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

Healing Letter

I believe the challenge for the healthcare “industry” is to seize opportunities to construct and act as leaders in how to conceive and build our physical spaces– in ways that would embody a healing ethos. The famous quote attributed to Winston Churchill reads, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us." Wouldn't it be grand to have health care institutions provide a hand in "shaping" healthy communities on a physical level as well? This quote could ultimately be recast to read, “We heal our buildings; thereafter they heal us.”

Healthcare professionals are expert in creating spaces that deliver treatment, intervention, recovery and healing. Imagine developing building/community/concept prototypes that offer a healing ethos as a physical manifestation of how it naturally behaves/interacts with a person. 

Could there be a recalibration of how healthcare is delivered more transparently? How could it become more demonstrative and less reactive in people’s lives? Could it live more among us, rather than existing merely as "services rendered?” Is it possible for it to devolve constructively and absorbed by the multiple facets that create community?

 Is it simply a question of scale, focus and recalibration?

Home is Where

Home is where the heart[h] is.

Hearth refers specifically to the floor of a fireplace, which may extend out into a room. Hearths are associated with home and family because the hearth was historically the primary source of heat in the home, as well as where cooking happens. Also, Home is where the heart is. – Gaius Plinius Secundus, a Roman philosopher better known as Pliny the Elder 

 

As a bread baker, home is very much about where the hearth is. Because physical surroundings play such an important role in creating a sense of meaning and organization in our lives, it is not surprising that our sense of place is closely tied to our sense of who we are. Finding a permanent home for Bakewell Farm is presenting some challenges, in response, we think that a bread oven on wheels might be the best way to “mobilize” our efforts. Mobility provides a novel approach for literally moving our mission forward of baking bread and building community. Bakewell Farm’s sense of place and identity is about the oven’s hearth and its natural affinity for generating a gathering place. Home, for Bakewell Farm, will always be about where the hearth is.

 

Bakewell Farm has begun researching the design for a mobile wood fired bread oven. There are many ingenious designs available on the market. However, I am very excited to be working again with local stonemason, Randy Bollinger, for the oven’s design and construction. If you want to see an example of Randy’s beautiful work, visit Fidler & Co. (formally Pomona’s Wood Fired Café) in Biglerville, PA. Building a mobile version of a bread oven provides Bakewell Farm with the freedom and flexibility to explore different venues until such a time and place presents a more permanent home.

 

The primary force in this type of oven is thermal mass and lots of it! With sufficient mass, you ca ton store enough energy to bake several loads of bread from a single, extended firing. If Maintaining a live fire in the bake chamber, pizza can be made using this same oven. Yes, we’re talking delicious wood fired pizza folks! We are very hopeful that through memberships and donations we will bring this project to fruition. By design and intention, this oven will be a community oven–no matter where it is. The oven is the cornerstone that animates the broader vision to: lead the community in the care and feeding of each other by baking bread. Indeed, it is no small task, but persistently it is a humbling one that deserves our daily attention and participation. We ask that you join us in our mission of baking bread and building community!

 

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

Bring the Fire

Bring fire!

“If I survive, I will spend my whole life at the oven door seeing that no one is denied bread and, so as to give a lesson of charity, especially those who did not bring flour.” --Jose Marti

I cannot yet make the claim to have spent my whole life at “the oven door,” but I do think 22 years of time counts for something. I’m attracted to bread making as craft and baking as my daily practice. I also like to think that bread itself is a “lesson of charity.” There is something generous about the very act of making bread, and there are always gentle reminders that I am left to consider: bread is capable of rendering something greater (and more delicious) than the sum of its humble parts of flour, water and salt, that the goodness of bread is all ready present in the ingredients themselves, and the baker’s role is more about coaxing the ingredients that provide their guidance throughout the process.

Bakewell Farm is currently developing a program called, “Bread for BTUs.” The idea is simple: bring an armful of good, seasoned firewood to our oven and it will be exchanged for a nutritious loaf of sourdough bread. Let’s open up the idea of how bartering acts as a leveler. When you dismantle the monetized veneer, you begin to see the bones of true parity. Parity products are items or services that may be substituted for one another because each is functionally equivalent of another. According to proponents, bartering fosters a sense of connectedness and community among its traders. Barter-based economies are one of the earliest, predating monetary systems and even recorded history.

Why a loaf of bread for firewood? At some point, you need heat to bake bread. My own study has led me to understand that it takes approximately 500 BTUs to bake one pound of fermented dough. Bread for BTUs provides an opportunity for exchanging a thing of value (seasoned firewood– a natural, renewable resource) for a thing with added value (a loaf of bread) without the need for any cash. Anyone without cash connects directly to one of the vital roles of bread baking, retained heat. Plus, the program creates opportunities to gather, reach into the community, and create a unique way for making new friends. 

For “those who did not bring flour” perhaps you will bring fire! 

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

Fun Fest

Reflecting on Fun Fest

“My name is Mr. Bread.” He began writing his name neatly on the board. “But you can call me Peter. “Suddenly there was quiet, as thirty little brains whirred. “Pita Bread!” proclaimed a ginger-haired boy from the back.” ― David Walliams, Billionaire Boy

NOTE: This installment was going to be about how energy, in the form of Btus, transforms a ball of dough into bread but I thought I’d share my Fun Fest experience instead.

I had the pleasure of sharing my craft with several “little brains” during the afternoon of Fun Fest at the Gettysburg Rec Park. It was a beautiful, sunny Friday afternoon (despite a wind challenging us with our gas grill!). We brought along a tabletop gas grill with griddle and made flatbreads with anyone willing to step up and grab a rolling pin. Teachable moments present themselves in each and every moment; no matter where you go they just seem to pop up! I had the opportunity to teach that in many world cultures flat bread is the primary way in which bread is made, eaten, and enjoyed. Pita, Naan, Chapati, Piadina and Lavash are just a few of the monikers that helped guide my young audience around the globe.

Participating in Fun Fest left me energized by possibilities but I also departed with more questions than answers. Like honing any craft, it takes some time and patience. Whatever you attempt to do, do not look at a clock! I managed to take four hours and roll them into one fragrant moment using a griddle and youthful curiosity.

The children and parents visiting the Bakewell Farm booth were open, curious and eager to learn; particularly with us offering a hands-on demonstration. It was fun to engage with such a wide range of personalities and temperaments. It ran from timid and sweet, to brash and petulant, and it became evident when their little hands poked at the dough or how they tentatively ran the rolling pin over and over again on the wooden tabletop.

I took an inventory of my Fun Fest experiences and observations, and I will leave you here to reflect on a few of them:

1. We are all hungry for something. I mean everyone: children and adults alike.

2. Feeding others, whether it’s with food or a fact, is our humanity. It is what we do, not what we have that gives enduring value.

3. Our charge is a humbling one but you got to start somewhere, somehow

4. It feels good being part of something greater than oneself. It’s a recipe for happiness and good health.

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