It’s late. I’ll be going to bed soon. But first I had to get the start fed so that there can be bread tomorrow.
I bake bread. I don’t know that I would call it a hobby. My other cooking is a hobby – my barbecue, my playing on the stove – but the bread is something different.
Indeed, the bread is ritual. I’ve been baking bread for almost 15 years now, and in those years I’ve baked almost all the bread we’ve eaten. I’ve always worked from a live bread starter, making every loaf sour dough, even if it doesn’t taste like it came from San Francisco (the yeast out there are different). Oh, once or twice in all that time I’ve had start die. A few times we’ve had “store-bought” bread, when both of us were sick and were afraid we’d contaminate the start. But mostly we’ve had my bread, what my sons call “Dad bread.”
The bread is ritual. I bake almost every weekend. Each batch takes about 24 hours, although the actual work within that time runs to perhaps an hour, hour and a half tops. Tonight I have fed the start with flour and water. In the morning I will take that start, likely to have bubbled out of its crock and onto the protective wax paper, and add flour and water to make the sponge. Sometime tomorrow afternoon – it can be any time from five to ten hours – I will add more flour (white and whole wheat), salt, sugar, and a mix of assorted grains I refer to as “birdseed,” and make a dough. I’ll knead it until I’m ready, and then set it aside to rise. After two hours I will knead it again gently, add a little more sugar, divide it, and set it in loaf pans, to rise again. Finally, after another two to two and a half hours, I will bake. I attend to a lot of other things in all those gaps, but over all, from cold start to hot bread and butter is about 24 hours.
I chuckle that I found a ritual in bread. I’m proud of it, of course: I make good bread, and I enjoy eating. At the same time, I was long the person who hated to get his hands tacky. I was no more attracted to kneading bread than I was to gardening – and if you’ve been paying attention, you know that I love to harvest, not garden. Somehow, encouraged by my cousin Susie, I took it up. It was therapy for me late nights when I couldn’t settle down. It was productive work in times when my career seemed to have little to show. It was a gift to my wife and my children, something no one else could give them exactly. And over time, it became a ritual. I do not think about those things, although they’re all still sometimes true. Now, I simply think, “It’s time for bread.”
I have come to enjoy, though, the physicality. When the dough is stiff, it’s resistance training. When the dough is silky, it’s finesse, the delicate touch of a musician. In either case, it is an upper body workout.
And tomorrow there will be bread. There won’t be turkey tomorrow. For so many years I worked on Thanksgiving Day that we’ve formed the habit of eating our big meal on Saturday. It makes it a lot easier to pick up the turkey on Friday. But, there won’t be turkey tomorrow. We’ll be working around the house, preparing for guests to come before Christmas. There will be cleaning and storing and even some concrete patching.
So, there won’t be turkey. But, the start is fed, and is waiting, working, rising. Tomorrow there will be bread. That will be reason enough for thanksgiving.