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The Shoulds & Supposed-tos of Baking Bread
This is an essay about bread that's really about gender, genius, capitalism, and the "gloriously anarchic" and "erotic" power of unalienated work.
Standing in line at the grocery store last weekend, Sean tells me about a New Yorker column on the recent proliferation of bakeries in the city and beyond. He is purposely baiting me. Maybe it was a glance at yet another bag of flour and pound of unsalted butter in our cart that reminded him of what he read. "This guy says it's 'nuts' to bake at home," he offers, a devilish glint in his eye.
I'm a bit speechless. Confused. I ask for clarification. Sean couldn't recall the specifics, but he took the statement as a plea to support local businesses.
I tell Sean to show me the column when we get home. A bit of defensiveness starts to tip into searing political analysis—and I don't want to fully ascend my soapbox until I've checked my sources.
We arrive home, and I don't wait for him to produce the right page. I grab the June 19 issue, find the Tables for Two column, and start reading. There, in the second paragraph, I find this passage:
”Personally, I think people who bake bread at home are nuts,” Easton writes. “It’s time-consuming It’s inefficient. Home ovens aren’t designed to bake bread… Plus, why make your own when you can buy something great from your local bakery, as people have for thousands of years?”
The rest of the column, written by Hannah Goldfield, showcases four other New York City-area bakeries in addition to Easton's Bread and Salt in Jersey City. Goldfield makes a point to highlight the decadent and artistic products of each shop. There's a laminated baguette by baker Amadou Ly at ALF in Chelsea Market, the triple-chocolate croissant by the team at Radio Bakery, and a rose-pistachio croissant from Librae, a Middle East-inspired bakery. After describing that last one, Goldfield closes the piece: "I would never in a million years attempt to make it myself."
I yell to Sean, who himself is busy in the kitchen, "It's worse than you made it sound!"
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Why I Bake at Home
I think I started baking toward the end of 2016. I don't know what made me want to pull the KitchenAid mixer down from the shelf and attempt a loaf of bread, but I did. If I had to hazard a guess, it was probably because I watched The Great British Baking Show.
I started to bake in earnest toward the end of 2020. It was less a pandemic-related pursuit and more of an attempt to wrest control of my mental health. At this point, I've probably baked somewhere north of 120 loaves of bread. That's not a ton relative to a lifelong baker, but it is the result of consistent effort over the last few years.
Easton is right. Baking is time-consuming and inefficient, two values that our predilection for performance just can't stomach.
It is far easier for me to hop in the car, drive to Whole Foods, and grab a loaf of bread from the bakery or the bread aisle. It would be easier for me to brave what passes for a bakery on my morning walk and purchase loaves of bread loaded with unnecessary sugar (Central Pennsylvanians will put sugar in anything). Or, I could acquiesce to diet culture and chide myself for eating bread at all—then, I wouldn't need to make bread or buy bread. My guess is that buying bread might be a bit more budget-friendly, too, considering the cost of ingredients I prefer to bake with.
But I don't bake to save time or money. Nor do I bake as a chore. I don’t bake out of a misguided belief that I should treat my suburban home like a self-sufficient homestead. I don't bake at home because I believe that I can create something superior to what I could buy from a dedicated baker. I don't bake for any should or supposed-to reason.
I don’t even bake to have bread.
I bake for the full-circle experience of doing, making, and using. The experience of choosing an activity, manipulating the raw materials, producing something useful, and then putting that product to use.
Baking Can Be Both/And
Even after I read the full New Yorker column, I wanted to give Easton the benefit of the doubt. I thought there had to be a bit of nuance around this bit of text included in his new book (co-written with his partner, Melissa McCart). My initial search turned up reviews of both the book and the bakery that centered on this same theme: "Eat bread, don't bake it."
Then, I noticed that food writer Alicia Kennedy had just interviewed Easton and McCart for her podcast. I respect the hell out of Kennedy's thinking (she's running a 4-week series on the politics of food—I mean, what's not to love?). The part of me that lives for righteous indignation deflated a bit, assuming that Kennedy and I would see this anti-home-baking invective the same way.
