Not Bread Alone: Starting, Rising, Working Together

Fresh from a glorious vacation in one of my happiest of places, I was inspired to write a “feel good” blog this week. How about a story of attachment gone right? And with the luxury of having my mind free, I could float back in time to some happy memories. Way back in 2014, now amazingly almost a decade ago, driving home from the office, I was excited to catch an interview with the author of perhaps my favorite book of all time, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, (yes a book about food!) the voice of local treasure Michael Pollan. Since then, Pollan has become an even greater hero in my world for legitimizing and putting psychedelics on the mainstream map in a whole new way. In this case, however, Pollan was the interviewer, the interviewee being someone I had not heard of before who has since joined my short list: baker extraordinaire Chad Robertson. 

Chad’s delightful and arduous journey could be my whole blog, so I will save it for another day. Suffice it to say, it grabbed me. I love baking, but I had never tried his medium: sourdough bread. Intrigued knowing that his recipe for basic country sourdough was 28 pages long(!) I ordered his then-only book as soon as I got home: Tartine. named after his now legendary neighborhood bakery. Tartine is near my home, and I was accustomed to seeing lines of patient people snaking around the block up to his door. Not knowing what the buzz was all about and never one for waiting in lines, I had never ventured in there.

I was soon to learn that sourdough baking is much like trauma healing, a cautious, painstaking organic process requiring presence, patience, time, and a measure of dogged faith. It begins with a “starter,” or wild yeast. When flour is mixed with water and cared for in its ideal environment and circumstances, it begins to bloom, it ferments into a bubbling living organism, like a thriving child. In this case, it is a requisite blend of temperature, light, regular care, and feeding, air. I am convinced as well, a measure of love. It took me six tries to finally “get it.” But once I got it, I nurtured it like a mother bear, and it continues to bubble and sing to this day. I bake about once a week, my husband having a requisite RDA of bread. And routinely, when the house is filled with the heady aroma of baking loaves, you might hear me wildly shriek: “Thank you, Chad!” I am certain he can hear me!

I also discovered that baking bread, as I was later to find with cheesemaking as well, made me feel connected to people around the world throughout time, who, in some iteration or other, made and “broke” bread. I came to love not only baking but sharing it. And particularly during the COVID-19 Pandemic, along with the cheese, sharing bread with loved ones known and barely known made me feel happy and connected.

Rising

On Father’s Day, I was peacefully stirring a vat of cheese and perhaps embarrassedly enjoying the fact that both my husband and I have no fathers and no kids, so a potentially fraught day was simply a gentle Sunday. I happened to hear a radio program that caught my attention. It was an interview with a father and daughter, telling their story. The young girl, Kitty, at the age of fourteen, had been stricken by a bout of ferocious and baffling agitated, doggedly treatment-resistant depression that turned a formerly cheerful and well-adjusted adolescent into a terrified, agoraphobic and nearly catatonic huddled child. I don’t really know enough to understand what happened, but her whole family mobilized into high gear. 

Father, Al, took a leave from his teaching job to stay home with her; Mom, Katie, took over the full-time “bread-winning,” and her older sister and brother stepped up to both cope with their parents’ pre-occupation with their sister and help where they could. It all sounds a bit too perfect, but I will go with what they tell us. Al frantically tried everything to help Kitty, to no avail. Until one day, perchance, he happened on baking bread. And something piqued a spark and kindled Kitty’s interest.  

When Kitty appeared to be perking up, Al cautiously invited her to join him in the kitchen, and slowly they became a bread-baking duo. Their product, before long at all, was pretty darn good. They became so prolific that the family could not keep up with it all, and they began to share it with their neighbors, all of whom seemed to thrive and clamor for more; and pretty soon were placing orders. Al and Kitty suddenly found themselves with a cottage industry that their little kitchen could not support. Soon, they borrowed their neighbors’ kitchens in the wee hours of the morning, accepting the loan of coveted oven time. And Kitty seemed to be steadily coming back like a plant long parched, finding its nurture and light.

Long story very short for now, the result was a little bakery, the Orange Bakery, which became a raving success. Kitty discovered herself as an artisan, a culinary artist, and miraculously quite well again. And Al retired formally from teaching and even came to think of himself as a baker.  It was maybe a year, and the whole family began to heave a sigh of relief that Kitty was OK and really rising higher and higher. My best friend, so often a few steps ahead of me, had found and gifted me their book, Breadsong, for my last birthday, but it had been buried too far down in the stack, and I had not read it until now. Greedily and joyfully, I have read it now.

I learned that Kitty, although a good five decades younger than me, is another cousin. She was quoted in the book as saying almost the exact words that I have repeatedly expressed over these nearly 10 years: baking bread makes me feel connected to humanity through time and diaspora. And now, I would add through mental health challenges. She also is a devoted of Chad, although I have had the privilege of living in his town, and before he got too famous, seeing him around at his (once) new and grand Tartine Manufactory, where I even got his autograph in my now well-worn book.  I also learned that the Orange Bakery was located in Oxford, England! Where many of us will be attending the trauma conference in August-September. I was thrilled! I will be able to meet them! Of course, I emailed them. I got a swift reply. I am not sure why, but the bakery was set to close on 23 July, so by the time we all arrive, we will have to rely on their periodic but guaranteed pop-ups. However, they promised to let me know when those will be. I am not sure why they have had to close; most likely, for so many small businesses, it is Pandemic-related. It is not because of Kitty’s health. She is now 18 and going strong. We will still surely meet!

Working Together

Who knows what the transformative ingredient was that brought Kitty back? Was it the timeless magic of bread? The devotion and presence and steady love of the heroic Al and the whole family, really? The purposeful action and creative agency, the herculean effort of baking and then opening their bakery? Most likely a heady recipe blending them all. But I do believe, of course, the defining and ultimately winning “active ingredient” was the unwavering attachment that, like the starter, “infects” the host, whatever it may be, with bubbling life.

In our family, we had a ritual prayer before meals, the “motzi: “hamotzi lechem min ha aretz…” thank you for the bread from the earth. Although certainly not one for formal religion, I still cherish that.

Today’s song:

 

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