Saturday, October 17, 2009
You know what I'm discovering in my life of drive-by blogging? People don't remember how to write. They don't know how to make coherent sentences or paragraphs. It seems as if the insights into the beauty of the written word have all but disappeared into the digital void of self focused thoughts that fly through the ether or over the Ethernet to the Internet. The desire to say something is more pressing than the need to say something of value.
Sometimes I feel like I'm quickly becoming a cranky, old man. The one who stands on his porch yelling at kids for picking apples off of his tree. Did you ever notice the guys who did that never actually ate the apples? The heavy, ripe fruit would always fall off the tree to the ground. Flies would swirl around the broken brown flesh. The sour hint of vinegar hanging in the air. Wasted apples. Wasted frustration. Remember the anxiety soaked fear you felt as you tasted the forbidden fruit stolen from that cranky neighbor's yard on a hot summer's day? Your heart pounded as you tried to catch your breath from running. You hid yourself in the woods and you took in the waxy, dull reflection of the sunlight off the apple's surface. The color and the fragrance taunting your senses. The green, taught skin snapping as you bit into it. Tangy sweet juice running down your chin. You were the victor in the battle against the tyranny of evil men who held something that they could not truly posses. In fact, they held only the illusion of control as they sat, small and withered on their porch. Feeling empower as they scared children too small and too fearful to question the frayed thread of authority that the old men felt they had.
So what's the point of this ramble? It's simple. Even if you don't have anything important to say, say it with style. Words are far too lovely to let them go to waste. Apples feed the body, but words enrich the mind. And, if used well, feed the soul.
Monday, October 5, 2009
I had a job during high school in my family’s business in a rural town in Western North Carolina. Every couple of months, our family would make a trip to Ashville, North Carolina. We’d shop at the mall there. The highlight of the trip would be visiting the Belk-Legget department store because they carried Godiva Chocolates at their candy counter. I would purchase a 1 pound box. After offering a piece of candy to the rest of my family, I would consume the rest of the box on the drive home. Each piece was savored- the flavors exploding in my mouth. Within 30 minutes all that was left was the smell of the chocolate in the gold foil wrapped box.
Today, I still enjoy chocolate, but now it’s in a way that most people find, well, weird. Before I crossed the line from consuming it to working with the devilish compound, I reveled in the stuff. Every detail. The complex volatile compounds that give it its flavor profile in your nose as well as on your taste buds. The thick, rich liquid it becomes as the enzymes in your mouth, coupled with your body’s own warmth turn the solid mass into a velvety coating that slides down your throat. All of these sensual elements made chocolate my drug of choice.
Today, I actually enjoy the smell of chocolate more than tasting it. The fragrance to me is the purest sensory receptacle of the essence of chocolate. Not the mouth. To eat it is overwhelming, like drowning in flavor.
No, for me chocolate has become a challenge because of its structural complexity and its love hate relationship with temperature. In fact I see it in much the same way a carpenter sees a plank of wood. Or more accurately, as a gem cutter sees a piece of quartz, because chocolate is at its heart a crystalline structure of sugar, cocoa and cocoa butter. But because the crystals are less than 30 microns in diameter, we perceive the structure as a smooth, not gritty. Fudge, nougat and fondant are all crystalline based structures.
There is a delicate balance in taking chocolate, and reshaping it into another state. It’s called tempering. Every time you bite into a chocolate, be it Voges, Godiva or from the map on the interior of the Whitman’s Chocolate box, you have experienced chocolate that has been tempered. Chocolate that is “in temper” will have a high, glossy sheen, a distinct snap and a velvety mouth feel. Despite what you’ve heard or read, wax isn’t added to the chocolate to make it shine. It’s time, temperature and skill.
Essentially, you tear down the crystalline structure of the cocoa fats with heat when you melt it. This redistributes the fat crystals, sugars, milk porteins and the cocoa solids. You then cool it to stabilize and distribute the components, then reheat before the structure reforms. While it is in a liquid state, you shape the chocolate and then let cool so that the structure can reform once the fats in the cocoa butter have evenly distributed within the structure. Believe it or not, that’s the simple explanation.
