Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"Pay attention to the dough...try to listen to what the dough is telling me."

"So I tried one of my biscuits... It was so good. It was buttery and flaky. And it kind of melted in your mouth.
And it was wheaty - it actually had whole wheat flour in it...
And so it tasted like wheat, like the earth, like the sun, like the air, like water.
You know, there's like poetry again, you know.
There's the possibility of connection with life itself."

- Zen Chef Edward Espe Brown in "How to Cook Your Life".

I cannot bake bread. I buy bread-baking cookbooks, flour, and yeast - none of which manage to cross paths in my kitchen. When someone tells me that they can make bread, my regard for them immediately skyrockets. They are magicians, they are lifegivers, they bring us the bread to break and therefore the solace and communion that punctuate gatherings of families, communities, faiths, and nations. My fascination with bread-baking has prompted clandestine tours through the bustling Saturday-night-dinner-rush kitchen of an Indian restaurant to behold the bread chef making naan at a dizzying speed (he really didn't understand why I wanted to watch him spin dough on a hot drum).
Later, fueled by my full-blown obsession with injera, the improbably spongey bread that is the staple of every Ethiopian meal, I spent a small fortune and the better part of one summer fermenting batch after batch of dough in a woeful attempt to master the artful combination of yeast, warm water, and teff flour. A conversation with an Ethiopian cab driver about my botched efforts troubled him to the extent that he asked his wife to make some injera for me and he dropped it by my apartment building the next week. The cab driver got it. He understood. Bread is love. Seriously.

I am fortunate to have been born into a family of bakers. My mother, famed for her desserts, makes the most complicated of birthday cakes look effortless and my father's creativity in the kitchen is legendary. Sunday mornings frequently held two things in store for an early-to-rise five-year old: breakfast with my father, followed by watching him make bread (later in the day, he would often prepare a soup to accompany the bread for our Sunday dinner).The rotation included herb bread, beer batter bread, cheese breads, and peasant loaves. Sunday bread baking was for the most part an activity conducted in the morning quiet, our silence interrupted only sporadically by our game of identifying different bird songs from outside the kitchen window. While my father kneaded and pounded and blanketed the kitchen counter in a fine coat of flour, I watched. Happily. For my patience and occasional assistance, I was given the first slice of warm bread, which held the combination of novelty and comfort in each bite. We did this instead of church. For me, it felt as reverent as taking communion. I loved the silence, and I adored the time with my father, whose fierce love for his family is often expressed through his cooking. I also found repeated joy in the religion of quiet togetherness baked into this Sunday ritual. It was simple. It was humble. It was honest.

Twenty years later, in the farmhouse kitchen of my then-boyfriend's mother, I would watch her make loaves of bread at a time, without a recipe. Her movements - from counter to butcher block to oven - always felt like a familiar and comforting choreography. Her potter's hands, which reminded me of tree-roots, beat the dough with a rhythm that was positively meditative. She had a tattoo of a Corgi on her arm, and each time she kneaded the dough, the muscle beneath her tattoo moved. I liked watching the Corgi dance. I liked how her pottery and baking were extensions of one another, and I liked eating her bread off of plates she herself made. In my years of knowing her, I basked in her serenity and her gentleness of spirit. I attributed the fact that I never heard her utter a harsh word or tone to the solace and comfort she found in using her hands to such great ends. I could taste it in her baking, which to me, was enlightened. It has been more than ten years since I have stood in that kitchen, and I still miss her bread. I haven't found anything that tastes remotely like it. Nor would I want to.

It is not surprising that I would marry a man whose mother can bake with her eyes closed, a woman who keeps her native Austria close to her heart and by her side in everything she creates. I have a lot to learn from her, and this is one thing I love so much about those who bake - they give so freely. It is also not altogether astounding that bread would work its way into my nightscape, but I was surprised that in a recent dream, I wasn't a child again eating my father's bread, nor was I seated in an Ethiopian restaurant sopping up Doro Wat with generous tears of injera. Rather, I was making bread. Standing at a long wooden table, I kneaded my way through countless pillows of dough, letting them rise, then punching the dough down again with a graceful, staccato precision that I lack in almost all areas of my life. The dream coincided with a period of heightened stress, illness, and general malaise. I always take these things as signs of something.

