Bread and ambition.

March 16, 2011 § 9 Comments

Fleischmanns Yeast ad circa 1920

The summer after my freshman year at art school I began making bread—both kinds, and in both cases, the hard way.

Through a neighbor who worked in personnel at McGraw Hill, my dad had lined up a summer job for me in the accounting unit of their textbook division.

I ran into trouble immediately.

Day one, I reported to work dressed like an art student (purple tights, black old lady shoes).  I never found out which of the older women who made up my unit turned me in, but none of them saw an aspiring artist in their new summer intern.  They saw a hippie, and for them the words “dirty” and “hippie” were inextricably linked).

Toward the end of my first day I was called to the nurse’s office where I stood mortified as the corporate nurse advised me to bathe daily.

At home that evening I asked my family if I smelled bad.  They looked confused.  When I explained, my father, who managed a large staff himself, descended on our poor, helpful neighbor.  What the hell kind of company handles petty complaints that way?

My mother quietly walked me downstairs to my sister’s closet and together we selected four or five conservative outfits which I wore to work every day for the rest of the summer.

Wearing Claudia’s clothes I smelled okay.

Gradually, the women in the desks around mine thawed.  It helped that we were allied against a common enemy, the men who sat in an elevated room behind a window and watched us.  My memory of the view through that window is of the broad fronts of white shirt, neckties, and unblinking eyes.  The sole job of our male supervisors appeared to be to watch us.  Even in the bathroom we whispered, “Do you think they have this place bugged?”

Still, I remained the summer girl, the one who would be gone in two months.  The women I worked with would very likely live out their careers under the scrutiny of the men behind glass.

Kneading bread.

Unlike art, which encourages originality, bookkeeping rules are more than suggestions.  At McGraw Hill, unless the day’s accounts balanced to the penny no one went home, and the error-maker was always found out.

Please, I would pray, please don’t let the missing three cents be mine. 

When the missing three cents were found by one of the other women, she would look at me over the tops of her jeweled Harlequin glasses, the chain that dangled from the temples trembling slightly.  “That’s all right dear,” she would say with utmost forbearance.  “It only took twenty-seven minutes to find your mistake.  This time.”

Leaving the office complex at least twenty-seven minutes late each night, I was angry, scared, humiliated and frustrated.  But I needed that job.  Before long the earning of bread provoked the making of bread.

Bread is a constant in an Italian household.  Even in a half-Italian household bread is served with every meal.  One night I decided to make the family bread myself.  I started with a yellow and red packet of Fleischman’s yeast and followed the directions on the back.

Slamming the dough on the counter and punching it with a fist, and shouting a name (either of a coworker or an account) was so satisfying, but it didn’t do much for the bread, which remained ragged and sticky.   Gradually, I discovered the steadier pleasure of kneading the dough in an even rhythm.  As I kneaded, the dough became warm and pliant, almost alive.  The rhythm of push-turn, push-turn was hypnotic, calming.

Fresh-baked bread, an octopus and an orange.

I know memory’s tendency to inflate, but I don’t think it is much of an exaggeration to say I made bread every evening after work that summer.  Making bread kept me sane.

My McGraw Hill summer turned out to be one of my few forays into the conventional work place, although I have taken an occasional welcome breather from the scramble of making a living in the arts by working at libraries, and a community college, even keeping the books for a woodworker.

I’m grateful for those spells of regular employment when a system much bigger than myself took care of things.

But after a period of respite the confinement gets to me, and the need to lose the watching men in white shirts becomes overwhelming.

So most of the time I am out there, selling things no one thinks they need, like stories and pictures and songs.  In the inevitable lean times a warm loaf of bread makes me feel prosperous.

If you too could use a little prosperity and an instant sense of calm, roll up your sleeves and take off your wedding ring (bread dough sets up like concrete).

Here is my basic bread recipe.  I never make it without amending it in some way: I add herbs, or mustard and celery seed, I replace some of the whole wheat flour with oat bran or I turn it out of the  pans and let it bake for the last few minutes on the bare oven rack so the crust gets crisp.

You can hardly go wrong.  Bread is forgiving.  Tolerant.  As long as it includes yeast, water, flour and long, slow kneading to develop elasticity, it will turn out fine, so add whatever you want.

Bread welcomes–and feeds–artists.

1 loaf basic whole wheat bread (I always double this.  It’s more fun to knead a double-batch)

1 T of  dry yeast (I buy it in bulk)
1 tsp sugar
1 1/4 C warm water

Step 1: In a large bowl combine the previous 3 ingredients and wait for the yeast to get a little foamy.

Step 2: Add the following to your foamy bowl and stir:

1/4 C packed brown sugar
2 T of the fat of choice (butter, margarine, I use olive oil)
1 1/2 tsp. salt

Step 3: Stir in:

2 C whole wheat flour and enough white flour to turn the whole mess into kneadable dough (in total you will add about 1 1/4 C of white flour—but don’t even bother to measure, you can tell when it feels right).

Step 4: Knead 8 to 10 minutes, put in a greased bowl and let rise double.

Step 5: Punch it down, shape into a loaf and put it in a greased bread pan.

Step 6: Bake at 350 for about an hour (turn it out of the pan and thump it to determine its doneness).

And that’s it.  My best basic bread recipe–it makes excellent toast.  Enjoy.

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