Affirming Antidotes: Best Books to Save Your (Literary) Soul Following (Literary) Fiascos

What’s this? Two book reviews in a row? What’s Wing’s World morphing into now?

Don’t worry. This post is entirely situational. As in, given the SITUATION I was in, last post, of having read a book as godawfully depressing as it was brilliant, the moroseness of which is now a distant memory due to the book that fell into my hands just after I wrote that post.

A HEARTWARMING book. A laugh-and-cry, go-ahead-and-recommend-this-book-to-everyone book (but especially to sisters, Minnesotans, and lovers of pie and beer–that is to say, Minnesotans).

And more importantly (to me): a book which is all those things AND excellently written.

I’m talking about The Lager Queen of Minnesota, by J. Ryan Stradal.

I was mentally bookmarking all kinds of passages even before I knew I wanted to blog about this book. Right off the bat, I was impressed with the intuitiveness of Stradal’s similes:

She looked at money like how a motorcycle driver looks at asphalt. The more of it you see, the farther you can go, but a single mistake with it can finish you. (p. 17)

…he didn’t crumple in the grass like someone wrestling with death, he lay still like someone waiting to be kissed. (p. 82)

Together they could pass the time like a couple of empty boats tied to a fenced-off pier, and it was beautiful. (p. 91)

The LOL parts were really too frequent to capture, but here’s one of my faves:

He glanced at her and pursed his lips. “On second thought, I don’t know. You white Minnesotans sure like things bland. I like the ramen there the way it is now. You start eating there, it’s gonna mess things up.”

“That’s probably true,” Diana said. “But I like spicy things.

He seemed mildly impressed. “Oh yeah? What’s your favorite spice?

“Butter,” she said.  (p. 205)

Hahahahaha. Here’s another gem, featuring one of the protagonists, pregnant:

“I’ll like it when it’s over,” ___ said, watching their pizza arrive, suddenly wanting it all for herself.

Their waitress, who was younger than them, and had the careless vibe of someone merely working for extra spending money, somehow couldn’t help herself. “You’re not supposed to say that,” she said. “Pregnancy is a miracle.”

“This pizza’s a miracle,” ___ said. “Pregnancy can suck it.”  (p. 242)

Stradal’s ease with implicit metaphors is even more impressive in its lack of impressiveness. I mean, he throws stuff out there which simply sounds NATURAL:

She dog-paddled through the rest of the day. (p. 185)

Before she could pour a glass of her own beer, or even order a bag of malt, there was a long, shallow puddle of bureaucracy she had to wade through. (p. 240)

But what gets me the most about this author is the fact that he’s a man writing in the perspective of women–three different main characters, all female–and he doesn’t eff it up. Scenes having to do with sex or childbirth he doesn’t dwell on, as if paying tribute to his own lack of understanding, but in other scenes, having to do with the psyche of women in a man’s trade? He NAILS it. Here, he describes the effect on the least sympathetic of the main characters, rendering her…sympathetic.

The men at or near her level across the industry were often exhausting. Very early she’d been spiritually and emotionally corroded by the roomfuls of them at various industry gatherings, men who talked over her, explained to her, asked her to fetch them lunch or coffee, planted and reaped her self-doubt. In the underpopulated women’s restrooms at brewers’ conventions, she’d sometimes hear of industry women experiencing far worse, but ___ quit attending these caustic functions before she personally experienced anything horrifying. (p. 335)

Even closer to the emotional bones:

The car accident that killed ___’s parents last June revealed a lot to her, especially the fact that every adult and almost every other person her age didn’t understand her, no matter what they’d been through. As a new kid in a new town, living with her kind but exhausted grandma ___, she had to set herself to a frequency that no one could tune in, just to make every day tolerable. (p. 90)

Or simply:

He laughed again… “Need anything from the kitchen?”
“No,” she said. “I have everything I need.”

As her husband vanished upstairs, she lay on the couch, took a deep breath, and almost believed it.  (p. 155)

Without giving anything away, I can divulge that the book’s main plot derives from a lifelong rift between two sisters. I’m not saying anything about the ending. But these two characterizations, one for each sister, epitomize the author’s deftness with character. When you read the book for yourself, they will speak even louder:

She halted in the doorway between those rooms, her blood full of sparks. (p. 347)

…and:

She was as calm as a small town on Christmas morning. (p. 348)

Is it true that I’ve just written a book review consisting almost entirely of quotes? And with one single lousy picture? Yes. Yes, it is. Because sometimes the words are enough.

