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Bad attitudes make better bread: Pastry, karma, and you June 27, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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In any bakery, the worse the attitude of a baker, the better his bread. Some of the best muffins and scones I’ve tasted were made by jerks with nicotine-stained fingers and criminal records, and cinnamon rolls I had to fight with–and then punish for their intransigence–inevitably tasted better than those more willing to come to terms with their 410-degree destiny. (For those who are curious, “punishing” uncooperative dough involves slicing it with the older, slightly less-sharp dough scraper, or allowing some of its fringes to get pinched, like a roll of fat in a zipper, between the handles and roller of the rolling pin. You just have to be creative and work with the implements you’ve got.)

Sure, stories abound about cooks and bakers who’ve infused their product by chanting mantra over it, and though my baking career predates my yoga practice by a good three years and was thus never informed by the Sutra or Gita, I’m convinced that muttering “God-damn-motherfucking-piece-of-shit” over too-soft white dough or unrisen whole wheat is a much surer way to improve the food’s performance than reverently singing “Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu.”

With living plants and animals, and to a lesser extent protists and bacteria, I’d recommend mantra every time, but dough is different, existentially and biologically. Don’t forget that with leavened dough, you’re collaborating with a living organism, Saccharomyces cerevisiae–baker’s yeast–and fungi responds far better to the stick than it does the carrot (Think of athlete’s foot—the soggiest, nastiest conditions always produce the most fecund fungal forests). And for unleavened food, like cookies, muffins, and scones, I’ve found that physical abuse trumps verbal as far as discipline goes. It must be noted, though, that like any ward given too much of the rod, over-beaten dough easily becomes overmixed, leading to longer baking times and tougher, less succulent product.

Alone in the bakery at 3:45 in the morning, day after day, I developed several theories about why quality of attitude is inversely related to quality of product, but, ultimately, these don’t serve to explain anything. It takes a certain kind of who-gives-a-shit curmudgeon to get out of bed at 2:30 each morning and enjoy his lunch break at 7, his five-o’clock-whistle at noon, but this merely explains why certain kinds of people become bakers, not why any one is any better than his peers.  Certainly, a congenital bad attitude can be synergized with a too-early shift, but again, this is something that affects all bakers, not just the antisocial ones.

Great writers, of course, are famously miserable, even though many of them, it seems, were simply playing a role. I’m sure that had Doestoevsky been a well-to-do descendant of a boyar, there’d be countless literary strivers today chasing after serfs, suppressing Cossack autonomy, and generally espousing the merits of reactionary thinking. Brooklyn and Montmartre’s brokers of windowless garrets would be completely out of business.

Ultimately, I’ve arrived at the understanding that, while a bad attitude is a benefit to baking, it need not extend beyond the breadboard. Dragging my bad moods to and from the bakery each day was an expression of immaturity and ignorance. Yoga instructs us to create an internal heat–tapas–that’s capable of incinerating whatever negativity and vileness has taken root in our bodies. Certainly, if a 99-degree human body can destroy malevolent thoughts, then a 410-degree oven can consume even more. Today, when I bake (now as an amateur), I make sure to baste my product in flavor-stimulating pessimism, then consider it transferred to the food and out of my body, on its way to certain destruction in the oven. Baking has become therapeutic, an act of contrition, no longer the violent brawl between man and food that it once was.

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