No Country for Old Women
Or: My Adventures at the Back Home Bakery.
They all told me I was too old to start in any kind of professional baking. "My teacher" said it. Even the organizers of La Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie tell me I am too old to be eligible to compete (Oh, and I don't bake that well...)
They were right.
And I say this not in the spirit of complaining that Mark is a maniacal slave driver (although I did hand many customers at the Tuesday farmer's market small pieces of paper on which I had printed "Help me!") but rather to drive home how physically demanding this baking business can be. I knew it in my head. Now I know it in every aching part of my body.
For those of us who work in offices spending many hours hunched over a computer, the first shock is the standing. In my home kitchen, I can pull up a chair and rest while stirring the jam (for example.) In the world of professional baking, one stands. I am told by a friend who went from information systems work to working retail (a story for which the world is not yet prepared) that in a month or so, standing becomes easier. But what a month it would be! I was barely able to hobble up and down stairs at the end of a day and I was sure that my feet were some kind of malevolent entity determined to make me suffer as payback.
The hours, of course, are grueling. Getting to work at 3AM is cake, but continuing to work until 6PM kind of takes it out of a person - at least us old folks. Mark essentially works the hours of two people. He tells me that he soon will be able to slack off a bit. But he does this for months at a time. He previously worked construction. He is a fit, strong sort of guy used to hard physical work. The transition from "paper" work to physical work is quite a large one. As we lose our regenerative powers, this transition becomes more and more difficult. I won't say it can't be done - but it would take considerable effort for a "more mature" individual,
One thing in particular was striking for me. I have some problems with my right hand that are the result of injuries long in the past. In my typical life - which does include some heavy-duty home baking/cooking and gardening - this is a minor inconvenience. As the days passed at the Back Home Bakery, this little problem became a big one. Mark may or may not have noticed, but I did mixing, shaping, egg washing, and was his faithful prep monkey with a right hand in such pain that it hurt to lift a fork. I am sure that he may have thought that I had some unnatural compulsion to wash dishes (without gloves) but the real reason I was so quick to head to the sink was that the jet of hot water on my right hand was the only thing that reduced the pain enough to enable me to go on to the next task. If I were to bake at these volumes week after week, I would have to have the hand thing "taken care of" - with the expense and bother that would involve - if it were even possible. Winners play with pain, but a few years of that could be quite wearing. Anyone who is seriously considering running that small bakery at an age where little aches and pains are tolerated as "just getting old" needs to seriously consider what the strain of daily, repetitive, hard work would do.
I also found out how humbling it is for those of us who work with complex systems in our current profession to realize we can make a mistake weighing out water. "How hard can it be?" It can be hard - and left unnoticed the consequences could be dire.
Not to say that the time spent was unpleasant. While Mark may come off as a relentless, pitiless, heartless, cyborg who never sleeps and has no consideration for the well being of his interns - he is only doing what needs to be done to make his business viable. He is willing to put in stupendous effort (and so is his capable helpmate...) to make the vision he has for his life a reality. In a sense, many of us have been willing to do this, but for many of us it is in the past and not the future. I've reinvented myself at least twice in this way. I know I will have to reinvent myself one more time. What remains is the question of my willingness and ability to put in this type of effort again and what form that reinvention will take. Further, to wax even more abstract, the incredible demands we put on the people who provide the most basic necessities of life are really something to think about when we grouse about the cost of food.
All in all, I got the kind of practice that I wanted and needed. I shaped and scored more bread in a week than I would have in many months and that matters. I learned a technique to form boules that is so good, that I will defy "my teacher" and even use it in his/her presence. I learned that obsessive perfectionism is for home bakers - not pros (unless they intend to go into competition.) I finally mastered two fisted roll making. I spent quality time with the sheeter (I do love me some sheeter.) I realized that I have the heart of a pastry chef and the starker realities of turning out "daily bread" are less appealing to me. I learned that I get a kind of enduring satisfaction out of things like looking at the proofer - full at 6:30AM and thinking - "we really knocked that out today - got it done faster than yesterday" - or from simple things like beating Mark to the bakery in the morning (not an easy thing.) The Montana night sky must be seen to be appreciated. Sharon (Mark's wife) is a lovely person who has much patience for all and deserves to be elevated to sainthood. I learned to wrangle plastic wrap (yeah, you think it's simple...)
Mark and Sharon learned never to give me coffee. It may seem like a good idea, but it is not.
Would I recommend it? To vigorous, healthy folk of any age who want to deal in the reality of a small artisan bakery - yes. Folk like me - at your own peril.
But, I got through the week and I think I could have at least gotten through another. Yes, I could have pushed myself more on my final Sunday to do some laminating, but at that point it would have been practicing a skill that I will not use again soon and to be frank I just would have slowed Mark down. I sit (oh, lovely sitting!) here now in my somewhat cushier surroundings knowing full well that I like them - but do not need them. Baking aside, it's good to know that I own the things and they do not own me.
Has it changed my thinking about working professionally? Well, not really. I've been messing about with various food disciplines for a long time and have some small skill in some of them. I was never thinking about doing anything more than a "hobby business" after saving sufficient funds for retirement. You know - have a hobby that pays for itself and maybe earns a little pin money. I have been and still am searching for the right way to model this business. My realization that pastry holds more appeal than pure bread baking is important, but not earth shattering. I knew I would be taking a hit physically (not quite as much as I did during my internship) as I made the transition. I have to give serious thought to the question of my right hand and what medical science may or may not be able to do for it. I knew the economics of the food business would be harsh. Fortunately, I still have a while to mull this over.
I do have the shining memory of someone buying a bear claw, biting into it - smiling - and then handing pieces to his family. "That," I said to Mark, "That, is why all us tech types want to be bakers."
Thanks, Mark! Ya know we only abuse those that we deeply appreciate! If I ever take leave of my senses again - I'll be back!