SlicingBread

SlicingBread
Pieter Claesz, Still life with Musical Instruments (1623)
"Bless This Damned Pandemic for reminding us how."

I speak this morning in praise of blessed inconvenience, as embodied by the once-familiar act of simply slicing bread. With the exception of that period when my mom went all Earth Mother on the family and took to baking her own bread, my early years experienced exclusively the pre-sliced variety bought day old in a small bakery for ten cents a loaf and stored in the trusty basement freezer. I saw in books photographs of the kind of bread people bought in Europe, dark, rotund, and unsliced, and I dreamed of pulling off handfuls to accompany some whiffy cheese, but we were no longer Europeans, and hadn't been for generations. As Americans, we never really thought about most of the conveniences we shared. We thought them a birthright accompanying what was more than simply The Good Life, but the very best life imaginable. Beret-wearing Communists might walk straight-faced while carrying a baguette or boule, but we never would, and not just because we couldn't.

Then I came to test taste a plain baguette and found it good. No, I found it far superior to any sponge cake imposter.
It had crispy crust and challengingly chewy crumb and it just smelled so damned fine. I could easily eat an entire one in a single sitting, and did whenever permitted. I learned that genetically I had been born as an unaware member of The Gluten Appreciation Society, an imaginary fraternity of my own founding of which I would later become the self-proclaimed President and Chairman of The Cuttingboard. I will still assent to a sliced loaf if I must, for it remains true that much of this great wheat-growing country offers little else in our stores. When I locate a decent bakery, though, by which I mean one which offers dense unsliced loaves, I become an instant champion of the place and all's right with my world. Should I have to settle for some mushy substitute, even if it should call itself whole grain, I blame The Gods for abandoning me.

As the sequestering settled in, The Muse began to bake her own bread. I have no idea what prompted her other than her usual inquisitiveness. Maybe she had grown weary of waiting a long hour to buy our weekly allotment fromThe Grateful Bread Company, where shoppers queue up in a largely unshaded warehouse parking lot for their turn at choosing authentic loaves from whatever's left. Maybe it could be just another excuse to stay home rather than foraging out there through potentially infected air, but she began. She'd imprinted on sourdough, so she started growing beasties, a ceramic bowl gathering leavening from the surrounding air, perhaps encouraged by a smidge of store-bought yeast. Her beast enthusiastically grew, as if suddenly released from an imprisonment it had exclusively experienced before. She was forced to store it in the overflow refrigerator lest it simply take over the place.

Those first few loaves were boule, flattish, ovoid constructions, tasty but a tad too much like store bought seconds. We sliced and ate them, make no mistake, but we recognized that they were not yet choice like those found in any little French joint. She persisted, fashioning two or three each week, with heels and extra cubed for croutons we never ordinarily use. The resulting loaves improved, as if the sourdough started catching on. A high protein flour milled in a small operation down on the Navaho Reservation helped. The altitude here complicated her calculations, for water boils at well below the sea level two twelve and leavening takes liberties here in the thin atmosphere. Eventually and finally, extraordinary loaves began appearing, still ovoid and luscious. She tried one in a traditional shouldered bread pan and we made proper sandwiches with the result. Her loaves were light but not wimpy, substantial without approaching craw-sticking. The slices toasted extraordinarily well, and the serrated slicing knife is now never far.

Small dustings of crumbs tend to accumulate in the kitchen's slicing corner. Some slices turn out to be too broad to slip into the toaster. A hundred little inconveniences have slipped into our existence since The Muse started her little experiments. Now, we no longer idle that Saturday Morning hour away waiting to discover what might be left for us to choose that day. Our daily bread's become a given along with a slight increase in our daily quotient of blessed inconvenience. Some things, they say, are better than sliced bread. I'd put the unsliced kind very near the top of that list, for it provides that special kind of inconvenience capable of transforming living into a life actively lived. I cannot presently simply give in to a desire for toast or a quick sandwich, for that desire requires me to put myself out a little bit first. Pull out the cutting board, draw the serrated slicing knife, carefully place the loaf, and surgically slice something thin enough for toast but thick enough to hold tomato and tuna fish, without also slicing off a thumb. I'm not yet sporting a rakish black beret or voting the straight Communist Party ticket, but I fancy that I'm living very like my forebear European peasants, not completely convenience-free, but more properly inconvenienced for now. Bless This Damned Pandemic for reminding us how.

©2020 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved








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