Bread is mankind’s most basic food – we’ve heard that all our lives, and it’s pretty much common sense – at least in America. And when Thoreau preached the simple life, he was more than suggesting that simple was not just good for the body, but for the soul of man as well. Yeah, I’m quite sure he wanted his readers to know that simplifying one’s life was the way to get in touch with oneself – and to begin listening to the quiet inner voice that only can be heard when we can slow down, and quiet down – and listen.
I think Thoreau would include bread among those elements of a simple life – and I also think he’d agree that it’s not enough to be an eater of bread to experience its full mysteries – one must enter the world of creating bread in order to fully experience the lessons bread has to teach.
I hope you’ll allow me an occasional digression, now and then, into my philosopher role, for in truth, it’s one that occupies much of my waking life – so why not an occasional blog post as well? And today, I’m thinking about how well the making of bread teaches us some of the basic lessons of life – some are quite obvious, like patience, or the importance of consistency, and the value of making mistakes (wow, I could write a book on that one – maybe I will). But not all lessons are so obvious – some lessons are subtle at first, and then when we chew on them for awhile, their impact increases – and that’s when I think a lesson gets absorbed and becomes a part of our being – only then can we call on it later, when the time arises for us to apply it for benefit – those are the simple and basic lessons that I’m thinking about.
It is not lost on me that one of my most beloved of foods also is commonly recognized as man’s most basic and simple food – perhaps that speaks to my own “basic-ness”, or lack of sophistication, as some would point out – whatever – it may also simply be saying that man is programmed to have intense desire for those foods which are most basic, and most attainable – that would be helpful for the survival of the species.
But what kind of bread was it that became so valuable to our ancestors? Certainly not Wonder Bread! Actually, I think it’s safe to say that the whole concept about the basic-ness of bread probably dates from the Middle Ages (probably before!) when every village had its own central ovens where all families came daily to bake their loaves – those were the times when bread would have made up easily 1/3rd to 1/2 of a person’s daily diet, and if the same bread is being made day after day, eventually it’s going to get pretty damn good!
But, it’s not enough just to make bread daily to assure daily improvement in it. No, it takes the input of the eaters before improvement can be made – without that, mediocrity may set in and a consistently poor loaf become commonplace. But my guess is that the bread of a village didn’t differ that much family to family, and the standards of a village became an element of pride and honor. In such an environment, I bet it was difficult to make bad bread, when everyone else was making excellent stuff.
But somewhere we lost this great tradition.
My mother didn’t do much baking. I remember an occasional homemade loaf, and although we enjoyed those, I think we all enjoyed more the commercial bread she was more likely to get from the bakery delivery truck. Although I think commercial breads those days were better than that of today, it wasn’t much like homemade. But the older I became, the more commercial bread became like Wonder Bread, and the more likely we were to accept it without question – those were the days when it was stylish to “buy” all your food at the grocery store; only the poorest folk made their own. God forbid that you ever had to eat a hot dog wrapped in a slice of homemade bread – it was a “bought” roll or nothing.
Perhaps the only relief from this stifling captivity was that at the same time we all were “unlearning” how to do for ourselves, the great European migration into America was in full effect. And all those peoples and cultures brought with them the foods with which they were familiar. Were it not for the tiny family bakeries in the early ethnic neighborhoods of America, I’m quite sure we still would not have developed a nationwide taste for great bread. I recall with fondness the excellence of chewy Jewish rye bread, of light as air Italian bread, and the buttery, silken texture of the German sticky buns – were it not for those experiences, I doubt I ever would have crawled up out of the pit of mediocrity into which I had grown accustomed.
And so it was that when I retired, I determined that I’d learn how to bake excellent bread. I made this goal not because I was used to eating fantastic breads, but because I had been briefly introduced -in infrequent snippets- to excellent breads, and I knew those breads were not available in my locale. I therefore began this excellent adventure, not with fond memories of my mother’s fine baking, but with those brief and infrequent introductions to excellent breads as benchmarks and guideposts.
Now, with ten years practice, the question which remains unanswered is “When is one’s bread good enough?” I would have never thought of this question when starting out, but it eventually becomes the baker’s most persistent question. Why? Because the bread itself teaches you that it is.
I think it was Voltaire who once said, “The enemy of perfect is the good.” I can only guess what he meant by that, and my guess is that when one is on the quest for perfection, one is never quite satisfied with the result, no matter how good. The very definition of “perfection’ may be an impossible concept – in fact, it may well be that perfection must always remain unattainable, or it isn’t perfect!
I always remember how wonderful was the taste of my very own first sourdough bread – I’m prone to think I’ve never baked another one as good as that one. But how could that be? I’m often perplexed by this irony – and I’ve come to an interesting conclusion; I believe our brain puts special markers on certain things we experience and learn – tastes being only one – and these are what we so easily remember whenever we recall “the very best whatever we ever had”. But I think this brain function is not nearly so accurate as we’d later like to think. I think it’s the occasion and emotion of that first experience that is the core of our memory, not the qualitative essence of that taste – and certainly not the qualitative comparison between the then and now!
Each time now that I bake a new loaf, I must admit to an anxious anticipation as I cut into it – will it approach perfection? And I must admit that I know my enjoyment of that loaf is short-circuited by my desire to grade it on the many characteristics of “the perfect loaf”. My wife will tell me how good she thinks it is, and I will respond by telling her of its faults … she sighs and breathes deeply.
I think that’s what Voltaire meant.