The basic premise of tempering is something like this:
- Elevate the temperature of the chocolate above it’s melting point, but below it’s scorching point. That’s about a 9 degree temperature window. Also bear in mind that each type of chocolate [dark, milk, white] has a different melting point. In some cases, individual brands of chocolate will have their own unique melting point. Get it too hot, and the chocolate will seize. That’s where the cocoa solids will separate from the cocoa butter, creating a lumpy mess. A few degrees warmer and you’ll be smelling burnt chocolate.
- Next, drop the temperature 30-40 degrees, depending on the type of chocolate, below the melting point to its cooling point. Regardless of the type of chocolate, the temperature window at the bottom end is only 2 degrees. For milk chocolate it’s between 80-82 degrees Fahrenheit. 2 frickin’ degrees! If it gets 1 degree cooler it will start to “set” and you’ll have to start all over again.
As the temperature starts to bottom out, you start heating it again to a workable temperature where the sugars, cocoa solids and cocoa butter are evenly distributed, but the structure is still largely unstable, but the thickening of the chocolate will indicate that crystals are starting to form.
- At this point, you must raise the temperature back up to 88-90 degrees. The mass will be liquid, but “seed” crystals will be present. At this point, in order to keep the chocolate both in temper and stable, you must keep the chocolate in the 2 degree range for as long as you need to keep working with the chocolate. A few degrees higher and your fat crystals will destabilize and you will have to start over. A few degrees lower and your fat crystals will start to form uneven crystalline structures and you will have to start over.
That’s just the chocolate part. Other factors can destroy chocolate’s delicate balance. The temperature of the room should be between 70-75 degrees. Humidity can also wreak havoc on your chocolate too.
That said, I have been working with chocolate now for about 6 or 7 years. I’ve never achieved “perfect temper”. I stand in chocolate stores in awe of the shiny jewels behind the glass. Each one a delicate balance of perfection of heat, fat crystals and skill.
So, now as the temperatures outside start to cool and the relative humidity starts to drop, I will once again head into the kitchen. This time I am armed with an infrared thermometer to carefully watch the ballet of the heating and cooling of the chocolate. The National Weather Service will help me monitor the humidity. The battle of will against the physics of microscopic particles that in a flash of patience and skilled mastery create a bit of magic that vanishes into a perceptual realm of ecstasy.
Sure, there are chocolate tempering machines that do all of the aforementioned steps with mathematical precision. At the end of the cycle, the chocolate can be held in a perfect state of temper as long as there is a power supply. It would be a $700 investment and a fast track to achieving predictable perfection. Maybe one day I will take that step. But until then, learning the ways of my cruel mistress will be far more valuable. And if I succeed, in many ways, it will be infinitely more rewarding.
Sunday, October 4, 2009
The grocery store frustration makes sense now. When I first walked into a local chain here, I was literally overwhelmed at the choices I was presented. Fresh crème fraîche. Meats and cheeses I’d only read about. Varieties of vegetables that were both familiar and foreign were available to be explored. Funny thing is that I have friends who moved here from Los Angeles. They found the selection underwhelming. If that’s the case, then down south, they’d find themselves damn near suicidal.
I didn’t realize how quickly I had adapted, until recently. While my wife and I were on vacation on the coast of North Carolina, I made a trip to a grocery store chain there. When I asked if they had arugula, the clerk wanted to know what it was. I found myself becoming a bemoaning “Yankee”. Crap.
Another thing I have discovered are the specialty stores. In our town it’s the Italian Grocery and Deli, Roma’s, that makes me understand a little further the passion of Italian food. I’ve stood and looked at no less than 30 varieties of Balsamic vinegar. Don’t get me started about the olive oil selection. While this store is relatively small, I could spend an entire afternoon there reading the ingredient lists, and smelling dried spices and cheeses. The grocery itself is only half the story.
