Zen and the Art of Baking

a pair of boules

Just this past week my husband turned to me after eating a slice of my spelt toast and said, “Nice work, Baker.” I smiled, as I always do at at him, and then it hit me.  Did he just call me a baker? No way.  I’m no baker. The phrase seemed so foreign to me, ancient, like he was calling me a yeoman or an apothecary or something else medieval. I was convinced I would turn around and Bozo the clown would be turning his red nose up at me, honking it and laughing.

But the moment just sat.

Seeing the look on my face, he started laughing. “Why do you look so confused? I am not offending you. I am merely speaking the truth.”

It wasn’t until days, no weeks later that the realization started sinking in.  I fought it at first. I mean, after all, I have only been baking for less than a year, what the heck did I know about baking bread? I haven’t had any formal training, or anything of the sort. Wasn’t someone going to find out that I was just wearing some permanent hilarious halloween costume with a big baker’s hat and Picasso bread paws? Surely, they will. Surely they will think I am a fraud.

But as the time has gone by, I am becoming more and more comfortable with the term. Or maybe it is not the label that feels comfortable, but the act of baking that brings so much joy and peace to me, that I have come to accept it as so.

This is where the Zen part comes in. Zen and the Art of Baking.

Bread bakers are normally introverts.  Or so I have been told. They work odd hours, often alone, and then sleep when the rest of the world is up and about eating, talking, enjoying the sunshine. Bakers — well, we are night owls…errrr, morning roosters, I should call it.  It is another aspect of the craft that I am becoming accustomed to. One that I actually am gravitating nicely towards.  And here’s why: there is a silence in the early hours of the morning that is so soothing to the soul that often times when I am awake during “normal waking hours” I wish I could just sneak back, crawl back into it, like it were some sort of fort you make when you’re a little kid.  All kinds of creative juices flow there too. It’s hard to explain, and I will do my best, but unless you experience it for yourself, it’s only words on a paper. Let’s just say I totally get why people become obsessed with baking bread.  Why Edward Espe Brown wrote this book on it; why Chad Robertson‘s look on his face could calm night terrors (ok, that’s dramatic, but true!); how my new friend Amy Halloran‘s articles on making pancakes are like poetry; why Nancy Silverton could be the most badass woman around for taking on bread in the 70’s all by herself when no one was in Los Angeles.  It’s people like this who inspire me.  But what they do more is remind me that there is some part of a lineage here that can be tapped into — irregardless of your skill level or “talent.”

In those still hours of the morning you begin to think clearer thoughts, you imagine more, you think that the ability to write a book someday on all of this isn’t too far off.  You start to believe in yourself a bit more. And those few times when you misshape a loaf or your cornbread was too dry, well, let’s just say you are more able to shake it off.  Offer it up to the bread gods.

Because in my case, and like many others out there, I’m certain, there is a bigger role to play here.  My mission is great.  I need to feed people better bread.  It sounds simple.  Five am simple.  It is and it isn’t.  Wow, Mary, that’s a very Zen thing for you to say.  But it’s true. It’s simple in that making one loaf of bread, of the hundreds I have made this past year is simple: because that is where it all begins.  That’s where I feed the masses.  I am trying to keep my mission in my head, whilst staying present with my loaves.  People in this country need better food.  We need better nutrition.  We deserve to have the staple in our diets come from a whole food — a whole grain, filled with sustenance, with “jing” as we call it in Chinese Medicine.  The bread on our grocery store shelves, my friends, that bread is dead.  It’s sad. Now at one time it was living, or a part of the wheat that it grew from was living, but it was tampered with. Hybridized. And then all of this other unpronounceable stuff was added to it. I want people to be healthy again. With all of these gluten-free fads and paleo diets and what-not — they are all well and good, if it is healthier for that individual to eat that way…but unfortunately, many of us are choosing these diets because the grains that we are being offered, that our families are given, they are making us sick.

This is where Bread Culture comes in. People ask me how the heck I have the time to make bread everyday whilst being in such a rigorous degree program.  Sometimes 10 a day if there is a bigger order. They wonder how Chinese Medicine fits into baking bread. It wasn’t until I allowed my fervent desire for a healthier alternative take over me did I find out just how similar the two are. As I have said in previous posts, the basis for the medicine is the digestive health of the person.  This is known as the earth element.  Or the spleen and stomach system. It is the source of our existence after our birth, or “post heaven” as we call it.  I have taken it upon myself to fuel my practice of this medicine with the desire to help people strengthen this “post heaven” essence.  And by doing so, bread has given me more time, more insights, more ways to be creative again.  ‘Good bread takes time,’ as Andrew Whitley says. But it also gives time. It has allowed me to think clearer, to recognize the apparent and undiscovered introvert in me and embrace it.  It has helped me become friends with the morning, with the sunrise. It has allowed me to tap into something ancient that is sometimes lost in the speed in which we live.  It has brought me closer to understanding people.  It has made me a stronger clinical intern, because I find myself more patient with my patients.  It has made me a kinder friend, sister, daughter; a better, more loving wife. And most of all, it has taught me to be more self-accepting, and most importantly, of others.

It’s the stuff healing is made of, folks.  I think you should try it someday.  Hey, maybe you might just have a little baker inside you that’s wanting to get out. Don’t be afraid of it, like I sometimes was. Embrace it. For it is in the acceptance that you find love.  And that, my friends, is where Zen lives.

And just like that, I turned around and the sun came up.

sunrise photo
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