So thank you, Mr. J. Ryan Stradal, for renewing my faith in good, positive-energy lit. And for the rest of y’all: What other novels would you put in this category? Got any more hidden gems for me?

Road Trip Retro, 2016: Half a Ro Tr is Better than None

I’m writing this on the anniversary of the cutting-short of last year’s Road Trip (X), when The Mate and I turned tail and fled home from NC in under a week, driven by our COVID fears.

Five years ago, RT6 also ended abruptly, but only for one of us. I flew back, leaving The Mate to follow in Red Rover at his own pace. No global pandemic fears that time, though. Just a bakery opening.

The old counter. Still my Happy Place, but it’s had a nice face lift since then!

Holly B’s Bakery has been trading in Love & Butter since 1976, and I’d been working as a baker there since 2011. But in 2016 Holly retired, selling the bakery to my brand-new boss, Stephanie. After receiving her promise that I could make pie (something Holly wasn’t into), I agreed to be there to help out on Opening Day–March 17. Which meant flying home from NC.

So with that in mind, I enjoyed the Half-Trip as wholly as possible. Let’s revisit, shall we?

Starting with our friends the redwoods again…

Not pictured: dear friends in Eugene, lil’ cousins in Oakland…but you can never have enough redwood shots.

After visiting with our Oakland cousins, we spent a couple nights camping in Pinnacles National Monument (now it’s officially a Park, I think).

Pinnacles? What pinnacles?
Oh you mean THOSE pinnacles!
On the high ridge trail. It gets pretty gnarly up there–carved-in steps & handrails.

That place is so cool. They have condors too, though we didn’t see any that trip.

Next up, SoCal. Again–I’m skipping over photos of some very dear folks we stayed with and saw down there, to include this photo from the San Bernardino Mts. Turns out Son One, on a rare stint not in the jungle, was working nearby, and met us for a day hike.

Pretty good Joshua Tree imitation, right?

Once again we had a date with Intrepid Travel Buddies Tom & Kate, this time in a park new to all of us: Anza-Borrego National Park.

The Pacific Crest Trail goes through not far from here.

The sun felt good enough to make us appreciate the shade of the palm oases.

Palm Springs it ain’t, however. Thank goodness.

We sojourned in Albuquerque again, but only briefly, and my photos were only of friends. A day later, we were meeting more friends, from Dallas–not in Dallas for once, but in Caprock Canyon State Park, which we’d stumbled on the previous year.

Remember the bison? They were kind of all around our campsite. Not nerve-wracking in the least…

Unfortunately our friends hit a deer on their way to join us, totaling their car and shredding their nerves. So we didn’t stay long. But it was a good reminder, once again, not to dump on North Texas for lack of scenery.

Cool rocks wherever you look. Even when all you’re looking for is a rest from hiking.

As usual we zipped across the lower South…not much in the photo record there. Except for one special place that we’d learned of from fellow road-trippers Eric & Laurel, aka Raven & Chickadee: Oak Mountain State Park outside of Birmingham, Alabama. We fell in love with this place.

Fifteen minutes from Birmingham! Way up on a mountain ridge! And cozy cabins down below.

When we got to Georgia, we treated ourselves to a special kind of camping trip: Cumberland Island, reachable only by ferry.

Not a car ferry. The park is federal, and provides convenient little carts to tote your camping gear from the dock to the campground.

Cumberland Island has one of those classically conflicting Southern histories, but today at least, it belongs to the people.

PERFECT for biking. Also flat as a pancake.
The cutest little armadillo woke us up at night, snuffling nearby.

Did I mention the feral horses?

Okay, okay, I’ll stop with the Cumberland Is. pics…
No wait–you gotta see the sunset one!

Back at my folks’ farm in Durham, NC for the ACC Tournament once more, we threw ourselves into basketball, of course…

Son Two met us there again. Hands up means someone’s shooting free throws.

…and also farm life. Not only was Son Two visiting then, but so was my niece, all the way from Texas (I know: something else great about Texas!).

And by farm life I mean dogs. Lots of dogs.

Knowing I was there for a shorter amount of time made me appreciate the visit all the more, I think.

The Amazing Parents

I focused less on the clutter of my childhood home, and more on its distinctness, like the many sculptures made by my very talented German grandmother.