I never understood the concept of the deli. I mean, I’d been to Subway, right? It wasn’t until I stopped into the Italian grocers and I was starving. It was the perfect moment to be introduced to mortadella.
It was 3:00 in the afternoon and I hadn’t eaten. I walked up to the counter. I was bombarded with an overwhelming selection of meats and sandwiches, but the name of mortadella was summoning me. When I tried to order, the man behind the counter became frustrated. I didn’t really know how to do this I explained. “I’m from the South and don’t know how to order this.” The man’s whole demeanor changed. He happily walked me through the process making recommendations and suggestions. My result: “I’ll have a large mortadella on a hogie roll. Lettuce, tomato, oil and vinegar-olives on the side to go”. I’ve discovered that the “to go” part is crucial. The ingredients need time to fuse and meld together to make the flavor a cohesive whole. But that’s a sidebar to the main feature.
Mortadella, I speak the name in hushed tones, like a lover summoning the focus of his passion. There is some confusion with this sacred meat mixture and American Bologna. True, they are made by a similar process: chunks of pork and fat are puréed to the consistency of mayonnaise at about 60 degrees, put into a casing and cooked. Mortadella takes this a step further by incorporating extra chunks of fat. Sometime pistachios are added. In Spanish varieties olives or peppers are incorporated. But, if you order Mortadella, by law in the European Union, it must be manufactured in the Bologna region of Italy in order to be allowed to carry the name. But, I digress.
The point is, the chances would have been pretty slim of me ever finding this in the deep South. Bologna is a poor substitute. Yet, many are willing to accept it. But if you look closely, each region in Italy has a subtle variation (7 that I could find), yet here, Oscar-Meyer produces a “meat product” and calls it Bologna, in essence taking away its original meaning and value. The same thing happens in transplanted cuisines in the US. Specifically “Southern Cooking” when it crosses the Mason-Dixon line.
Here in Saratoga Springs, NY, there are two noted restaurants among locals. Not to disparage local eateries, I’ll keep them nameless. One serves barbeque, the other serves “Southern Food”. Neither succeeds. That may seem a harsh criticism, but from someone raised on both types of food-each is a poor substitute. What I have discovered is that unless you know the difference, then it might seem pretty good. Unfortunately, I do know the difference.
To understand this, first you have to understand that southern cooking is derived from a confluence of influences.
The traditional southern dishes reflect the history and past economics of the region. Although the South was once noted for its large cotton plantations, even at that time most rural Southerners were subsistence farmers, and were quite isolated from the rest of the world. These people were most numerous in the Southern Appalachian region, and their ancestral origins were mostly Scotch, Irish, English, Germanic, and to a lesser extent, French or Dutch. They made do with what they could grow, and what they could find in nature. For example, the extensive use of corn meal probably resulted from the fact that wheat was little grown in the South. Native Americans (Indians) were major contributors to the diet of the South. From them, poor southerners learned how to use many wild or cultivated plants and game. In addition, the early African-Americans introduced several of the plants, such as black-eyed peas, okra, sweet sorghum, and watermelons, from which many prized southern dishes are derived. In many affluent households, they were the family cook, and as such, they molded and modified the taste preferences of those they served. There is little doubt that the creative use of food by American Indians, subsistence farmers, and the African-Americans were the major influences on the nature of Southern cooking, and there is historical evidence to indicate that these groups learned from each other.
There are many sub-regions where the type of cooking was influenced by local factors. One important region, as we have pointed out, was the Appalachian region that was populated mostly by subsistence farmers. The cooking of some coastal areas were influenced by their early settlement by the Spanish or French. The well known cuisine of southern Louisiana was mostly influenced by the "Cajuns", who were immigrants from Canada and of French origin.
William J. Gray
On Southern Cooking
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Recently I saw a commercial for an anti-aging cream. The promise that the collagens encapsulated within the unguent would restore voids created by the loss of moisture in the sub dermal layers of the skin. Collagen is contained in the connective tissue found in cartilage and muscles. It’s the protein rich stuff that binds while giving flexibility to the structures it is entwined in. It’s also the stuff that cooks out of meat. The matrix formed of the proteins that gives meat sauces the rich velvety texture that we devour. We lose it and then reclaim it in our diets. And now, we want to rub it on our skin to re-plump ourselves to the bodies of our youth.
