This weekend one of my best friends, Patti (the Carbivore), took me to a bread making class. We went to Cook-au-vin in Chicago for a five-hour tour of scaling, kneading, cutting, shaping and scoring. We turned flour, water, yeast and salt into beautiful loaves and baguettes. With razor blades we scored the tops of each shaped loaf, learning to cut quickly and shallowly, creating vents along the top of each. Along with French baguettes, we made sourdough bread and Viennoiserie filled with chocolate and fruit. We learned to appreciate the difference between machine kneaded and hand kneaded dough.
Our teachers Raphael and Claude were patient with us as our clumsy hands tried to mimic their actions. Clumps of dough somehow turned into perfect spheres for them as their fingers hovered like cages surrounding the dough, rolling it lightly along. Every time they showed us a new trick we said, “Aha!” as though our understanding was complete. Then we tried it on our own, only to realize that one night in the kitchen would never make us experts. Through all our failed attempts we developed a deeper appreciation of bread making.
By the end of the night our faces all were red and beads of sweat were on our brows and upper lips as we worked to replicate everything we’d learned. We’d all worked thoroughly, putting all our focus and physical energy into the perfect loaf. And when we stepped back to see our results, our class of thirteen had produced more than 150 loaves of bread. They were beautifully browned and crusty on the outside with an airy network of perfect chewiness on the inside — the texture you only get with the best French loaves.
As I slow down and learn more about how to make different foods and products, I’m more and more amazed at how much we’ve reduced processes as we simplify tasks. Some processes are simplified in order to feed a growing population. Some processes are simplified to save money or save time (both valuable things, of course). But sometimes I think processes are simplified just because people forgot there was a process at all. I worry that as we continue to simplify processes we risk losing the art behind things. And, as I learned this weekend, bread making is an art that should never be lost.