I begin the lunch shift every morning by baking. We make English muffins everyday to serve as the buns for our hamburgers and shrimp burgers. If I don’t start as soon as I walk in at eight they aren’t ready when lunch begins at eleven.
Cooking and baking are two different things. Cooking is improvisational theater: you prepare, you gather all the ingredients around you, and then you wait for someone to call out the elements they want in the performance they’ve ordered. Good recipes are suggestions, relying on the cook to trust his or her senses to make sure the dish turns out as it should. Baking is science. The best bakers don’t just measure ingredients; they weigh them. If the dough is supposed to rise for thirty minutes that means you better have the timer set, or else the bread won’t be what you were hoping for.
My muffin making, therefore, calls me to hone skills that aren’t in my regular set. I’ve gotten pretty good at the muffins, but there is much more to learn. Take, for example, the conversation that took place a few days ago as I was kneading the dough. The delivery guy came with the sourdough bread we buy from a local baker, which led to a discussion about a bakery that had relocated. I asked it their bread was good.
“They do a good job, but the bread has never been the same since they left the old building,” our Chef de Cuisine replied, going on to explain that the bread is affected by the whole room, not just the baker and his recipe. “It’s the bricks in the walls, the size of the room, the way the room holds temperature, the ovens and other stuff. You have to learn how to make bread in that room; recipes don’t always travel well.”
“Sort of cooking acoustics,” I said. It’s not that it’s different bread, just that the room affects how the dough grows and develops.
The conversation has kept me thinking about context and what It means to be who we are where we are. I’m playing a new room these days with our move to Durham. The acoustics of life have changed; things don’t rise or fall the way they did in Marshfield, or in Charlestown before that. I’m still me and I’m trying to figure out how the recipe of my life plays out in these new surroundings, and how I will grow and develop in these days.
I’m mindful, in the rise and fall of my life, that six months after our move to Marshfield my depression got the best of me. In the years that followed, I’ve worked hard to understand the taste and texture of the darkness, if you will, and to prepare myself for the difficult improvisation needed to survive. Now, six months into our move to Durham, I’m struggling again. I’m not saying the cause and effect is quite so clear cut as I am saying I’m living through something that carries some resonance with where I have been before. I know this recipe. Even in a different room, I know what I need (knead?) to live through this.
One day, the baker in the bigger room will have baked there long enough for the aromas of yeast and flour to permeate the bricks that feel so new now. One day, he will know how the air circulates to let the dough proof in the perfect place to make loaves that are delicious and consistent. The only way from here to that day is to keep baking morning after morning, adjusting to the cooking acoustics and finding a resonance that runs deeper than change and circumstance.