Looking Deeply, Part 2

“To practice does not mean to imitate the form. To practice means to use our intelligence and our skill to make nourishment and transformation possible in our self, engendering nourishment and transformation in the people around us.” Thich Nhat Hanh

As I move along my narrative about looking deeply, I imagine that the wheat has been grown and harvested in Adams County. With silos brimming, grain is much like having money in the bank; the grain is brought to market where it can be sold. More value is added by milling the grain into flour. The mill transforms grain into flour. Maybe in this case the mill is powered by water collected by a millpond from a creek nearby. A millpond is a form of potential energy that is stored for later use. Next, a mountain comes to mind, and I see veins of pink granite being quarried and fashioned into millstones. These stones, from eons ago, are now heard gently turning and creaking in a restored 19th century millhouse. With slow rotations, the stones remain cool and help preserve the nutritional integrity of the grain; so with fresh flour in hand the process of making bread begins.

Steps are taken for making a sourdough culture, which requires several stages of attention before vibrant dough can be made. When all conditions are present: flour, water, salt, sourdough leaven, fermentation, oven temperature, timing, and perhaps an offering to Ceres or Fornax (or both just to make sure!), the results are good bread. Real bread not some modern version of a cereal product that’s been extruded with machines from some dubious source. The craft of baking will generally yield more than the sum of its parts. Something that you can literally sink your teeth into!

If we look back in time “deeply,” we may reclaim some qualities that have been lost. So I say, Festina lente–make haste slowly. I’m not suggesting a nostalgic return to Luddite shenanigans, but it does beg the question, “Why are we so easily distracted from the qualities that embrace simple goodness?” Maybe it’s just easier to be mischievous or recklessly modern. It’s always the proverbial slippery slope that gives us pause to those temporal thrills we subconsciously crave. As the Dakota say, “Take care of your goodness.”

The meditation of looking deeply brings the word telos to mind; a Greek word for aim or purpose, and I would add the qualities; goodness, and simplicity. Looking deeply engages the mind of a reflective practitioner. “To practice means to use our intelligence and our skill.” It is how practice becomes praxis. Socrates said very succinctly, “Now speak to a craftsman–he’ll tell you to do the job better.” As you practice work with others, a deeper social connection is encouraged while “engendering nourishment and transformation in the people around us.”

Marc Jalbert, Founding Director of Bakewell Farm, a 501c3 non-profit whose mission is to promote “bread-centric” educational programs for building community while engaged in the practice of public service. Please visit us at: www.bakewellfarm.org

Be Surprised

Be surprised!

“Creative people are constantly surprised. They don’t assume that they understand what is happening around them, and they don’t assume that anybody else does either. They question the obvious—not out of contrariness but because they see the shortcomings of accepted explanations before the rest of us do. They sense problems before they are generally perceived and are able to define what they are.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention

It’s another chilly morning, as I prepare to pull loaves from Bakewell Farm’s mobile wood fired oven. The oven doors swing open and the sweet, moist and fragrant air bellows out a steamy yawn. Aromatic clouds are backlit by the pale morning light–giving the front of the oven an otherworldly appearance. I tap the bottom of the first few loaves peeled out to make sure they are properly baked. I listen for that characteristic hollow “thud” for an affirming nod. The extra hour of firing the evening before has paid off with a display of a bein cuit deeply colored crust. The loaves exhibit a handsome range of colors from amber to dark chocolate–making for some winsome loaves and a happy baker.

While I transfer hot loaves onto the metal wire rack, I can hear them sing! The crackling crust spins me back in time to when my parents listened to Old Italian arias on their scratchy 78-rpm record player (have you guessed my age yet?). Loaves can sing and sometimes they even kiss. When loaves are placed too close together on the hearth, (a baker’s effort to get a comfortably full oven to generate adequate steam) they attract each other dans une baisure or kissing crust. (You must pardon the bakers who are hopeless romantics–not a bad quality to have when you consider the long dark work hours) So when I open the doors to my oven, I never know whether I will, like some doting parent, intrude on some steamy love fest! C’est la vie! 

Baking bread animates my life in many surprising and delightful ways. Surprises sustain me. Without surprise there is no joy and without joy there is no love. For me, baking with love and imagination has become a guiding principle. This principle can animate any type of work. Get out there and be surprised!

