The Security of Bread

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I am looking at a picture my girlfriend just took. I didn’t even know that I could look so serene and happy at the same time. Something in my facial expression is reminiscent of a mother looking at her sleeping baby. Cannibalistically.

It’s 10pm on a Wednesday night. It’s dark outside the window, a cold November drizzle smears the lights coming from the Castle Village buildings. I am sitting at a wooden table in my tiny Manhattan kitchen come dining room. My left hand is soaking in a blender – cold water is unsuccessfully trying to soothe the pain radiating from a large burn across my palm. I don’t care. I am happy. I achieved a dream that I hadn’t even have the guts to dream about. The dream is sitting right here, on the wooden table, on a black wire tray a foot and a half away from me. The dream looks like a misshapen slightly burnt brownish lump still covered in a thin coat of whitish powder. It’s about the same size and shape as a human brain but it’s slightly less symmetrical. I gingerly caress it with my fingertips; I run them along the rough folds, grooves and ridges of the surface. Something crackles faintly underneath. I bring my head close to it and almost touch the surface with my ear. Heat irradiates towards my head and I can feel faint noises coming from under thick crust. It’s talking to me. It says, “Hi.”

My girlfriend, Yvonne, laughs at me.

“Come on, wait. It’s only ten minutes.”

I sit back down, still keeping my hand in the cold water.

600 seconds stretch. I keep inhaling the aroma slowly and deeply through my nose. I am a chemist, so I know that it’s just a bunch of volatile ketone molecules being recognized by my nose receptors. But, I don’t care. I breathe in satisfaction, satisfaction. I am at peace with myself and the world. It is such a rare sensation.

The allotted time passes. Yvonne brings a knife from the kitchen and looks at me inquiringly. I nod. Yvonne’s short plump and capable fingers wrap firmly around the knife’s handle. And, then, she sinks the sharp serrated blade deep into the side of my dream. The crust resists and I can see muscles on Yvonne’s arm tensing slightly as she cuts through and down and across. She takes a slice, bites a piece off, holds it in her mouth, chews, thinks, repeats the cycle a few times and pronounces the ultimate verdict.

“It’s considerably better than Balthazar’s. It could be better than Amy’s. It’s definitely better than what I baked. It could be the best bread I had in years.”

She cuts another piece, a slightly bigger one, and hands it to me.  The slice is 10” long and 1” thick. It lies trustingly in my hand. It says, “Eat me.” A thick hard dark crust protects the tender soft flesh inside. The smell generously rolls off the bread and wafts through my nostrils all the way up to my brain, down to my heart. I sink my teeth into the slice. The crust feels just a tiny bit burned, the dough inside is moist, soft and chewy. It tastes simple and rich, subtle and powerful, earthy and uplifting, overwhelming; like bread should taste.

I nervously ask Yvonne, “Do you think the crust is too burned?”

“No, you idiot, it’s absolutely perfect,” Yvonne helps herself to another slice.

I just baked my first loaf of bread. It’s magic.

Over the years, people have conjured many images describing how ugliness unexpectedly generates beauty. A ugly duckling becomes a magnificent swan; a slimy caterpillar turns into a dazzling butterfly and so on. But to me, nothing is as impressive as the birth of bread.

I put three cups of tasteless white powder into a bowl, add a sprinkle of salt and yeast, and pour water over the sorry mess. I wait for a few hours till the yeast digests the flour, releases some carbon dioxide and a few enzymes in the process and turns the whole thing into bubbly sickly white sticky goo. I squeamishly pick up the goo and drop it into a cooking pot, put it into the oven and wait for 45 minutes. I open the oven and out comes the essence of goodness, the thing of divine beauty, a perfectly baked load of bread. If this is not magic, I don’t know what is.

I grew up in Moscow. There were bakeries at every corner. Bread was churned out in large state bakeries, run by indifferent state managers, operated by indifferent and often drunk state workers. The sanitary conditions at the bakeries were atrocious. My friend, Igor, worked in a bakery during one summer. He refused to eat bread for months afterwards. We are talking about the same guy who once, on a hiking trip, calmly fished a heavy boot with a pound of mud stuck on it out of a cooking pot and poured the soup into our bowls. I never got enough nerve to ask Igor what exactly freaked him out so much during his short baking tenure.

Still, every morning state factories baked bread and small trucks carried it to stores. As I walked down a street, I could smell a bakery from a few hundred feet away. Inside, five to ten types of bread and buns lay on the shelves. Most breads, both rye and wheat, tended to be slightly heavier, Eastern European style. Interestingly though, Russian bagels were much lighter than their American counterparts.