We don't see it the same way, though—and that’s fine. She writes:
While surely some will find Easton’s take on this issue eccentric, at best, or rude, at worst, to me, it’s always generative to interact intellectually with ideas that might seem extreme or absurd.
I completely agree.
During the interview, she says that she loves Easton and McCart's book because it relieved the shame she felt for not being a dedicated home-baker. "I felt guilty that I'm not a home sourdough baker, and now I don't," she tells Easton and McCart. I can certainly empathize with this—there are all sorts of things that I feel guilty about (or felt guilty about) not doing, especially as they relate to the traditional role of 'woman' as home-baking does.
No one should feel shame or guilt about what they choose or choose not to do in their kitchen.
I like the idea of Easton’s cookbook, which focuses on how to use bread rather than how to make it. As a home baker, it seems like a great excuse to bake more not less.
Baking can be both/and instead of either/or.
My position is not that we should be baking at home, just as Kennedy's position is not that we shouldn't bake at home. And my guess is that we can agree that it doesn't serve us as individuals, members of communities, and people who eat to worry excessively about the shoulds and supposed-tos of kitchens—or any part of our domestic lives.
In the essay that accompanies the interview, Kennedy writes about her fraught relationship with bread as a kid and how a loaf of "peasant bread" and her mom's French toast made with challah started to ease the friction. She writes:
Of course, I’ve worried that I’m not a good enough food writer, a good enough cook, without making the sourdough myself. I simply don’t want to, though, and I’m not good at it.
"I simply don't want to" is an incredibly powerful statement.
"I simply want to" is equally as powerful. Kennedy doesn't want to bake bread at home, and I do want to bake bread at home. Allowing that to be enough reason is powerful.
Old-Fashioned Oatmeal Bread
My favorite sandwich bread to make right now is King Arthur's "Old-Fashioned Oatmeal Bread." The first time I made it, I followed the recipe (except for cutting down on the molasses just a bit). It was good, but still too molasses-y (as in extremely molasses-y). As Sean says whenever we eat something delicious but maybe not something we'll repeat in the future, we choked it down.
The next time I made it, I subbed maple syrup for the molasses. Major improvement. In fact, it was almost everything that I want from a sandwich loaf. To bridge the gap between almost and fully everything that I want, I added seeds: sesame seeds, poppy seeds, and flax seeds. It was even better. Then I decided to try making it with a preferment.
A preferment—at least the non-sourdough variety—is a pinch of yeast along with a portion of the water and flour used in a recipe that's allowed to ferment overnight before you actually assemble the bread dough. It makes the flavor of the bread a bit more complex, aids in gluten development, and even makes the dough come together a little faster the next day. So I followed a preferment method from Breadhead by Greg Wade. And wow, what a difference.
Unlike using a sourdough starter that's been allowed to ripen and mature for a week or years, a preferment doesn't engender that tangy flavor we've come to associate with artisanal bread. Instead, it improves the bread in a way you can't quite put your finger on.
Plus, the structure of this loaf was exceptional—the kind of homemade bread that actually holds itself together for a sandwich. I tried the preferment method with the old-fashioned oatmeal bread recipe a second time—and it was even better.
Baking this way is a practice. It's repetition and revision. It's consciously pursuing excellence while never stressing about perfection. It's getting intimately familiar with a recipe while recognizing that two loaves of bread are never the same.
"One of the Stupidest Things"
"I think home-baking is one of the stupidest things anyone can engage in," sputters Easton during his conversation with Kennedy. He calls home-baking self-indulgent and unrealistic, "tied into these bizarre American notions of self-reliance and virtue."
Easton goes on to valorize the "people who dedicate their lives to baking" detailing the sacrifice, hard work, and physical labor that is part of the profession. He characterizes the way baking is presented to hobbyists as a sort of dumbed-down (my words, not his—but the tone is there) process and communicated as if it's the same thing as what the pros do. He says, "I think [home-baking is] really just insane and out of touch with reality."
"I think [home-baking is] really just insane and out of touch with reality."
Easton seems to be part of the long lineage of white men who win acclaim thanks to their acerbic commentary as much as, if not more so, skill. He uses machismo self-deprecation to present himself as the "idiot-savant"—when really he seems to think, pure speculation here, you're the idiot, and he's the savant.
