Why We Bake
I recently got a message from someone here whom I respect a great deal, both as a person and as a baker. However, one part of his message stung me: the part where he says, "I don't remember seeing any original recipes or methods from you." That got me thinking about what I bake, how I bake, and most importantly, why I and others bake, and whether "original recipes or methods" are or ought to be a measure of bona fides as a baker.
Obviously, there are as many reasons people choose bread baking as a hobby or occupation as there are bread bakers, but I think we all fall into a few broad groups, which naturally overlap.
- The first consists of knowledge- and mastery-seekers - bakers who strive to extract maximum flavor from wheat berries, using traditional methods and minimum ingredients, augmented by modern knowledge and the evolution of sustainable technologies. They are the people who are committed to unlocking the secrets of flavor and the magical interplay of flour, water, yeast and salt.
- The second group is made up of people who want to go back to an earlier time, to recreate breads and other foods that may be personally or culturally meaningful to them, or who want to experience another culture through this most basic of foods.
- The third group finds its motivation in the intimacy and personal engagement that's implicit in breadmaking, which is not only about nourishing the people one cares about, but also the simple fact of getting one's hands covered with dough, experimenting with new flavors, and personalizing the process of transforming an assortment of disparate ingredients into a single exquisite experience.
None of us, I think, is exclusively in one or the other; all of us fall to some degree into each of those groups, and all of those motivations are present in each of us. It is, perhaps, a matter of relative emphasis and where we go first to reap our satisfactions.
I'm the first to admit that I fall squarely into the second group - those who look backwards and use baking to recreate and recapture the experiences of those who came before me. My interest in, and satisfactions from, baking bread are largely about refining what's already out there and rediscovering what may have been forgotten or lost, like those onion rolls everyone's crazy about. I didn't come up with the recipe, Norm did. But I was the one who remembered them asked him for it. My satisfaction came from reliving an experience I hadn't had since my childhood in 1950s Brooklyn and making it part of my life today.
When I bake 100% rye black bread, I do so both for the pleasures and challenges of working with rye, which I love, but also as a means of experiencing for myself what my ancestors subsisted on for centuries in the villages of Russia and Poland, and in so doing, understand at least this tiny piece of their lives. Is that about "original recipes or methods?" Absolutely not. The methods and recipes are centuries-old. Does that make me any less a baker than others here or elsewhere? I think not. I hope not.
I think the one thing we all have in common is our search for authenticity in an increasingly commoditized and alienated world. All of us respect process, respect our ingredients, and, one hopes, respect each other's sincerity and commitment to whatever motivates us to bake bread. Life is tough enough in the world of Wonder Bread without carrying the battle back home.