This one, The Three Martyrs, depicts the three young civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi in 1964. And that’s my mother’s weaving in the background. (Wish I’d inherited some of that visual artistry!)

Going home so soon, while spring reins in the upper South?

The sycamore and the creek where I spent a week camping for my Thoreau-inspired Senior project back in 1979
My parents’ death-defying driveway
Happy sunny turtles

Wait, why am I leaving again?

Oh yeah, that’s right!

So, back in 2021…here’s to health, security, maybe even travel before too long–and don’t forget the love & butter.

Limbo: Trying Not to Go Low

Have you noticed how long it’s been since I last blogged? Me neither. All I’ve noticed is that I haven’t felt like it. My last post, exactly one month ago, was a re-post of my friend’s, about the Say Their Names memorial in our little village.

photo courtesy Iris Graville

Now I’ve just returned home from a ceremony honoring those signs and moving them to their next home, as they were not constructed to withstand fall and winter weather. And I’m finally feeling moved to write again…about the limbo I’ve been in.

Limbo. Two definitions come to mind,* neither of them Biblical:

1) “an uncertain period of awaiting a decision or resolution; an intermediate state or condition”

2) “a West Indian dance in which the dancer bends backward to pass under a horizontal bar that is progressively lowered to a position just above the ground”

(*both definitions from Google)

Things that seem stuck in limbo:

–since the COVID shutdown, millions of people’s education, jobs, projects, plans–hell, our lives.

–the forward movement toward racial justice that many of us deeply want to believe in , as the forces against change gather for counter-attack, and as weariness or fear threaten to overwhelm action.

–somewhere in all of that–me. And, very possibly, you.

I don’t want to go into the details of my own personal limbo, which has to do with my two creative passions, writing and music. I want to write about avoiding the “how low can you go?” part of limbo.

Here’s what I am doing to “stay high” in this uncertain period:

  1. Working on the main source of mood-overwhelm: continuing self-education about the prospects for racial justice AND participating in Get-Out-the-Vote campaigns in several key states.
  2. Finding assurance and inspiration in certain voices. Right now, my main Muse is Michelle Obama, via her wonderful podcast.
  3. Sharing good food with near & dear people, and good Zooms with far & dear.

    Like picking blackberries with my sons and turning them into…

    …pie! (The berries, not the sons.)

  4. Reading good books–like Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass–and writing often in my journal.
  5. Worshipping regularly in the Church of the Great Outdoors.

    Amen! (Photo by Suzanne Strom)

How about y’all? How are you avoiding the lows of your own limbo? Please share inspiration here.

When Routine Is Anything But: Finding A Daily Path That Requires Open Eyes

Hey, welcome back to Wing’s World in its non-travel-blog iteration. If you’re hoping to read about travel adventures, sorry–you’ll have to wait till my next trip. THIS entry is about the art of staying home, one day after the next.

Home, for me, begins with a ferry ride.

If I were still teaching school, finding a daily routine would be no struggle; the struggle, as all teachers (and students, and parents) know, is keeping your head above water enough to teach/learn/communicate/eat/sleep/repeat with some minimal effectiveness. In my 20 years of teaching, I got all the news I needed during my commute.

As a former teacher, however, employed in one part-time, manual-labor job and one completely non-paying, artistic one, the idea of routine is usually just that: an idea. I gave up commuting, but I was fine with creating my own balance of baking and writing and keeping vague touch with the rest of the country for the first several years of my post-teaching life. Then came the election of 2016, and the real illusion was revealed: that America was on the right path, that Dr. King’s good ol’ Arc of Justice was bending appropriately.

Since that time I, like a lot of my White friends, have been working hard to re-educate myself in American reality, recognizing my own unwitting but comfortable complicity in helping make Trumpmerica possible. Routine is long gone as I cast about for the best way to make of myself a better instrument, a better citizen.

Going back to teaching is a decision I have moved beyond. I’m too deeply immersed in my writing career to be willing to sacrifice it, and too respectful of both jobs to be able to do justice to both at once. So I work at the bakery I continue to love, and fill my non-baking, non-writing time with a slew of different types of volunteer activity. This makes for a ragged schedule. I rather like the variety of my days…after breakfast. It’s that first hour that, since 2016, has really gotten to me.