There are glimmers of political analysis amidst Easton's intransigent tone. He locates buying bread from the local bakery within a community system of food-craft. Of course, he neglects to consider the accessibility of this type of system outside of the greater New York City-area. Most of us can't follow his instruction to "find another bakery" if we don't like our local one. Many people can't afford the time or money to drive from butcher, to baker, to candlestick-maker, even if those artisans are local.
In the introduction the Bread, and How to Eat It, Easton writes:
I believe that you should eat good food—with bread serving as both a foundation and a complement. This is even more appropriate now in the face of a changing global economy, as wealth concentrates in the hands of fewer people and it becomes harder to poor people to eat well. As someone who has intermittently not had a bank account, I count myself among them. Seeing the direction the world has been sliding toward since the eighties has helped shape my career path to become a baker. Feeding people good food, unprocessed food, bread that's not made with garbage that harms your health—it can be a quietly revolutionary act.
I have many complicated feelings about this passage. I appreciate his attempt at inclusivity and empathy, his small window of vulnerability. But I disagree with the characterization of any food as "garbage"—a common enough statement that serves to perpetuate orthorexic behaviors. In the previous paragraph, he encourages readers to make allow more of their meals to be bread-based so that they can afford high-quality ingredients (e.g., "beautiful in-season grapefruit and some new-crop olive oil"). But come on, that's not really a recipe for making quality food more accessible for poor people.
Easton, I'll remind you, said that the idea of baking at home was "out of touch with reality." But believing that poor people can waltz down to their local bakery and pick up a boule of sourdough could be described the same way.
Coming to Terms with Bread
One thing I found intriguingly absent from The New Yorker piece, Kennedy's interview, and many of the other news pieces I pulled up as context for this essay, was a discussion of the diet industry's crusade against bread (i.e., carbs) over the last twenty years. I'm not suggesting it was an oversight. I just kept expecting it to come up, and then it didn't.
The fine people at Wikipedia report that the low-carb diets date all the way back to 1797 when John Rollo tried the tactic to treat diabetic soldiers. In 1863, William Banting—and undertaker—prescribed giving up bread, butter, milk sugar, beer, and potatoes in an essay delicately titled, "Letter on Corporulence Addressed to the Public." The 1960s saw a variety of low-carb diets, including "Martinis and Whipped Cream" (I shit you not) and "The Drinking Man's Diet" (I shit you not again). But in 1972, we got the Atkins Diet, which Dr. Atkins updated in 1992. And low-carb eventually overtook the low-fat craze that I grew up with as a teen in the 90s.
And don't forget Oprah advertising Weight Watchers, of which she is a partial owner, by saying, "I love bread!" That was 2016. For her, it was a selling point of Weight Watchers—you're allowed to eat bread on this program. "I just manage it, and so I don't deny myself bread," she explains.
In my first years baking, it was something I did around holidays. It was indulgent. I baked when I felt that I had permission to "treat myself" and eschew my otherwise fairly low-carb diet. But in 2021, as my depression soared and my weight plummeted, I realized that eating lots of bread was better than not eating at all. Baking made me happy, and eating bread made me full.
Of course, this is something I have to remind myself regularly—still. It'll be a long time until I've completely untangled myself from diet thinking. And it'll be even longer until American culture does—and that means bread will still be the subject of many people's anxieties for decades to come.
Genius, Gender, and Capitalism
Goldfield closes the Tables for Two column with a description of a confection from a Middle East-inspired bakery:
Librae’s croissant incorporates rose water in its pistachio filling, and dried rose petals are sprinkled atop a thick stripe of chopped pistachio that arches along the top. I would never in a million years attempt to make it myself.
Nor would I. But mostly because I find rose-flavored things pretty gross.
I’m not one to shy away from a complicated bake. It’s part of the practice—to see if I can allow each step to unfold in its due time. And, I don’t want mischaracterize Goldfield’s column highlighting some of the new upscale bakeries in New York City. She never declares that these fancy breads and pastries are morally superior to or replacing more humble varieties. But by bookending the piece with two comments on the absurdity of home-baking, it’s hard not to read it as dismissive of simpler, more accessible baking.
