin air and force it to do my bidding inside a mass of dough. How hard could it be?
And, once agin, my arrogance punishes me for thinking I can have any sort of control over the natural process. I should know better. I am, after all, the compost-making queen, and have had more than my share of failures with sauerkraut and that unfortunate incident when I tried to can fish. Thankfully nothing has ever exploded like the beer bomb that erupted in my neighbors house. Microbes are the true secret to the universe and they cannot be willed into order. Like everything else in the natural world, they can only be coaxed.
So these past weeks I have coaxed, pleaded, thought of cheating as I baked brick after brick of bread. My dear friend Carrie took pity on me and shared some of her starter, convinced that her South Austin rascally yeast would do the trick. It didn't. What was I doing wrong? I followed the directions to the letter every time.
And so the lesson begins. It's not about directions. It's not about procedure. My grandma used to keep all her flour in a big drawer in the kitchen cabinet. I still get goosebumps remembering her pulling that drawer open, cracking eggs and pouring buttermilk into the well she made. She'd mix it right there in the drawer and then remove it to a bowl or the counter where she would finish it up. Talk about alchemy, and mastery, and oh my goodness those cinnamon rolls!
It has to feel right. The sensation of the elastic bands of dough right against our skin. The smoothness, the way it collapses right into your palm and then springs back after every touch. The patience to let things happen without stirring, rushing along, or just throwing it in the oven to just get it over with. It's the same with making compost, preparing a seed bed, or determining if fruit is ripe.
I post the photo of my success to Facebook so everyone I've been complaining to can see that I have finally done it. I sit here now and reflect on the newest loaf that is quietly baking in the oven. There is no such thing as control, no such thing as a standard practice or procedure, there is no order. There is just that precise moment in time where all the ingredients mix in a flour drawer and emerge later as a bit of air between flour particles. It's the beginning and the end and it poises of the edge of forever. So do I stay here? Or do I do something that throws me out of the moment so that I can recreate it time and time again? I'll take my chances.