What I found more interesting was that while people are looking in the mirror day after day trying to slow the process of aging, they are asleep to the fact that their thoughts are focused on the wrong loss. While youth is slowly leaving them, the locus of their angst blinds them to the fact that they are missing the life that they have. A blind eye misses the gift in front of them. The here and now.
One of the most difficult challenges I have come to realize is, as actors refer to as, “being in the moment”. That’s spending time appreciating the experience that life is. Not looking backward or forward. Just being “in the now”.
Being middle aged kind of sucks. The waistline spreads. Muscles and joints ache. The body that I dwell in has started to fail. I realized it one afternoon when I dropped an object to the ground. Instead of quickly bending over and picking the dropped item up, I found myself maneuvering to hold against the wall and I struggled to pick it up. In my minds eye, I saw myself as an eighty year old man. Oddly, I wasn’t sad, just aggravated. The clash of the desire to move, based the sense memory of being a youth, collided with the body that could no longer accommodate the actions of my intentions.
The typical American reaction to this moment of age awareness is to take collagen rendered from the left over body parts of chickens, pigs and cows and slather on my skin in hopes that I can fend aging, and more to the point, death off. The reality is I can’t. So what am I to do?
Step 1: Understand that this day comes once.
No “do-overs”. You’ve got one shot at today. Lull yourself into a distraction, watch another rerun and you will have squandered what you will never have again. Wake up and inhale every sensation. Blink and it’s gone.
Step 2: Know that tomorrow is not guaranteed.
If you could have a conversation with the dead who passed today, chances are few of them expected it was their last day. But the slip on the ice, the fallen power line, the drunk driver who never intended to hurt a soul-all are out there where you are not looking for them.
Step 3: Don’t look back.
Okay, we learn from our experiences. The trick is not to dwell on them. Take them in and get on with it. You will never be 1 second younger. You are 1 second younger than you will be by the time you get to the end of this sentence. Why spend your energy trying to hang on to the image of who you were. Embrace who you are and what your life is right now.
One of my favorite ads was for a chocolate company. The headline read something like this: “No one ever lies on their death bed wishing they’d eaten another rice cake”. While the ad was more about yielding to the temptations of consuming a pleasurable foodstuff, the point is valid. When you are facing the final moments of your life, do you really want to look back and say “that’s it”? No, I want my life to reflect this quote that I could find no attribution for:
“Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, your body thoroughly used up, totally worn out. You last thought being “what a ride”.” -Unknown
For the past five or six years, my goal has been to make everyday count. Not to live for the weekend, or to look back and say “where did the week go”? No, I’m living with the idea that I know and can account for every second that was left in the stream of my life’s timeline. That said, I’ll leave the collagen in the gravy and off my face because wrinkles are the least of my concerns. It’s the living that makes the wrinkles that count.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Life chooses to come at you slowly. Or so it seems as the flow of years ticks by in a seemingly endless stream of seconds. A cold in the middle of the night. A virus that disrupts the calm of the day to day. Rocking away tears until the heave of deep sleep signals that the battle has been won. Each of those seconds seemed an eternity at the time, but the cosmic joke of perception turns in on itself to reveal that those endless days and decades have been wisps in the fabric of the continuum. We stand at the doorway to the past and see that the journey has been brief. I long for those moments to return.
I have had the good fortune to have been the father of two wonderful daughters. It’s hard to explain the place they have in my heart. They are entrenched in the very fibers of the muscles of that meaty pump, pulsing as it beats its cadence in my chest. Their names spelled in the minutia of the vesicles, hidden among the arteries.
On September 22nd at 5:18 pm EDT, the autumnal equinox will occur as the earth shifts on its axis and the northern hemisphere moves toward the sun. The irony is that as the northern half of the planet reaches toward the sun, the planet as a whole shifts further away from the sun. Winter ensues and the balance of the seasons remains intact.
