When I started seeing all of the posts on social media (and here on Boing Boing) about "pandemic baking," it made instant and perfect sense to me. But then, I started seeing people asking "why?" on Facebook and Twitter. My first thought was "this is clearly a question from non-bakers." If you've baked bread with any regularity, I bet you know why.
The next thing I thought of was this piece I wrote for my 2014 book, Borg Like Me. In it, I talk about my time as a baker, living in a commune in my youth, and another apocalyptic event, a massive snow-in in 2010, that left me trapped alone in my house with dwindling food stocks.
So, I decided to share this story here. TL;DR: Bake some bread. It's hands-on, can be grounding, therapeutic, and fresh-baked bread is one of life's great simple pleasures (for those of us who partake).
Bread of the Snowpocalypse
I've always been attracted to the ancient roots, the homely honesty, of bread. When I first moved to Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, VA as a teenager, I lived in a satellite group, called Tupelo. The first Tupelo dwelling was in an old ramshackled farm house that adjoined the main Twin Oaks property. For the farmhouse, we purchased a gorgeous antique cast iron wood-burning stove that I'd lobbied obnoxiously hard for us to get. I really wanted it to be our sole stove, but less ridiculous heads prevailed (I was 17 and full of hippie revolution fervor). It was purchased under the condition that it was to be set up on the back porch and used as our secondary stove. Few others in the group ever bothered with it. I cooked meals on it during my weekly meal rotation, and baked on it. Given my pushing so hard for it, I tried to love it, but it was, in practice, a royal pain in the ass. Working with it basically felt like trying to cook dinner on the surface of the sun. It had two temperature settings: dead cold and Hades hot. I eventually tamed that old iron devil and managed some righteous pies and breads within its untamed hell-fires. But truth be told, when I finally moved to the main community and "was stuck" using a professional Vulcan gas stove and a giant Hobart mixer, I was thrilled. After I left the farm and moved to Arlington, I did very little baking. After the panic-bread episode described here, I went on another baking jag for a time, but have since fallen off the bread wagon again.
There is something fundamentally human about baking bread. It feels inextricably woven into the fabric of human history, to civilization itself, to the land, and to human communion. There's also something undeniably sensual about the process of making it, the life of the yeast, the soft, silky feel of the dough, the intoxicating smell of it baking, and those first warm, luxurious bites. This all might sound corny to some, but then, I bet you're not a bread baker.
This piece originally appeared on Make:, in February, 2010, during that year's record-breaking snowstorm. It was also used as one of the "Snowpocalypse" stories for a BLUEBRAIN video/music performance for the end-of-summer "White Party" at DC's Phillips Collection art museum, in August of that same year.
It's been a very "exciting" few days here in the icy wilds of Northern Virginia. The DC area has been ground zero for the storm of the century, with back-to-back blizzards making this the snowiest winter on record for the Mid-Atlantic region.
The landscape around my house is, well… snowpocalyptic. Giant drifts have overcome fences, a totally collapsed, roofed trellis litters my neighbor's backyard, and a relentless wind whips up powder into white-out conditions. I have to admit, it's actually been scary at times. Wednesday morning, I had to muscle my way through banks of snow pressing up against both my front and back storm doors to pry them open. I haven't been near a grocery store since the first drubbing, but friends say it's like something out of a zombie film, with aisles of entirely empty shelves and bug-eyed humans running around grabbing anything edible they can gather into their arms.
If this keeps up, I might end up one of the shambling horde myself, moaning for food. I'm running low on supplies. I ran out of bread a few days ago (which took french toast, tuna sandwiches, and peanut butter and jelly off of the menu).
Last night, I'm sitting here thinking: Wait, I might be able to bake bread. I doubt I have all the ingredients, but I'll check.
The available supplies in my cupboard were grim. I found one sack of flour that was impressively rancid, but then, miraculously I found another, in an airtight bag. It smelled okay (even though it was at least a year old). I then pried up some yeast packets stuck to an unidentifiable goo on the door of my fridge. According to the info stamped on the packets, they were three years old. I wondered how many viable beasties were still alive in there. And then there were the crystallized hunks of honey in a forlorn-looking plastic bear with his nose punched in.
From the cookbooks on the counter, I dug out my old Tassajara Bread Book. Back in my communal youth, I knew the recipes in there like daily-recited mantras and did some sweet-ass baking for a hundred hungry hippies. I was convinced the resulting bread would likely be a dense, brick-like disaster, but I had nothing to lose except time (and I had nothing but that). I combined the flour, the yeast, and warm water, the honey (after I'd dissolved it over heat), and some oil. A bunch of kneading, rising, punching, and more rising later, and I had high hopes for the two respectable-looking loaves I was popping into the oven. As they baked, and I blogged—the wind whistling around and under my sun-porch office—the smell of the bread was indescribable. Maybe it was driven by an unusual sense of need, stuck here in my cottage on ice, or the fact that I hadn't baked bread in close to a decade (outside of a bread machine — which is really a robot baking it for you), but these loaves smelled like all the good things in life kneaded into one. If there's truth in wine, there's bosomy comfort in baking bread.
Amazingly, what I eventually pulled from my oven didn't look half bad. And let me tell you, they tasted even better. I speak in the past tense 'cause way too much of the first loaf is already nourishing my wind-whipped soul. I froze the second loaf.
Now, I'm antsy to make something else with the limited provisions I have left. Tonight, looking through Tassajara, I realized that I have everything I need to make cinnamon rolls. That'll be tomorrow night's cabin-fevered ritual. So, grab a shovel, slip on your snowshoes, hop onto your snowmobile, and head on over for some sweet rolls! PLEASE? It's getting really lonely here and the wind is creaking into the snow-laden roof of my house in new and entirely unsettling ways. I think I might need to slather butter onto one more warm slice.