Thursday, January 6, 2011

On Not Trying New Things

I started making this bread about twenty years ago, from a community cookbook that had been my mothers, and that she gave me when I left home.  It's just a simple sandwich bread, made from white flour, although over the years I started making it from mostly wheat.  

Then, after a trip to France, I fell in love with baguette style loaves, and because at that time we lived within walking distance of two very fine bakeries, I stopped baking althogether.  When we moved out to this rural area, I started trying to duplicate French style baguettes, with moderate success, using the no-knead bread recipes the New York Times went crazy over.  

Which us all well and good.  It's fun to experiment and learn new things.  But my husband really prefers sandwich bread so we ended up buying bread half the time and my trusty old recipe got mostly forgotten.  When my large family came to stay for Christmas, I pulled my old recipe out again, and discovered I was a pretty rusty sanndwich bread maker.  I wanted to have enough loaves baked and frozen so that everyone could help themselves to sandwiches for lunch.  That means I needed about a dozen loaves to get through the holidays, minimum.  The first few loaves came out kind of wonky.  I could no longer double and triple the recipe with ease.  I'd forgotten how much whole wheat I used to substitute for white, that I'd started using less yeast and letting it rise longer.  That sort of thing.  The sort of thing a cook knows how to do from years of practice or learns in the kitchen of another experienced cook.

I guess what I'm talking about is tradition.  I'm talking about the ordinary, every day traditions that we lose all too easily in a generation or so, if we're not careful.  My mother talked about my paternal grandmother's yeast biscuits, which to hear her tell it, were as big as a loaf of bread and as light as a wisp of smoke.  Maybe they were really that special or maybe they only became so in her memory but we'll never know because that recipe was lost when Grandmother left her mortal coil.  Now that my own mother is gone too, I find myself reaching for the phone sometimes still, to ask her how she made her oatmeal, and why mine never tastes the same.  My younger sister does the same thing and we both pine for that oatmeal, but too bad for us.  We waited too long to get her technique.

Too bad for the world too.  It's all too easy to lose touch with skills that were common just a generation or so ago: gardening, sewing, home repairs, animal husbandry, and so on.  In the world I grew up in,  cheap oil and the notion of an ever-expanding economy allowed us to believe we could, even should, let go of those traditional skills.  And we can't reclaim them overnight either.  It takes time to learn how to garden well, for example.  It takes season after season to learn about a particular climate and microclimate, to even begin to get a glimmer of understanding about how seasons work, how seeds like to sprout, what makes a tender plant thrive and what consigns it to failure.  It takes time to develop any skill and it's always best to learn from an experienced teacher, although books are a great source too.

So what I'm circling around to in this rambling post is that it's fun and instructive to try new things, like French style baguettes, but having a practiced, make-it-in-your-sleep skill, like I once had for sandwich bread as part of our every day repertoire cannot be neglected. 

1 comment:

  1. Your bread looks delicious. I love what you said about losing touch with the skills of past very true.