Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Consciousness Raising (or is that Rising?) An Old Hippie Looks Back

If pressed, I suppose my excuse could be, “Hey, it was the 70s, and everyone was doing it,” but that doesn’t really explain how I became such an ardent, and terrible, bread baker. I can pinpoint exactly when my fervent and misplaced devotion began. I was attending a college that had decided to put the capital“L” in liberal arts. Right before my matriculation in 1976, they had banished same-sex dorms, general degree requirements, letter grades and other vestige of “the man” that those losers back east at Harvard were still insisting upon.

So it seemed totally cool when the teacher in my “History of Education” class decided to show us a movie about someone baking a loaf of Challah bread. “I view it with all my classes,” she had explained, “because it seems so relevant.” We freshman nodded, already inured to the italics that seemed to hover about that era like a veil of polyester. The Population Explosion. The Nuclear Freeze. The Equal Rights Amendment. And now, the italicized relevancy of the Challah Movie in an education class. It just all added up, sister.

The movie, which I guess I don’t really need to tell you was in black-and-white, had a wonderful sort of photographic haziness. The baker, and again I realize this is a detail that is probably already understood, had long hair that had been braided to droop over one shoulder. She wore a peasant blouse. I swear I could see, through that peasant blouse, that her armpits were unshaved. She mixed the flour. She hummed. She kneaded. She stared out the window thoughtfully, depicting the passage of time in a highly European way. After she pulled the bread from the oven, there was a closeup of her first taste of her hand-made, totally authentic expression of grain products. She looked absolutely blissed out, as if the population had been controlled, a nuclear freeze agreed to, and the Equal Rights Amendment passed, all on the same day.

My stomach rumbled, and I was sure I could feel every slice of Wonder Bread I had eaten in the past 17 years churning in there. Their days were numbered. I had seen the secret to being a truly authentic young adult, and it involved baking my own bread.

Hey, guess what, the college bookstore had a copy of Laurel’s Kitchen, the whole grain bible. Next was an ingredient-shopping trip to the local co-op, where mealy bugs scrabbled in the flour and the clerk had suspiciously yellowing eyeballs. I tried to recreate the movie scene, but, lacking a gauzy-focused kitchen and a long braid of hair, it just didn’t feel the same. I did enjoy the kneading, the waiting, the baking … and then, the moment when the bread came from the oven and I first tasted the results of my own honest labor – ick! What was this stuff? It wasn't like the movie.  It was Brown. Sodden. Gooey. I rechecked Laurel’s Kitchen, determined to try again. And again. And again. For most of the 70’s, I refused to give up, searching farther afield for ingredients, consulting more cookbooks. Apartment Life – a cool precursor to the Pottery Barn lifestyle -- carried a multi-photo exposé on bread baking, and I followed every syllable, but with no luck. My bread was flat. My bread was damp. My bread lacked not only philosophical significance, but flavor.

And then, 45 credits in creative writing and a few miscellaneous pottery classes later, I graduated from college. I began to concentrate on earning bread, not making it. I began to store glossy catalogs in that earnest-looking beige mixing bowl with the winsome blue stripe. And, along the way, a wonderful thing happened. Gourmet grocery stores opened. Bakeries began appearing. Women cut off their braids, shaved their armpits and began to see “artisanal” as the new homemade. Somewhere along the way, it became okay to eat something just because it tasted good, no matter what its political credentials. And now, years later, I don’t even know what happened to that old copy of Laurel’s Kitchen. I realize that I was a terrible bread baker all along, and I don’t eat that much bread now, anyway. The 70s were great, and sure, I loved all that black-and-white relevancy, but now I realize that it’s just as important to know what you can’t do well as to know where your talents lie.

No comments:

Post a Comment