See, my Mate is an early riser, and starts his day with a workout. Which he does in front of the TV, watching the news. He keeps the volume low, but our living room lies between our bedroom and kitchen. So by the time I’ve prepared my tea and sat down with my cereal, I’ve had, willy-nilly, an injection of CNN that makes my stomach hurt.

How I don’t want to start my day: angry, defeated, cynical, self-berating.

How I do want to start my day: hopeful, inspired, open-eyed, empathetic, challenged.

I’m lucky to live in a place where the scenery itself can inspire. But this view is NOT available to me first thing in the morning; it takes a 25-minute drive to the ferry dock. Not to mention clear skies.

Here are some steps I’ve taken to try to shape that first hour:*

  1. Hum to myself to drown out any CNN until my tea kettle does it for me.
  2. Before turning on my computer, re-read the poem I read yesterday from the collection of poetry I keep on the kitchen table. (Currently: Seamus Heaney.) Then read a new poem. (By this time CNN is a mumble in the background, nothing my brain cares about.)
  3. Turn on my computer, but before going to email, read some news stories. Lately, after finding myself turning to BBC, NPR and the Christian Science Monitor to escape CNN’s Trump focus, I decided to subscribe to the good old “failing” New York Times. The story that really got me today was about the escalation of violence against women in Honduras.
  4. Again, before email, I look at the weather forecasts, not just for Lopez Island, but for the whole country. I try to imagine how different people are being affected in different states and regions. (Road trips help with this–we know a lot of folks in a lot of different states and regions!)
  5. OK, now it’s time for email, Facebook, all that delicious focus on ME and my near-and-dear, or far-and-dear. But because I started with the bigger picture, it stays with me in perimeter even as my focus narrows. And because of the poetry, my brain feels brighter, my noticing muscles primed to do their job.

*on baking mornings, which start around 3 a.m., this routine is foreshortened, of course. I don’t need to worry about the Mate’s news habits; I’m actually up before him. But I spend the first ten minutes of my ride (if biking) or my drive, saying the names of people in need of special attention and love–anyone from an ill neighbor to, for example, the people of Puerto Rico.

I have tried, by the way, to internalize this kind of empathic meditation and make it part of my day when I’m not leaving for the bakery. But I haven’t yet found a place and time that feels natural. Still a work in progress.

“No man is an island, let that be my prayer/ no matter how alluring be the shore…”

Because of that, I would love to hear of other people’s routines. What special things do you do to start your day off on the right foot, for both brain and soul? 

 

Pie (Decorating) Anxiety

“I’m scared of pie,” the founder of the bakery where I work once admitted when I asked her why we didn’t make it. And legend has it that the second thing I said to my new employer when she took over said bakery, after “Hi, I’m Gretchen,” was, “Can we make pie now?”

So what I’m saying is–I’m not scared of pie. In fact, I’m cocky enough to have blogged about my “pie secrets.” But still surprises me how many people do feel the pastry fear. Then I  a couple of weeks ago, I decided to get fancy and DECORATE my pie for a community harvest potluck, and I took a walk in the shoes of pastry fear.

Here’s the thing. I’m not scared of pie because I started making it when I was about twelve. Add forty-five years of pie making, and…ten thousand hours? Probably not hyperbole in this case.

But decorating? Never. Closest I ever got was to fashion a few generic leaves, maybe some berries, or stars for July 4. Easy-peasy blackberry piesy.

I think these are Doughtree leaves, from the family, uh, Crustia.

I’m wise smart old enough to stay off Instagram, but nonetheless, images of gorgeous pies have made their way to my brain via Facebook, and friends who know me as a Pie Woman. So I finally got ambitious stupid curious. How hard could this decorating thing be?

But as soon as I rolled out that top crust, my stomach clenched with anxiety. Should I stop here and go watch a video? Should I be rolling this onto wax paper? Why did I decide to diverge from my happy, thoughtless pie path?

Leaves. Okay. I got this. But not without help. And since the visual arts are not my strength, I decided to look up images of maple and oak leaves and then copy them onto cardboard as templates.

Did I mention visual arts are NOT my thing?

So far so…well, let’s go with “okay.” But it needs a little something more. Braids! Who can’t do braids? At least I didn’t have to google images for that.

Rustic is good. Rustic is good. It’s a PIE. Rustic is good.

Better. But let’s add a few o’ those trademark generic leaves, eh?

