Sunday, October 24, 2010

Why Bread?

The shrill screech of my guinea hen was a brutal awakening this morning. The sky was still dark. The other hens joined in for a bit; but it was that first screech that really jolted me up. I tried to calm myself back to sleep thinking, It’s just guinea hens--they’re always loud when they get spooked! They are known for their horrific strident ruckus designed to frighten off predators and friends alike, and so I tried to close my eyes.
But my eyes shot open again! This first cry was different, more like a sudden piercing electrified explosion that screamed “Death!’ then trailed off into a whimper, and finally into a dark and ugly silence.
I threw on my clothes and ran out the back door, down the grassy hill to the birds’ chain-link enclosure near the brook. Searching for them in the moonlight, I could barely make out the shapes of four motionless bodies lying in the hay instead of on their usual perch. Maybe they were threatened and are now just frozen so the threat will go away, I hoped for a moment; or maybe an intruder killed every one of them, I couldn’t tell. I cooed what I hoped were some calming sounds and returned to the kitchen knowing I would have to wait until light to assess the damage, a wait that was promising to be dreadful. The thought tightened my gut so badly that it was about to lurch like the damn crouching beast that probably pounced my birds.
There would be no more sleep for me, so I made myself a cup of coffee, donned an apron, then set to work. I reached for the large glass jars of red winter wheat and oat groats from the highest shelves, pouring them directly into the hopper of the grinder that lives on my counter. It was a ritualistic act, done without thought or measurement. I switched on the machine and watched the freshly ground flour descend into the old blue splatterware bread bowl like sand in an hourglass. The things this bowl and I have seen, I thought, running my fingers over its chips and crazing. It’s been with me for as long as I’ve been making this bread. I stared into the bowl; scooped the flour into my hands; felt the warmth from the mill; weighed the coarse and fluid gravity of the grain as it ran through my fingers. It was calming me already. This has been done forever, I mused; the grain in my hands has been forever.
Bread is an awe-fully plain thing; created from grain, water, leaven and time. How easy it is to overlook such simplicity; but making bread serves as a reminder that time and intention creates sustenance from nothing. I find this truth as well in other kinds of cooking, which I’ll write about later; but I first discovered this in making bread. It has nourished us in its simplicity for all time.
I made this morning’s loaf by dissolving yeast into sweetened water, adding a large pinch of salt, a medium handful of brown sugar, a pinch of ginger and a bit of nut oil. This, I poured into my ancient bread bowl with about half of the flour and stirred everything together into a thick dough with my large flat wooden spoon. The remaining flour, I sprinkled heavily onto the wooden work table and poured the thick dough on top. With a bench scraper at first, I began the timeless process of folding and pressing, incorporating just barely as much flour as necessary; knowing that good bread-making requires a light touch, and an awareness of what is enough; enough grain, enough water, enough time...then losing time.,,
Lost in the ritual of stirring and kneading I surrender and find balance, the dough’s body absorbs the world’s sorrow and upheaval. Like a child hugging a gorgeously fat grandmother, all that is wrong flows out through hands, all things became bearable...and I return.
There is a miraculous transition that bread undergoes while kneading. It starts as a thick gooey mass; then it is worked with the repetitive motion of your two hands. Fingers cupped, drawn toward you, then with open palms pressed gently away, over, and over. The change begins to happen. The protein strands lengthen, and gain the ability to support structure. This will be useful later when the yeast produces gasses which are caught in this protein web at rising. You can feel the change in your hands as you work as well. What begins as a clingy, leaden, all-absorbing mush begins to take form. The dough begins to hold its own shape, to stand on its own. When you press, it bounces back, and the dough becomes lighter and plumper. It’s hard to say just when it has had enough. The rule of thumb is that it takes about 10 minutes or so. All I can say is that it’s done when it tells you it is. It is ready to inhale the leavening spirits.
In this way my bread was kneaded, then placed back in the bowl, covered, and left to rise just as the sky began to show some light. Wiping my hands on my apron I turned my mind back to the birds, or whatever was left of them. With trepidation, I woke my husband and took him outside where we found the four guineas alive and huddled together in the corner of their enclosure. One, however, was clearly injured and too weak even to escape my husband’s reach. My husband gently wrapped the bird in a cloth and took it away, having been left with the job of putting the poor thing out of its misery. The remaining birds were fine but shaken, and anxious to leave their night enclosure. They quickly scattered into the bushes at first chance. Guineas seem to have a very short memory as much as they love to huddle with each other. They would soon be ok.
I swallowed hard. The worst was over, the day was still early, and the bread was calling me back. It was time to punch the dough and form it into loaves, which would rise again with even more strength; I would cover the loaves with seeds and put them in the oven.
“Life goes on,” it whispered. “Even bad mornings are surprisingly ordinary; and... there is still bread to be baked.”

