Flour, water, salt and yeast, the simple ingredients at the heart of bread, have made me re-examine the very nature of food itself. Despite technique and artistry, food is, at its very core, elemental and designed to serve a simple purpose: to be consumed to fuel our bodies. That's it.
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.