Cautiously optimistic…

OK. This is as good as it’s gonna get. Let’s bake this puppy!

Blackberry-strawberry, in case you were wondering.

Lessons learned:

a) Do use templates. Just cut them a little smaller next time. Or buy cutters in cute shapes. (But I’m too cheap for that.)

b) Do use wax paper to avoid mushing your cutouts. Chill or freeze them before applying.

c) Chill, but don’t freeze your braid strands. (Ever tried braiding frozen dough?)

d) Stay humble. In baking, as in life, there is always something to fear…and learn from.

Will I keep decorating pies? Probably, though only on occasion. I’m a happy imperfectionist, and pie is, in my opinion, meant to look rustic, so I don’t NEED to decorate. But I think it’s good for me to brush up against that fear now and then. And the compliments are nice too.

Are You Blackberry or Salal? Wild Ruminations on Wild Berries

Now is the season of sweet, dark berries gathered by the handful at the sunny edge of the woods.

Also, it’s blackberry season.

But for those of you not from Cascadia (the Pacific Northwest), I’m talking about salal berries.

These guys

They’re native, humble, not well known, to my surprise, even to many Washingtonians. They are completely edible–just ask Lewis & Clark. Also delicious–although don’t expect that opinion from Lewis & Clark. They got pretty sick of salal that winter of (I think) 1804. Maybe because they were eating them dried and mixed with smoked salmon and bear grease, a protein-packed pemmican the Coastal nations were kind enough to share with them.

Granted, you wouldn’t want to bake a pie with salals–at least I wouldn’t. Their skin is rough and a bit furry, like a peach, and their “meat” is seedy.

I usually chew a sweet mouthful, then spit out the pulp. Hard to do that with pie.

But they’re sweet! And free! And best of all, to me, unlike those giant, juicy blackberries that stop me on my bike rides–they BELONG here.

I was thinking about salals and blackberries the other day after reading my morning poem by Mary Oliver. (She has defaulted to my poet of choice since I took up the daily poem habit as inoculation against the day’s national news, after the election.) Mary had a childhood full of suffering, which she managed to transcend through her writing–and probably lots of other activity I don’t know about, since she hasn’t written an autobiography. But my point is: she suffered, she survived, she wrote, and her writing is both vehicle (to her) and Promised Land (to the rest of us and also, I devoutly wish, to her).

I’m a writer. I have to this point in my life suffered almost nothing. 50-some years of good fortune. I know my time will come, so I’m neither boasting nor tempting Fate–just wondering: could this be the reason I have yet to write something that brings people screeching to a halt at the side of the road?

Easy to ride past.

Is my writing sweet, nourishing, but not very tempting? When someone takes a bite, do they savor, but still spit out a portion of pulp?

Is suffering the sunshine and rain that causes art to plump and swell? Or does the real difference lie in the species themselves: some of us are born with certain DNA, then planted and raised in such a way to create more beauty or truth than others?

I take comfort in the fact that this is, really, a pretty silly parallel. Also that I love blackberries, and great writers, so much that I’ll never waste time feeling envious. 

But in salal season, I still wonder.

Why Work Parties Make The Best Reunions

I haven’t attended a college reunion since my 10th, way back in…never mind…but the main memory I have of that time is of painting a house in Dorchester, Mass. No drama, just good, wholesome fun—and a wonderful chance to reconnect with folks while doing something more constructive than drinking.

Back when the Mate and I lived in North Carolina in the 1980s, we were building a New Hampshire-style timber-frame barn together in our spare time. Well, he was project manager; I was definitely unskilled labor at the time. But boy, could I organize a work party! They were always potlucks, always featuring a cookie we came to call “barn bars,” and always well attended by folks who didn’t have enough manual labor in their lives…or maybe did, but doing someone else’s, in a festive atmosphere, was a whole different, fun animal.

We grew so fond of “barn bars” that I made them into our wedding cake. Here’s the 25th Anniversary version.

Last summer our cousins in Vermont, who are young parents, were struggling a bit to run their farm, take care of their kiddos, and make some headway on the little house they were trying to restore in order to move out of the family-owned (and often occupied) farmhouse. The Mate proposed a work party to get their home at least roofed in for the winter. Sons One and Two were in the neighborhood, and they joined in, with other cousins and friends. They worked for a week and had a BLAST.