I can’t help but dwell on this-the balance of change. The shock of the new in the cycle of the familiar. To embrace change is to embrace chaos. Grasping at familiar straws thrown in a new pattern. You long for the old patterns, not realizing that the new patterns will yield new unexpected joys and unforeseen sorrows.
I look to my daughters, helpless as life envelopes them. The torrents they are navigating and I stand helpless on the shore. The battle is no longer mine. They have stepped full force into the life stream. Heartaches are at moments counterbalanced with joys they never knew existed. And, while these moments seem an eternity, it is my desire that they recognize each moment for the fleeting treasure that it is-good or bad. Because one day they will also see the sum of those seconds yields one lifetime. If they do, it will be a life well lived.
Sunday, August 16, 2009
“Obesity is defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater. BMI is calculated from a person's weight and height and provides a reasonable indicator of body fatness and weight categories that may lead to health problems. Obesity is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and type 2 diabetes.
During the past 20 years there has been a dramatic increase in obesity in the United States. In 2008, only one state (Colorado) had a prevalence of obesity less than 20%. Thirty-two states had a prevalence equal to or greater than 25%; six of these states (Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia ) had a prevalence of obesity equal to or greater than 30%.” Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “U.S. Obesity Trends”
In my blog, you’ll see a lot of mentions about food. I love food. How things are made, what ingredients are used, how the chemistry works. I make no bones about it. What I fail to mention is that I am, by medical standards, borderline obese. Couple that with a pack a day smoking habit plus a fairly sedentary lifestyle, and you get one pale, overweight, borderline diabetic, middle-aged guy who doesn’t know when to say no to dessert.
I work in a pharmaceutical advertising agency. In addition to getting to delve deeply into details about various drugs, I have to know a little about what we have to disclose. It’s called fair balance. In pharma television commercials, that’s when you see pictures of people wondering around gardening, or running on the beach while a voice off camera says charming things like: “may cause itching, swelling and diarrhea…”. It’s required by the FDA to give consumers a better understanding of the risk involved with taking a medication. And it’s a good idea. One that I’m taking to heart especially now when I’m waxing poetic about seared steaks, heavy sauces and rich desserts.
For people who knew me many years ago in high school and college, I weighed in at 165 lbs. At 6’ 1”, that put me at a total BMI of 22. Today that has shifted to a BMI of 31-32. (My weight is between the milestones stated in the National Institutes of Health’s National Heart Lung and Blood Institute’s Guideline as shown in the Body Mass Index Table)
Most of what’s happening to me and my body IS the result of bad habits accumulated when I was younger, and my body could take anything that was thrown at it. 3 Cheeseburgers all the way? No problem. Double dessert? No problem. All of that changed when I hit my late 30’s. My blood pressure started going up, my metabolism started slowing down. But my appetite didn’t decrease. 165 lbs. became 185 lbs. Then 190 lbs. In my early 40’s, I went on a regimen of blood pressure meds. In the course of one year, my weight went from 195 to 245 lbs. That’s 50 lbs., in one year.
Many years ago, on the plains of the Serengeti, we humans had to hunt for our food. Simple sugars in the form of fruit were sources of quick energy supplies that our bodies could quickly metabolize. If we didn’t use it, our bodies began to find ways to store it in adipose cells. Lipoproteins were even harder to come by. These were the rich fats that we needed for survival. Because of their scarcity, our bodies became extremely efficient at storing these fats. Too good. Now we have vast quantities of fats and sugars at our disposal. What’s more, our bodies are designed to crave these. So it becomes a vicious cycle. As the old saying goes, “all things in moderation”. The problem is we Americans don’t know when to say when.
Case in point, I challenge you to go into any mega-mart. Take a look and see how many people are riding those shopping scooters. It’s staggering. Look further and you’ll start noticing scads of people that you can be pretty sure will be riding those same scooters in a few years. When I looked around, I didn’t like what I saw. Especially since I saw reflections of myself in those carts.
