The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

No Country for Old Women

proth5's picture

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!


ehanner's picture

Thanks for sharing Pat. It sounds like you had a great week and learned a lot in the process.


proth5's picture

a great week. An odd definition of "fun," but it was that odd variety of fun. I am grateful to Mark for the opportunity.

Paddyscake's picture

I really enjoyed hearing another prospective, especially one I can identify with!


proth5's picture

I don't mean to discourage anyone from trying an internship.  One can learn a great deal, but it's no vacation...

LindyD's picture

I greatly admire your tenacity and your eloquence in describing your week.

As always, Pat, you give us more than just baking to think about.

proth5's picture

Glad you enjoyed the entry.

pmccool's picture

I've been looking forward to your account.  Our day jobs have similar levels of physical activity (featuring lots of chair time - note that I did mention there weren't any chairs in the bakery) and we may be much closer in age than either of us would prefer to admit.  We also appear to have similar water-weighing skills.

It seems each of us who interns with Mark has a similar, yet very different, experience.  You have a preference for pastry and the sheeter.  I was impressed by the pastry but never touched the sheeter because, well, because I'm more interested in the bread.  You have a continuing interest in a career phase that involves food preparation (which I hope doesn't get stalled by your right hand) while I'm happy to continue in engineering.

Having grown up on a farm, I found a number of parallels between baking and farming.  One is the never-ending nature of the work.  There is always something else that must be done, even if it is simply to make ready for the next day's work.  Another is that not many people want to work that hard for such modest monetary compensation.  I think that both bakers and farmers are appreciated too little simply because the nature and the demands of their work are largely unknown by those of us who depend on them for our daily sustenance.  And I think that both bakers and farmers derive a sense of satisfaction from their work that has nothing at all to do with remuneration.  Whether it is the wonder of seeing new shoots emerging from the soil, or the transformation of inert ingredients to bread, there are soul-nourishing flashes that balance the physical grind.

I will agree whole-heartedly that baking is a young person's work, in physical terms.  I would also suggest that a, ahem, more mature baker should be able to continue his craft, but as a mentor / teacher / supervisor, not as a prime mover of heavy objects.  The ability to direct and develop those who are learning their skills becomes ever more important as the body gradually becomes further removed from what it was, and less interested in performing as it did, when it was in its 20s. 

Thanks for sharing your experiences and insights.  I'm glad you got to experience the joy of sheeting.


proth5's picture

I was so pissed about the water mistake.  Fortunately it was detected (fortunately by me) in time to make a correction.  To add insult to injury it was not a weighing mistake, it was a math mistake.  And me an engineer...

I really thought that I was a burn out on my consulting career until recently when I found that when I really get to do what the career usually involves, I still loved it.  It has its challenges also, but in general is more appropriate work for me for now (I mean, I invested my blood, sweat and tears in the education that prepared me for it...).  But the call of some kind of food business is strong - when I can do it as a sideline - because I make some products that actually cause normally sane people to beg and I think there are possibilities there.  The danged right hand problem will be solved - somehow.  I just didn't realize how quickly a little problem would bloom into a big one. 

I knew the standing would be an issue since not only do I sit for my job, but I spend a lot of hours in airplanes.  I have a lot of practice sitting still - and I'm good at it.

I've been running another life experiment of depending as much on the output of my urban garden as possible for my produce needs and yes, there is absolutely always something to do.  I can only imagine the reality of farming (since I grew up mostly in my grandmother's kitchen it seems), but I can imagine it.

Oh and I do love me some sheeter.  I'm actually headed out to Portland in a couple of weeks to take a pastry class.  I vascillate between being glad to have additional experience under my belt and hearing the voice of the justly celebrated teacher of the class saying "Who in the Sam Hill taught you to sheet like that?"  We'll see...

What I do know is that Mark (and his good wife) are generous people to provide such an opportunity to us raggedy home bakers.  I'll not soon forget it.  I can't. My feet still hurt...



Janedo's picture

What a wonderful resumé of your week. Puts lots of things in to perspective. I would love to participate in a week at Mark's bakery, but it is just a little too far away! The way you describe him simple shows a good businessman as well as a great baker. If he spent his time being Mr. Patient nice guy, we could worry about his end of the year financial situation! :-)

The food industry attracts a certain type of person and their are many different areas where this passion can be manifested. I think there will be new "careers" created in the future, small or big and it just takes passionate and creative people the make them happen.

Will we get to see pictures?


proth5's picture

Ah, no.  I actually have no pictures of my own.  There are some things in my life that make a picture of me on the internet an impossibility, but Mark has a couple of pictures of things - if he wants to post them.


mcs's picture

Haiku for Pat:

raggedy baker
pastry chef and prep monkey
too old for the Coupe.

Thanks Pat, for your insight and inspiration.  Hope your recovery is a full one.  Get that hand taken care of.


left: 6AM proofer on Tuesday: Rustic White, Multigrain shaped loaves, Kalamata rising, PSB rolls, Hippie Bread, Rye loaves shaped

top right:  detail of rose and leaves before baking

bottom right: Pat's baked live dough ready for display

Don't let her narrative fool you.  She gave up a nap to make that piece of art up there.




sharonk's picture

Thank you, Proth, for a well written heartful post. I've thought often about opening a gluten free vegan sourdough bakery. I'm over 50 and have the vision of directing a dedicated crew after teaching them all the techniques. But, in my heart of hearts, I know that if, for whatever reason, workers don't show up, I, the boss, will ultimately be responsible for all the tasks to get the orders out.  So that will mean unpredictable taking over of tasks like standing and lifting for long hours which I cannot sign up for.

I continue to dream though...

proth5's picture

I didn't get into it in my post, because I wanted to concentrate on other things, but the business side of a bakery is very important and not at all easy.  My real professional life is more wrapped up in things like supply chain, scheduling, costing, etc. and while I like it, I know it can be boring.  I've done some supervisory work and I've learned that if you don't have the "onions", the heart, and the cred to do it yourself - you're dead.

If you don't currently have some business background, let me suggest that some learning in this area would make a good supplement to developing hand skills and techniques in the bakery.  Whatever your weakness - being a small business person will expose it.

No problem with a dream, but that dream needs a plan and a deadline.  Then dreams come true.

AnnaInMD's picture

then come the early 60s to which I can attest, and both hips go, and the right wrist goes and after a lifetime of computer and desk work, standing for more than 2 hours at one time becomes very difficult. 

Acutely astute and thought-provoking  (and very funny) article, Pat. Thanks for sharing !


proth5's picture
proth5 sweet thing...