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Food Ways

“You’re always looking for magic!” my mother complained shaking her head while throwing loaves of risen bread dough into the oven. I was about fifteen years old at the time, sitting at the kitchen table observing her. Watching her make bread seemed like the right time, so I had just announced that I wanted to learn more about God.

I’d heard those words before when she watched me try to lose weight--something I tried often and, yes, earlier than fifteen; and I would come to hear that same dismissal whenever I attempted to solve problems without that clench-fisted approach she had long trusted.

Of course I was looking for magic! Why wouldn’t I since I knew, even then, it was there? The belief I’ve always held is that if I could just unearth some pure nugget, some seed of truth, the way to anywhere or anything would unveil itself, and all things would be made clear.

And now, I’m still in search of such things, and I find them most often in the kitchen. For all the world, I love food, and I love it for what it tells me.

There is an uncompromising sense of righteousness to working with local organic vegetables, meats and milk. That’s what counts for Real Food these days--the kind one pulls out of the ground on the way to the kitchen. We’re talking crunchy carrots packed with moisture, sweet and slightly loamy; freshly foraged chantrelles still bearing that short-lived indescribable umami scent at the base of their stems; herbs like lovage, chervil and lemon verbena that grow just outside my door; wild greens like tangy purslane and stinging nettles, available only during some times of the year so that one must use them at every possible opportunity for that short while; meat from contented poultry and livestock who were fed the grass, seeds and bugs their bodies crave and know how to digest; and freshly milled grains grown without poison.

Who can resist, however, the wild promiscuity of using the agile refined white flours and sugars of every kind from the luscious and carmel-ly Lyle’s Golden Syrup to the more virtuous sucanat? I have a huge weakness as well for teas, coffee, and every exotic spice despite (or perhaps because of) its horrific story of duplicity and treachery. (More on that later.) These indiscretions may be hard to swallow by my more disciplined politically-committed food consumer friends. Yet all these ingredients beckon me, whether burdened with ancient histories of depravity or freshly hailed as the new answer to goodness and health. It is good to know how to be with the bad boys as well as the angels, all these ingredients have their places.

Real Foods, as well as the more compromised kinds, are like wild animals. If you want to know how to be with them, you must sit with each quietly for awhile, poke, mix, and watch while withholding judgment. Truly, food wants to tell you its secrets, all the things it can do and be, all the things it can create between people.

But to know such things one has to spend tenfold in mindful observation the time one spends stirring, steering, and cajoling. Most importantly, it won’t do to hurry, get angry, or force things, because food recognizes a bully. It knows the processors and engineers who. like porn directors with their shallow agendas, have turned God’s creation into a numbing sort of frenzy. Food recognizes people who only understand business, who want what they want and don’t much care about the damage. Food might cooperate sullenly, but it won’t disclose its unique beauty.

We would all do well to heed the words of Edward Bunyard as he describes a pear in his book Anatomy of Dessert.

"The pear must be approached, as its feminine nature indicates, with discretion and reverence; [for] it withholds its secrets from the merely hungry."

As with most things, when it comes to food respectful attention is worth the effort. During those prime moments of curiosity-fueled pure attention, secrets unfold. The most alluring thing about food is that as it unveils itself; it opens up the world, both inwardly and outwardly. Alone there in the kitchen, fascinating things are revealed in inaudible whispers. Sometimes as comfort, sometimes as instruction, it’s all in the palms of your hands there on the work table.

These things that I’ve come to know, I’ll tell as best I can. But like all fruits of the spirit, the hearing and the understanding are two different things. Cooking then, is about the sacred and profane. It is both a guide to prayer and a map of the world.

Next post...Why Bread?