In the Soviet Union, the Cold War ultimately shaped people’s diet. It was a country of 10,000 ballistic missiles and zero microwaves. The food processing industry, a Cinderella of socialism, never got out of its stepmother’s house. The quality of food was often low, the choice was limited, but, at least, most of it wasn’t processed. Milk would go sour, butter turned rancid, and bread became stale in a few days. There were no preservatives, no additives, and few food colorings. Bread was baked in ovens, out of flour and yeast. It had taste and smell, crust and inside. I ate it.

Then, at the age of twenty, I crossed the Atlantic towards the land of milk and honey. I still remember my shock from walking into a first supermarket, a Stop & Shop in Omaha, Nebraska. It was the perfect opposite of the small and dingy food stores of my Soviet childhood. It could probably fit a few dozen of them inside it. It was spacious and light and clean. Untold thousands of strange foods, bright and colorful, covered hundreds of shelves. The store gleamed so much that my eyes hurt. I wondered around it like Alice in the Wonderland.

In a while, I found myself in a bread section, confused, looking at dozens of strange plastic packages. The sign above the isle said bread, the signs on the packages said bread, it had to be bread. But, it couldn’t be bread. It didn’t smell, it didn’t have a crust and it felt like a strange sponge in my hand. I tried lightly pressing against it and the bread just gave way, rotting flesh falling apart, behind my fingers. I looked at one of the labels more closely, reading down the long list of components that this alien product was made from. After three years at the Chemistry Department of Moscow University I could recognize or guess about dozen compounds out of twenty. Confused, I looked around some more. Then, I saw something that looked more familiar. A paper bag said Gourmet French Bread on it and a yellowish end of a loaf was sticking out. I happily grabbed it. But, my fingers just fell through the single molecule layer crust into passive foamy insides. It felt like I just crushed a centipede. I stood in front bread row for a while, contemplating the strange vicissitudes of life. Finally, I picked up a random plastic package and a paper bag with bread products and headed home.

I tried eating this bread. It tasted like foam. I asked my American friends. They suggested cooking it. Then, it tasted like toasted foam, roasted foam, burnt foam, omelet covered foam and, the most horrifying of all, gooey microwaved foam. I gave up. I ate supermarket tortillas – they were slightly less repulsive.

A few years later, I left the United States for New York City. To foreigners, the Big Apple is the symbol of America.  To many Americans, Manhattan is a foreign land. They are probably right. New York is frighteningly (for some) and wonderfully (for others) different from the rest of the country in so many ways. I started eating bread again.

Every morning, more than a dozen of small bakeries spread around Manhattan deliver fresh bread to New York stores. Amy’s, Balthazar, and Sullivan Street Bakery head the list. Many others faithfully follow. French, Italian, white, whole wheat, rye, baguettes, Pain Pugliese, Ciabatta, and my personal love and delight – Amy’s five grain bread. These breads smell; these breads taste; their crust is crunchy; their insides are chewy; they have souls, and their souls desire to please.

Every couple of days, I would buy a loaf of bread. And, it kept me happy. But, somewhere deep down I’ve always had this feeling of insecurity and trepidation. What would I do if I end up back in the exile of 48 contiguous states, together with 300 million Americans, away from Manhattan’s tiny haven? I travel a fair amount and my trips take me to the places where the only alternative to eating Wonderbread is healing through fasting. It is a thin veneer of flour, yeast, and an exhausted man in a white apron, that separates me from the unspeakable bleakness of breadless life.

Somehow, I had never considered making bread for myself. I had always thought that baking bread was art and craft, time consuming and required specialized equipment. Soft tasteless bread out of my friends’ bread making machines had only enforced my opinion on the futility of homemade bread.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, in 2006, a psychotically driven, sleep deprived man known to the world as the founder of Sullivan Street Bakery finally went public. After years of baking and experimenting, Jim Lahey came out with an idiot-proof easy-to-use no-knead home-oven bread. Finally, on November 8, 2006, the Dining and Wine section of The New York Times published a small article. It described how a lazy idiot like me could invest fifteen minutes of labor and twenty hours of patience to make a high quality bread loaf in a home oven.

Unfortunately, it took me six more years to find out about it. One day, Yvonne came home and asked me, “If you like bread so much, why don’t you just make it?”

I just looked back at her.

“The Sullivan Street Bakery guy has this recipe for homemade bread. It made a huge buzz a few years ago.  I’ll try it, let’s see what happens.”

The next day, we ate her bread. A few days later, we ate my bread. My sweet little lopsided brain, slightly burned on the bottom. My miracle of life.

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