Marc Jalbert, Founding Director of Bakewell Farm, a 501c3 non-profit whose mission is to promote “bread-centric” educational programs for building community while engaged in the practice of public service. Please visit us at: www.bakewellfarm.org


Happy and Playful 2018

“…pick a moment to stop asking questions, recognize that it is an arbitrary moment, and then make a ‘gut’ decision. We can then work on making the decision right rather than obsess about making the right decision.” –Mindfulness, Ellen J. Langer

It’s one thing to know what you are doing. It’s another thing to know what your dough is doing! After practicing the requisite “ten thousand hours,” you would think that you’ve become an expert and that you have sufficient data to tackle any vexing baking problem. But, let’s face it, when you rub against the infinite, there’s never enough data. As I write this, I’m 16 hours from moving into the year 2018, and perhaps, as many of you, I am thinking about making resolutions. My resolution is broken down into parts: stay put, trust my gut, deliberate less, exercise mindfulness, and play more.

Does the Internet provide me with sufficient data to operate more deeply on a local level? Looking deeply is about calibrating our senses, to begin to trust our gut in the moment as a manifestation of both the past and the future. Wendell Berry speaks of the “wisdom of a place” and espouses the radical idea of staying put. After all, the definition of radical is “to form a root.” So in our “rootedness” we’re doing something radical! Therefore, my resolution is to stay put and do the work of baking bread and building community with Bakewell Farm. This is how I wish to apply the core principles of what I have garnered over the years as a bread baker. It’s about imagining the “other” becoming “we.”

Another part of my New Year’s resolution is to deliberate less. I want to “work on making the decision right rather than obsess about making the right decision.” Is it possible to develop 20/20 vision in the moment rather than only through looking back? There are many conditions and variables to consider when making bread. For example, you look back and maybe the dough needed to be mixed warmer or left to ferment longer. Or that by leaving the loaves in the oven another five minutes it would have given you the color and doneness you were shooting for. This brings me to the third part of my resolution: exercise mindfulness. I know, I know, it’s trending so much in the popular press; however, this practice has been around for a very long time, and well, deserves our “mindful” attention.

Lastly, is to play more: play more music, play more with bread dough, play more with live fire cooking, and play more with friends and family. To play becomes a tremendous gift to yourself and touches everyone around you. So have yourselves a very happy and playful 2018!

Marc Jalbert, Founding Director of Bakewell Farm, a 501c3 non-profit whose mission is to apply “bread-centric” educational programs for building community while engaged in the practice of public service. Please visit us at: www.bakewellfarm.org

Bring to the Table

It’s what we bring to the table

“My first encounter with a baguette, torn still warm from its paper sheathing, shattered and sighed on contact. The sound stopped me in my tracks, the way a crackling branch gives deer pause; that’s what good crust does. Once I began to chew, the flavor unfolded, deep with yeast and salt, the warm humidity of the tender crumb almost breathing against my lips.” ― Sasha Martin, Life from Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Forgiveness

In searching for a quote to introduce readers to The Baker’s Table, I came across this one by Sasha Martin. It immediately caught my attention because it’s about memory. Memory and food are convivial partners for many of our stories. Think about your favorite family stories, and I’ll bet, at least one of them, happened around the dining room table. For me, it’s when I reach in the pantry for bay leaves to make stock for a soup. Every time I bring my nose to the jar, I am transported to that warm sunny day in Yosemite National Park. As we hiked along, we would brush up against these enormous Umbellularia californica only to be overwhelmed by its “bay-ness.” And to think that I can conjure this memory just with the twist of a wrist!

Our sense of smell is one sensual slice of how we take in our experiences. Somehow it becomes a part of us, embodied as an olfactory “soundtrack” just waiting to animate any number of our memories. Some playback as unpleasant and others are totally euphoric. It’s hardwired, lodged somewhere in our collective memory, ready to be opened like a jar. Food is like that and for me, baking bread has been particularly so. It’s what we bring to the table that matters. The stories, tasty dishes, recipes, all gathered around–to be shared as one, flavorful feast.

I’ll use some of these column inches to share my thoughts and report on the books that I’ve been reading (and yes, even some baking tips!) as they gather around my baker’s table. For example: shaping bread happens on a table and the table acts as your “third hand”(more on that later), and I know that community happens when bread happens. Over the twenty years, I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing this in my bakery. There’s a poster I tote around, and hang on the wall of every bakery space I’ve ever worked in, and at the top it says, “a gentle manifesto” and it concludes by stating, “Bread is ONLY Bread.”  I believe this means that bread remains simple, thankful, humble, positive, nourishing, and it becomes the catalyst for what is ever more compelling, a loving community.

