The emotional & physical sides of bread
Dear bread, I can smell you baking! Thinking of your growth, I get excited. Sure, the perfume of pie entices, but bread, you promise more.
A loaf of bread is foundational. Baking one means building the walls of a house, walls that will hold butter and jam for my husband, mustard and cheese for my son, and ideas for me.
My mind keeps buzzing around tomato sandwiches, and my friend James who introduced me to them. We were working together at the Chicken Soup Brigade thrift store in Seattle. I kept the kitchen stocked with a multi grain oat topped bread that reminded me of Freihofer's Canadian Oat. James actually worked at this bakery, which was just down the hill. The giant building was nondescript and all I could see of the factory was its delivery trucks – the place was not enchanted with the romance I now give to smaller scale bakeries, but neither was I. This was 1993 and my concepts of bread were half-baked.
James brought tomatoes from his garden in Tacoma, and offered to make us sandwiches. I was not a fan of mayonnaise and very dubious about a sandwich that featured tomatoes, a food that aggravated my eczema. But I enjoyed his company and trusted him enough to try the suspicious food.
James was from Boston and had an accent that comforted me, and his steady manner and great work habits also made me like him. He was a volunteer who was living with AIDS, and I had a good connection with several of these men. On the days they were scheduled to work, I would bring in baked goods I knew they liked.
The store was an old supermarket and its loading dock was always filled with donations, many from people who died from AIDS related diseases. 30 pairs of shoes, 30 shirts, 10 pairs of jeans, all in the same size. Every day we had to sort through the artifacts of abbreviated lives and put them out for sale.
We got loads of donations that were not screaming segregated death so loud and clear. Even in the 90s, there was too much stuff for us to sell it all. The sorters worked on the old loading dock, filling trash bags we put aside for a company that gave us two cents a pound; the contents headed to other sorting sites, or maybe just on containers to countries that needed our discards. Every two weeks, a tractor-trailer came and we filled it to the gills.
I remember James making me that first tomato sandwich. He toasted the bread in a toaster oven, spread mayonnaise, and put slices of tomato between two slices of toast. Most of my body was curled up in fear that I wouldn't like his food. Luckily, I loved it.
James hadn’t come out to his parents and he took a trip home to Boston to do so. When he got back, he had something wrong with his leg, a blood clot maybe, and he soon died.
I’ve told my family this tomato sandwich story every summer, but I don’t know that I can convey everything to them: the ridiculousness of the US response to AIDS, the sorrow of losing a generation to that heinous homophobia, the delight of discovering a new sandwich, the gratitude I felt for his wanting to share it with me.
I didn’t know I was going to write this today. I wanted to write about the physical side of baking, because I have been thinking about shaping, a part of the process that intimidates me. I visited Wide Awake Bakery, lurking and helping a little, to study shaping, and because I want to understand the flow of a bakery and how the people, ingredients, and bread move through it. Those reflections are for another day, but one part of that curiosity, of how the process of baking impacts the baker’s body, surfaced on Instagram.
Joe Bowie closes his posts with a distinct phrase, “Bread love and blessings, y’all!!!” I fell immediately for his joy. A dancer who learned to bake professionally as a second career, he often uses fresh flour in his stunning baked goods, and three of his recipes are in that wonderful cookbook, Southern Ground. Last week he posted the following request. What a terrific inquiry!
Hey baker friends and colleagues! I’m working on a project with one of my professors who is a master teacher of the Alexander Technique which focuses on several things, alignment and ease of movement being paramount. One of my contributions will center baking in both professional and home kitchens. Which leads to my overriding questions: What physical issues, challenges, and muscular patterning do you notice in your body after years or days of baking? Do they manifest on one side more than the other? How does standing for several hours during a baking shift affect your body? Do you no longer notice these issues and imbalances? What do you do to bring ease to your time in the kitchen? How does your frame of mind influence your time in the kitchen? What do you believe might help you feel more physically connected in the kitchen? I’d love input from any of you who have the time, energy, and interest to add to my contribution. Leave your responses in the comments or feel free to DM me! Thank you! Bread love and blessings, y’all!!!
If you would like to share your experiences as a professional or home baker, please email him at email@example.com, putting Baker’s bodies in the subject line.