The Mate in his element

Since this was in August, I couldn’t get away from the bakery, but I pouted and plotted from afar…

…so this year? Vermont Family Work Party II is NOW. Which is why I won’t be blogging for a little while. But don’t worry; that cyber-silence you hear will be punctuated with ringing hammers.

(Who am I kidding? With my skill set, I’ll most likely end up as Crew Chef.) 

What do work parties need at the end of a long day? PIE! (And maybe some barn bars too.)

But I’m still bringing my work gloves just in case.

Work parties. Have you been to one? Have you held one? If so, please share. If not–what are you waiting for?

Bread School Post-script: Staycations Are Cool

Don’t worry, I’m done talking about bread for now. Bun there, doughn that.

What I did want to mention is, how cool it was to spend five days in Mt. Vernon, a town barely 17 miles from our ferry terminal. I’ve never had a “staycation”; now I want more.

To avoid going back and forth on the ferry each day, the Mate proposed renting an Air B ‘n’ B place so we could do our own cooking. He planned to spend the days exploring via foot and bike while I baked. So we got this cute lil’ ol’ bungalow on a street of cute lil’ ol’ bungalows.

See what I mean?

Mt. Vernon is famous for its bulb fields: daffodils, iris, and especially tulips. 

Can you tell?

Every morning I rode to class, crossing the Skagit River on a bridge (with a scary-narrow sidewalk). The weather was pretty grey and windy each day, but that’s just April here.

Who needs sunshine when you have tulips?

In the name of exploration, I took different routes to the Bread Lab each day, but of course one of them took me past the tulip fields. Since they weren’t open for visitors yet and I didn’t want to trespass, I settled for this shot of alpacas with a tulip backdrop.

Just another day in Paradise…

Not pictured: the coyote I saw

Each evening we dined on Things You Can Eat With Bread, brought from home or purchased at the wonderful Skagit Valley Food Co-op. One staycationy thing we did NOT do: dine out at restaurants. (Did I mention all that BREAD?)

So this isn’t a travelogue post about the delightful town of Mt. Vernon–though we did find it delightful. I didn’t visit stores, poke my nose into quaint corners, or even take very many pictures.

What I did: appreciated how simpatico it felt to be in, essentially, the next town over. Like being invited over to the home of a neighbor you don’t know well, and finding out you have the same taste in food, decor, and books. 

Happy spring, neighbor.

This is simply an ode to the Staycation. For those of you who’ve already discovered that delight–good on ya! Care to share? 

 

Pupils of the King: King Arthur Bread School, Part II

What I learned in a week of bread school:

I LOVE bread! But I knew that already…

  1. The things you think will be easy turn out to be hard.

RIDICULOUSLY hard to score baguettes just right!

2. The things you think will be hard turn out to be easy.

You don’t scare me, challah.

(Except when they actually do turn out to be hard.)

Turns out I’m a little scared of the pizza oven.

3. Baker’s Math is a THING, people. Now that I’ve seen how easy it is to convert recipes using metric weight instead of cups and tablespoons, I will never sniff at weighing out ingredients again.

What if you only wanted to make two big brioches? Can you math that?

4. Technology is your friend…

Oven loader? Yes please!

5. …but so is good ol’ muscle power.

Can you imagine mixing this giant batch of pre-ferment by hand? It’s been done.

(OK, I knew this already, but dealing with the volumes at Bread School–in comparison with my wee bakery–really hit that home.)

6. Dough is alive. Again, I knew that too–in theory. But until spending a solid work week studying and manipulating those four basic, precious ingredients–flour, water, yeast, salt–I never appreciated the truth of that statement. Handling those great lumps of dough, patting and pulling and prodding to determine readiness, I came to think of them as powerful animals, like horses, which need careful attention and reining in if you don’t want them to gallop away.

7. Gluten has become such a scapegoat, I really feel sorry for the lil’ protein. I realize this is a controversial topic, but if you want a scientific assessment of the issue, please check out this article by Michael Specter of the New Yorker. 

8. The folks involved in bringing good grain, good flour, and good bread back to local communities are MY KIND OF PEOPLE. Like Stephen Jones, founder of the Washington State University Bread Lab. He starts his sentences with words like “chromosomes” and “endosperm,” and ends them with words like “cookies” and “love.”

Steve Jones in the Bread Lab.