As an amateur baker, I might be feeling defensive.
Or I might be picking up on a time-honored practice of devaluing the work of the home (disproportionately done by women) while attributing enhanced value to the same work performed by men in professionalized spaces. In fact, we might read an uptick of fancy bakeries as a backlash against the pandemic baker.
In an essay for now-defunct Lenny, food writer and tv show host Nigella Lawson tackles the difference between the chef and home cook. She wants home cooks to see how valuable and creative they are—even if food media is constantly stroking the egos of chefs and restauranteurs. She writes:
Real cooking is what happens in the home. Restaurant cooking can be fabulous, inspiring, transcendent, and oh-so-marvelous in many ways, but for me it will always partly belong to the realm of theater. Furthermore, the restaurant kitchen insists and relies on conformity; the spontaneity of the home cook is by contrast gloriously anarchic. Don’t apologize for that: revel in it.
She continues, "Cooking provides deep aesthetic pleasure though it is manual work." This is how I feel about home-baking, too. Lawson and I agree that "aesthetic pleasure" is valuable in and of itself. It's the unalienated, deeply human work of making.
My guess is that you can see exactly where this is going. Centuries of capitalism and millennia of patriarchy have given us the impression that what is valuable is what can be sold. These systems convince us that domestic labor is quaint and unserious. Our "labors of love" preclude any kind of financial compensation—which means they can't possibly be valuable in any "real" sense. Nor do our labors ever rise to the vaunted category of "genius."
"Genius," and its place within both capitalism and the arts, is a deeply gendered construction.
Simply put, it is almost never a label applied to women. Rarely is it applied to anyone who is not a white man. Genius suffers in the service of art and capital. Easton said it himself: there are people who have put in the time and made the sacrifices to become great bakers. What do those bakers look like? What exactly did they sacrifice? And what systems propelled them to greatness?
In 2017, Eater published a piece titled, "When Male Chefs Fear the Specter of 'Women's Work'" by Meghan McCarron. McCarron details how chefs are portrayed as "almost always white, almost always male." They are "professionals and artists—technically gifted and extraordinarily creative, dedicated to the pursuit of excellence and seeking to revolutionize the way we eat (backed up by mountains of profiles portraying them exactly as such.)" They're geniuses. On the other hand, women in home kitchens rely on "instinct and love, hewing to tradition and happy to nurture their families for free."
To be clear, I'm not accusing Easton of an intentionally sexist argument. But I do believe the impact of his statements is a sexist one. Nor am I suggesting that Easton believes he's some sort of genius—the number of times he refers to himself as stupid in his conversation with Kennedy would have you believe otherwise. But I do think his statements follow a familiar script in the genius story. I'm not even suggesting that Easton is a shill for capitalism. But the way he positions value and its relation to labor is one we inherent from capitalism.
Am I “nuts” for baking at home? Probably.
And I'll proudly be "nuts" if it means resisting the patriarchal and capitalist systems that narrowly define value.
For me, baking is a prime example of what Audre Lorde calls the power of "the erotic." Lorde defines the erotic as the power found in our deepest most fervent feelings, our "deepest and nonrational knowledge." "The erotic is not a question only of what we do;" she writes, "it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing."
The reason I bake at home transcends necessity and utility.
It defies capitalist logics and internalized managerialism. It resists calculations of profit or savings. Baking opened up the power of the erotic for me in a new way—and with it, I've started to give up "suffering and self-negation."
The principal horror of any system which defines the good in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, or which defines human need to the exclusion of the psychic and emotional components of that need — the principal horror of such a system is that it robs our work of its erotic value, its erotic power and life appeal and fulfillment. Such a system reduces work to a travesty of necessities, a duty by which we earn bread or oblivion for ourselves and those we love.
Unlike Easton, I won't close with any shoulds or supposed-tos. I don't think you should start baking at home unless it's something you crave—or think you might crave if you tried it. And if you crave bread, I hope you eat some, regardless of whether you baked it, picked it up at your neighborhood bakery, or grabbed a bag of squishy white joy from the grocery store.
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