So what am I doing about it? This past Friday, I put on running shoes and shorts, strapped on my iPhone, and started running. It wasn’t pretty. One training program said you should start with a 5 minute run. I ran exactly 2 minutes and 12 seconds-badly. Not exactly Boston marathon material-but it’s a start. Yesterday, I ran in multiple bursts for a total of about 2:50. Again, not much of an improvement, but it’s better than nothing. Today? Who knows how far I’ll get, but the point is I’m getting somewhere.
Tonight, I’ll be putting on a nicotine patch. This will be my fourth attempt this year to kick what is truly a disgusting, nasty habit. What’s more, in a recent discussion with a medical colleague of mine, I found out that when one smokes, it cause the liver in to release fat compounds into our blood stream. Our brain receives the signal that we have ingested fats and reduces our cravings for food. So, there really is a scientific reason behind why people who quit smoking gain weight. It’s not that the food tastes better, it’s that our brains think we are starving. I know that food tastes the same regardless of when I am smoking or when I was not smoking for over a year. So that’s going to be working against me as well.
So why am I telling you all this? It’s simple, I don’t want to die as the result of my own stupidity. They say the difference between ignorance and apathy is “I don’t know” and “I don’t care”. The first is forgivable, the latter is reprehensible. I’ve got grand kids. And, at the rate my family reproduces, I have a good chance of seeing my great-grand kids, but I have to take a responsible role in making sure that happens. So, despite the protesting that is coming from my legs, and the 90+ heat outside, I’m taking charge. This blog is called “All consuming life”. It’s my task to make sure that I have as much life left to consume as possible. I’ll still cook and I’ll still eat and love doing them both. It’s up to me to take charge of where, when and how much I do the same. I’ll keep you posted.
If you’ve taken steps to take control of your life habits, or to start an exercise program, share your thoughts by commenting below. -marty
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Granted, laying around and "kickin' back" is appealing. But, I've decided to take another route. First order of business, this blog.
While blogging isn't new or revolutionary, it is part and parcel of a much larger picture: redefining the skill set(s) that each of us need, in order to stay relevant. Especially in the world of communication.
As of this afternoon, my iPhone connects to my blog through BlogPost. I connected my blog to my Twitter feed, which is in turn connected to my Facebook account. So, to my friends, I apologize. For the multiple posts about my ham sandwich at lunch, but I was working out the kinks.
Now the next steps are coming together. Focusing on a subject I'm passionate about, and form a point of view. In my case, it's consumption of life. Food, my walk home, music-whatever. Everything is fair game, but you'll notice a heavy bias toward food and cooking. Not because I feel the world is burning to hear my perspective, but to create compelling content to keep them coming back. Part writing, part promotion-I'm trying to "crack the code".
What else am I going to do with this opportunity? A lot of intense training in software packages that should be relevant to my career. Apple Motion, Flash, Dreamweaver, Blender 3D, Director and a few other obscure programs that will give me a competitive advantage regardless of what changes may occur. Given the depth of the challenge, I'm hoping that 3 weeks and 2 days will be enough time. But then again, this was just the first 4 hours of day one.
- a mobile post from mjhardin.
(If you've suddenly found yourself in an "unexpected situation" with your job or life, what are you doing to take advantage of the "opportunity"? Share your story by commenting below.)
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
At several points in my career, I worked as an art director on multiple food accounts. We’d spend hours on a single hamburger, or a slice of cake, in an effort to achieve an image of perceived perfection. What I failed to grasp was that the beauty wasn't in the forced image, it was in the nature of the food itself.
Don't misunderstand me. I love and appreciate the artistry of a skilled chef. I'm guilty of standing over a stove, and destroying 5 batches of Béarnaise sauce, working to get that 6th batch right. The balance of heat and protein matrixes that take practice and will to perfect, and scant seconds to destroy.