Here’s what his work has sown:

Our Mission: The programs of the Bread Lab work to breed and develop publicly available varieties of grains and other crops that will benefit farmers, processors, and end-users while enhancing access to affordable and nutritious food for all members of our communities.

Our Vision: Through innovation and discovery, and an appreciation of the culture and traditions that define what we eat, the Bread Lab plays a major role in moving food systems in more meaningful and just directions.

Or Kevin Morse of Cairnspring Mills, which we toured. Here’s what they’re all about:

Local grain, local flour, local flavor

Cairnspring Mills works directly with farmers who share their commitment to sustainable agricultural practices and mills their grain with care to maintain a transparent supply chain. Each batch of grain is milled separately to preserve its unique identity and flavor; each batch of flour can be traced back to the origin farm.

Touring Cairnspring

And probably the most important lesson I learned: how much I still have to learn. Ain’t that always the way?

Just look at all these local wheat varieties, waiting to be baked into beautiful loaves!

Any bread lovers out there care to chime in at this point? How ’bout some bread puns–I loave ’em!

 

Pupils of the King: a Week of King Arthur Bread School, Part I

“YOU’RE going to bread school?!”

said almost everyone I told I was going to bread school. The usual next response: “Oh, lucky!!!”

They were right about my good fortune, but wrong to be surprised at my need. Before I started getting paid to bake, I was always a pie/cake/sweets gal–bread, not so much. And though I’m now entering my 8th season of professional baking, I spent the first two seasons as Assistant Baker, i.e., managing neither bread nor oven. When I trained to be a Head Baker, the people who trained me had received no professional training. Now, “We do this because it works” works just fine most days, but it leaves two questions unanswered:

  1. What do you do if it doesn’t work?
  2. What if something else worked even better?

Therefore I was THRILLED when my current boss, who bought Holly B’s Bakery from Holly B, decided to make the investment to send me to an intensive, 5-day, 38-hour course in Bread Fundamentals. I knew I had a LOT to learn. Like, everything.

But the answer to “What did you learn in Bread School?” is so big and complex, I’m going to turn this into two posts. Or maybe more! That knowledge might just ferment and grow, like a certain little yeasty-beast I’ve been hearing about all week.

I should also say off the bat, in case you’re a sourdough enthusiast, that this class covered pretty much everything BUT sourdough. Those breads require a class of their own. Hopefully, someday…

But back to Bread Fundamentals. Long story short, King Arthur Flour Baking School is the brainchild of King Arthur Chef Jeffrey Hamelman (world’s mellowest rock star chef) and Washington State University Bread Lab’s Stephen Jones. They teamed up several years to begin offering intensive baking classes (mostly bread) out here in the Northwest. King Arthur, of course, has been offering classes forever, all over the country but especially on their Vermont home ground. Lucky, LUCKY me–this workshop was under 20 miles from our ferry terminal!

I started on Monday, wide-eyed. So much of this was new to me, starting with the uniform. At Holly B’s we wear aprons, but I’ve never worn Chef Whites!

Gretchen’s first-ever work uniform!

Then there was the equipment in the teaching room.

4-deck steam oven with a moveable loader. At my bakery, the only loader is me.

Best of all, however, was the combination of Chef Jeffrey’s short lectures followed by immediate demonstrations and hands-on guided practice. Here he demonstrates a Challah braid:

He makes it look so easy. Well, ok…braiding isn’t actually very hard. Ask most long-haired women.

Now here’s my own careful step-by-steps (different braid on this one):

…with four strands…

A three and a four

Both finished challahs, with a few friends…a good Wednesday!

Chef Jeffrey also wowed us with possibilities. Here’s an amazing 3-tiered Challah he built

Whoa.

I thought it looked like a ferry boat. 🙂

The teaching was always firm and immediate, but gentle. (As a teacher, I sure appreciated that; I think from TV chefs I expected to be snapped at.)

Checking the “heads” of our petites brioches…

OK, maybe I could have used a little more guidance on my Epis de blé…

By the end of Day 3, we had made baguettes with three different doughs; whole wheat batards, oat loaves, challah, brioche, sunflower seed rounds, and…I’m sure I’m forgetting something. Day 4 we got FANCY:

Auvergnats. Trés chic.

Coronnes Bordelaise. Wouldn’t that be a cool addition to Thanksgiving?

One more picture of my new, freshly-baked confidence:

Ahhhhh…

Next post: So what DID I learn in Bread School?