The next morning, my dearest friend (who had no knowledge of my dream) recommended that I watch a documentary:
How to Cook Your Life. I was supposed to be participating in a Day of Mindfulness with Thich Nhat Hanh in New York City, but instead, was bed-bound in Baltimore with the H1N1 flu. I was feeling sorry for myself. I was cranky. I was furious with Ticketmaster, who refused to refund me for the cost of my tickets, and my spirit kicked and screamed like a feverish five-year-old, twisted and knotted in her bedsheets. Thich Nhat Hanh, himself recently hospitalized with an acute respiratory infection, would not have been impressed by my inner grace. I didn't feel like watching a documentary because it would require concentration and I was too busy concentrating on how upset I was. A documentary would only distract me. Jeesh.

That said, when Gaby recommends that I read or watch something, I do it. Dutifully. I didn't know the premise behind How to Cook Your Life when I streamed it on Netflix. I knew that my best friend told me I MUST watch it NOW. So I did.

Edward Brown (the principle voice of the documentary) is a master chef and renowned baker of bread. He helped open Greens Restaurant in San Francisco. My copies of two of his cookbooks are well-loved in that they are earmarked, splattered, highlighted, and still contain hand-scribbled menus that I put together when I was in college fifteen years ago- one for Gaby's birthday, no less. Edward Brown is also a Zen Master. The documentary, which explores the Zen practice of preparing and eating food, puts forth the notion that our relationship with food and with making food is a lifelong enterprise of mindfulness, practice, and joy. Zen philosophy embraces the belief that if a battered, imperfect teapot can heat water and serve tea each and every day, so can we, in our own imperfections, knead the dough, cut the vegetables, honor the food that we make. It's a relationship based upon perfectly balanced reciprocity. As one chef so succintly put it, "We're cooking the food, but in terms of practice, the food is cooking us."

Maybe, for me, this is what is so equally intimidating and tantalizing about baking bread. It strips one of pride, of material worth, and even our notions of competence because we MUST surrender to the possibility that the dough won't rise, or the climate will do something funny - we acquiesce to that which is often beyond our control. And yet we need bread, so many of us, for the place that it occupies at our table and in our rituals. It replaces want with just plain living. The act of making bread reminds us of what we forget to tell ourselves. Eating bread - for me a sacred and cherished gift - connects us to what is essential: the earth, the air, the water, the sun, and the love that a well-baked loaf of bread provides. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that "there is no enlightenment outside of daily life," and while I missed the opportunity to experience a walking meditation with him, perhaps in the end, daily life is what I needed more.

At thirty-five, I like to think that I have a sense of how to cultivate happiness, and how to nourish that happiness for myself and alongside the people I love. What I have learned to appreciate about this premise is how quickly it may be undone, reversed, turned on its side so that the process of loving and living is always new. Happiness doesn't have a formula; it either is or it isn't. Bread and the ritual of baking bread each act as metaphors of one simple, stripped-bare truth: we make ourselves in what we do. A
s the bread-baker in How to Cook Your Life serenely explained, "People say 'how are you doing?', and I say, I'm baking."

I firmly believe that all we need is already at home in our hearts. And most of the time, a half a loaf of bread is enough.

"Someone who goes with half a loaf of bread to a small place that fits like a nest around him, someone who wants no more, who's not himself longed for by anyone else,
He is a letter to everyone. You open it.
It says, Live." - Rumi


  1. Now I think I finally understand the poetry in baking and the inner solace one finds.. Beautifully articulated and masterfully crafted. Now off to eat some tasty carbohydrates!

  2. Your emotions are wonderfully expressed.
    I do not agree with the sentence in the paragraph which starts: " Maybe,... it strips one of pride and of all notions of competence."
    For me that is exactly the opposite- it gives me pride and competence and the motherly feeling of providing, a certain satisfaction and happiness, as you describe in that very paragraph " and the love that a well-baked loaf of bread ( or for that matter other foods also) provides.
    love Sigi