In the fire of the kitchen, proteins, simple sugars and salts undergo miraculous transformations. Emulsions of fats and water transform humble ingredients like butter and egg yolks into sensual waves of pleasure that causes our LDL’s (low-density lipoproteins (i.e., bad cholesterol)) to sky rocket. But bad health be damned, because the “moment on the lips” seems worth the “lifetime on the hips” as the old saw goes, when that velvety liquid hits your tongue. The true sensual responses: smell, taste, feel are at the heart of the beauty of food.
Granted, many will tell you that we first experience food with our eyes. But honestly, when have you ordered a dish just to bask in its beauty, then move away from the table to let your vision centers process what they have just seen? Not this diner. No, it’s all of the other senses that immerse us in the ecstasy that unites our senses in the force of the pleasure of all things culinary. But that places too much emphasis on the partaker of the food. What about the food itself?
The re-examination I mentioned at the start of this article, began as the result of a simple quest. To make bread.
Thanks to a birthday gift certificate from my daughter, I recently purchased Michael Rhulman’s “Ratio, The Simple Codes Behinds the Craft of Everyday Cooking” (©2009, Simon and Schuster). While I could write about 20 articles on the merits of the book itself, it was the freedom from the recipe itself that allowed me to explore the world of cooking from a new perspective.
As usual, I spent a couple of weeks reading the book before reaching for the first ingredient. I scanned the bread section over and over. I visualized making the bread. Loaves of perfection trotted their way through my imagination. When the planned course realized, I set about to accomplish perfect bread.
Flour, water, salt and yeast went into the bowl. Mixing, rising, kneading, resting-the bread went through its paces as I went through mine. But as the time came to put the loaf into the oven, it resisted my attempts to shape it. No matter how I tried to force my will on that pale mass, it quietly returned to where it damn well pleased. Over and again, my imagined loaves of perfect bread were resisting the perfected form I had carefully envisioned. The skin was leathery and wrinkled. A misshapen mass of gastronomic futility.
Fearful of overworking the dough, I gave up, put it on an oven tray and vengefully slashed the dough so that it could rise. Defeated, I brushed on olive oil and sprinkled salt over the open wound of the bread. I had failed. The oven was no longer a tool, it was a crematorium for the failed offspring of my hands. Now it was down to cooking this sucker and getting it over with.
At the right point, I dropped the oven temperature. At the halfway mark I added an egg wash. My enthusiasm was spent. I went into another room and waited for the kitchen timer to chirp the end of the process.
If this were a movie script, this would be page 70. That’s the point where all hope is lost. But like all points were things seem hopeless, there is a transition. This one came in the form of the rich smell of the bread filling the house. That moment when the Maillard Reaction occurs, and unlike carmelization in sugars, this involves the displacement of molecules in the carbohydrates-giving the crust a rich, meaty flavor as it turns brown. It’s what makes bread smell and look like bread. It’s a powerful force.
When I opened the oven door, I recognized the loaf, but it had taken on its own identity. It had taken the strands of gluten, pockets of air and had risen against the adversity of the heat to be formed into an object of beauty. This thing I could not control was now permanently set in the shape that was its own. Every wrinkle and crease told a story that only the bread and I knew.
Men and women have been making bread for thousands of years. Yeast occurs naturally in nature, flour came from the grinding of wheat against stones. Water seeped into the flour store. It’s easy to see how the first loaves of bread “happened” against an open fire in a shelter that protected its inhabitants from the cold. A misshapen mass of what possibly seemed like ruined items miraculously became bread. And unlike us, the benefactors weren’t in search of perfection, they sought only sustenance. Over time, the craft became perfected. Or so it seemed. We just got better at working toward the results.
In the Lord’s prayer, there is only one physical request, “Give us this day, our daily bread.” But, I think the request goes much deeper than going to the store and buying a loaf of white bread in a plastic bag. It’s about the process. A process that’s fraught with peril. The ingredients we are given don’t always yield to our desires. There is work on the part of the baker to knead and be attentive to the process of the dough doing things beyond our control. It is a lesson in humility, faith and trust. That feeds us more richly than mere bread ever could. And, it’s absolutely beyond our control.