Marc Jalbert is the former owner of the Gettysburg Baking Company. While he continues to bake for the Baking Company, he is the founding director of Bakewell Farm, a 501c3 non-profit whose mission is to introduce “bread-centric” education as a means for building community while engaging in public service. Please visit us at www.bakewellfarm.org

Becoming Bread

"Bread for myself is a material question. Bread for my neighbor is a spiritual one." – Nikoli Berdyaev

Stick–to–itiveness is the quality that allows someone to continue trying to do something even though it's hard or unpleasant.

When I consider the small marvel we call bread, I want to ask, "How is it so?" Is bread's substantiation a quirky accident orNature's way of saying, "Here you go, eat this, and stop complaining!"

Perhaps we should look more closely at how bread becomes bread. How is it that this plant we call wheat (a grass actually) has delivered us to this current level of domestication? The wheat berry, in particular, wants to become bread. With a hand full of freshly milled organic whole wheat flour, add water, cover and let it sit out for a few days and if you're lucky, voila! You may have created an active culture that will leaven a loaf of bread for you. You see, the beneficial bacteria are already present on the surface of the grain. Is there some tacit imperative that the wheat berry mutters in your ear and says, "Hey, I want to become bread!"

The bread making process, which on the surface appears simple, belies a hidden complexity. It's the empirical inquisitiveness of the baker that initiates the process. Relentless curiosity bordering on obsession comes closest to portraying the baker's life. Maybe "obsession" is too strong a word. It's the single-mindedness of the baker that characterizes the relationship one acquires with bread making. It keeps you going back for more. You ask whether the next bake holds the promise of perfection. Only if you return with determination–so let's call it "stick-to-intuitiveness."

One Baker's Dozen

One baker’s dozen, please…

“The old woman who farms in the Alps, the welder in South Chicago, and the mythical cook from ancient China have this in common: their work is hard and unglamorous, and most people would find it boring, repetitive, and meaningless. Yet these individuals transformed the jobs they had to do into complex activities. They did this by recognizing opportunities for action where others did not, by developing skills, by focusing on the activity at hand, and allowing themselves to be lost in the interaction so that their selves could emerge stronger afterward.”  “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Baker’s Dozen–A group of 13; a dozen plus one: from the former practice among bakers and other tradespeople of giving 13 items to the dozen as a safeguard against penalties for short weights and measures. Dictionary.com

I smile every time I read the word “dozen” and parse out the imperative; “do” and “zen.” It remains for me a gentle reminder to be mindful while baking. You see part of my time spent in the bakery is about anticipating “flow stoppers.” Flow stoppers are those annoyingly absent things that appear to get in the way of your work’s flow. Isn’t it odd how something that’s not there can really trip you up?  Here’s a baking tip (as promised): ask any chef; a mise en place is one of the best ways to get your work to flow. Prepare all of your ingredients in the order that you wish to follow; measured in the appropriate ratios and proportions, and then proceed with reckless abandon!

There’s no doubt that the working life of a professional baker can be “hard and unglamorous, and most people would find it boring, repetitive, and meaningless” but it’s also extremely integrative. Which is to say, bread baking brings to bear everything that you do know, do not know and wish to know in every moment that you are “lost in the interaction” i.e. baking. So I ask, why shouldn’t our time on this earth be about transforming the mundane into the sublime; engaged in “complex activities” that are profoundly practical, craft-enriched and gives one purpose?

One baker’s do-zen coming right up! 1. Do one thing at a time. 2. Do it slowly and deliberately. 3. Do it completely. 4. Do with less effort. 5. Do put space in between. 6. Do develop rituals. 7. Do designate time for action. 8. Do devote time to sitting. 9. Do smile and serve others. 10. Do make cleaning and cooking a meditation. 11. Do engage in actions not things. 12. Do think about what is necessary. 13. Do live simply.

Marc Jalbert is the former owner of the Gettysburg Baking Company. While continuing to bake for the Baking Company, he’s the founding director of Bakewell Farm, a 501c3 non-profit whose mission is to introduce “bread-centric” education as a means for building community while engaging in public service. Please visit us at: www.bakewellfarm.org