Thursday, October 24, 2013

On the invisibility of bakers

revel in the glamour
I made a joke not to long ago about how bakers are invisible until they try and take a day off.  This was my barely clever attempt to comment at my own shortsightedness while providing national commentary about how most people feel about bread. Like many barely clever things I didn't think about it until after I said it, and then I couldn't stop thinking about it - at least the second half.

Bakers tend to get lumped together with pastry chefs, and when compared with delicate sugar showpieces and towering wedding cakes, beautiful bread seems, well, like a whole lot of brown.  Nancy Silverton, who with her ex-husband Mark Peel,  helped pave the way for a revitalization of small bakeries in the US, was honored with a James Beard award for best Pastry Chef in 1990. Pastry chef.  I don't know how well she can quenelle sorbet, pull a perfect sugar curl, compose a plated dessert that follows the vision of the savory side.  I do know she can make amazing sourdoughs, killer pizza, and yes, pastries that sell in her bakery. She is a Baker! Huzzah! Her cookbooks have received James Beard awards for Baking, because unlike the chef categories, baking gets its own place in print. Why do we acknowledge the books in a distinct category but not the craftsmen who created them?

I think it's something like this: The stories say your Foremothers made bread at home.  Therefore it is 1. women's work and 2. best acknowledged in a home setting, like a cookbook.  The problem is the initial faulty hypothesis - all the baking happens by women at home.  That wasn't true in Egypt, or Rome, where men ran the bakeries.  In feudal France it was illegal to even have a personal oven - minimizing the risk of fire while reinforcing the power of the feudal lord. The baking guilds in history often specified male members only (although family was usually exempted in the name of all hands on deck). Hell, even now you are more likely to find men baking your bread, because of that whole crazy hours and ladies have babies thing.  Yes, there is the pioneer/farm/idyllic media image wife at home baking for the family - but there are still bakeries in town.  Were the people baking for the community somehow less valuable?  Or maybe you just didn't see them, because they were having dinner when you had breakfast, and in bed when you were up and about on your day.

Then there is the bread itself.  A basic, a staple.  It's the thing everyone is supposed to have (even though not everyone does) and because everyone is supposed to have it, no one should have to pay very much for it.  A talented chef makes national news when he explains why rice shouldn't be free at Asian restaurants. Yet, the American public still expects free bread at restaurants. Guess what? That hunk o' baguette you didn't eat actually required as much if not more labor than the free rice.  Ever have a good sandwich on bad bread? Was it still a good sandwich, or did you think "This would have been a good sandwich if..."?  Ever have a soup that was made just that much better because of the crackers, croutons, or hunk of bread on the side? We see these elements as garnishes, an afterthought, not a foundation you don't pay attention to until it cracks.

The truth is, we don't do much scratch baking at home. It takes time most people don't have. I find more and more that my building blocks like bread flour are available in only small quantities at the store, replaced by instant mixes and ever more freezer space for microwaveable ready to eat items.  So why don't we begin to celebrate the people who take the time to make beautiful breads where we can't?  I know this will seem like blasphemy here in the US, but how about being willing to pay more for bread that is actually worth buying?

How about simply learning the names of a few bakers? Not the shops, the people. That shouldn't be too difficult, right?