“Cooking is a craft, I like to think, and a good cook is a craftsman — not an artist. There’s nothing wrong with that: the great cathedrals of Europe were built by craftsmen — though not designed by them. Practicing your craft in expert fashion is noble, honorable and satisfying.”
– Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential
No one begins something like this on a whim. And if I’m honest, the quote that started this insanity was just one of many pebbles that contributed to the avalanche. It might have been the first pebble, but I can hardly blame Mssr. Bourdain for all that followed…
I am tired. More tired than I have been in a long, long time. My new regimen of archery practice didn’t help, and for my Elizabethan alter-ego, the invention of Advil is 390-odd years in the future.
Thankfully, I live in that future so I’m not reduced to gnawing on the trunk of the nearest willow tree.
I was an art major, which is a roundabout way of saying that I spent a lot of time working in restaurant kitchens. There wasn’t much in Bourdain’s book that really surprised me. Of all the oddball jobs I took through the ‘starving artist years’ that are so fondly spoken of by people who’ve never lived through them, the restaurant jobs were my favorites.
Was it noble, honorable, and satisfying, as he promised? I dunno. I wasn’t a chef, the highest I ever got was prep cook. I certainly didn’t make it to culinary school; I spent too much time as a dish dog, really. Nevertheless, the exposure to finer foods and the people who prepared them than I could afford on what they were paying me taught me to appreciate, to taste, food differently.
But this isn’t a foodie blog any more than it’s intended to be Scottie Goes to Ren Faire. I never really meant for the baking demonstrations at the Washington Midsummer’s Renaissance Faire to change so drastically how I thought about this project.
I’m still slightly ashamed to admit that it didn’t occur to me earlier to set up and attempt one of these trades at anything close to full production level. How could I ever hope to understand the lives of my craftsmen forebears if I never stepped fully into their shoes?
We’ll get to shoes soon, this is about… I almost said it’s about bread. It’s actually not at all about bread. Anthony was right about that. It’s about craft.
The WMRF demonstrations were always intended to be a sort of safety valve on this project. The faire was scheduled just past the midpoint in the project and I knew that by that time I’d have a fair idea whether or not I thought I’d make it by the end of December. (Though to be honest, I still don’t know and you’ll see why I’ve stacked projects as I have in the coming months.)
Like archery, baking was not something I ever thought to enjoy. In my home, I do all the cooking, but The Engineer did all the baking. Baking was too fussy for me, too much like science and not enough like art… or so I thought. It never occured to me that it would be baking that finally put me over to the noble, honorable, and satisfying side of the kitchens.
Those are The Engineer’s hands in that photo above. It was also the first time in quite awhile that she and I cooked anything together. Until the recent remodel began, our kitchen was inhospitable to more than one person at a time.
There’s finally room for craftsmanship.
|Photo & Digital Manipulation by Dan Hill – © 2013 Used with permission
By God, Tony was right about that. When Dan Hill posted that photo manip above, one of the first comments posted below it (by someone I have never met, mind you) was two words: “Naturally happy.”
Bourdain spent the rest of Kitchen Confidential talking about how dog tired he got working the line, how strung out he was on various substances, how much the food business was a scam and how much was genuine, and how arduous the restaurant biz is is, but even now you can see in his shows how much he loved it.
I’m starting to feel that way about bread and baking.
Baking turned out to be more art than science, not as slavishly dedicated to the arcane formulae of moth-eaten texts as I once believed. When my hands were in the dough and our friend Becky had the ovens blazing and Kristin was scooping flour into the bowls while Becky’s husband Douglas was working the rope line, charming the tourists with his English accent and well-rehearsed dialogue about the history of English baking… here was an element of jazz.
And always the crowds lined up at the edge of our area, asking questions and carrying away my card or the address of this blog scribbled on a bit of paper. At one point, we scrawled a diagram and the URL for this project on a chalkboard and folks were taking photos of it with their phones.
I hope you found your way here without any trouble. I hope that you learned something that day at the faire when you stumbled across our mad adventure in the land of yeast and flour. God knows that we certainly did.
|That Corgi was an excellent student…
The Oven’s End…
The oven at the Washington Midsummer’s Renaissance Faire site was never meant to last. Not only did we build it from the cheapest materials, we taxed them to their uttermost extremes. By the end of the last day of the fair, the cracks were no longer superficial. The ceiling and the framing around the door were beginning to deteriorate and I decided to bake a few final pies and call it a day.
We let the oven cool and went our separate ways to enjoy the fun and frivolity that we’d missed the other weekends of the faire due to tending our breads. When the final cannon sounded the end of the faire, we gathered one last time around our hearth…
The Engineer had the honor of the first whack.
Then Becky and Douglas, who were so eager to leave they were already changed into civilian clothes…
Then it was left to me. It felt a little wrong, like putting down a family pet. It had stood us in good stead, generated far in excess of its capacity and kept going strong. But the heat and desolation of the days standing in front of it got the better of me and I let the hammer swing.
And soon it was all over. It arrived at the faire site in buckets and would leave by the shovel full, loaded in the bed of my truck…
The final tally for our little wood-fired bakery: 220 loaves, eight pies, nine scones, two loaves of soda bread, and 1 apple tart, utilizing 1/2 bushel of apples, 80+ lbs of flour, and several gallons of ale.
Thanks to my partners in floury crime: Kristin Perkins, Kelsey Fahy, and Becky & Douglas Norton. Thank you to Pat, Tracy, and Amy of the Washington Renaissance Arts & Entertainment Society (WRAES) and all the cast and crew of the Washington Midsummer Renaissance Faire. I hope you enjoyed the bread we dispersed to your tables each day from our bakery. Thank you to all the photographers that documented the events and kindly sent me their photographs and videos.
There is, as always a sense of melancholy as we end one thing, and a sense of hope as we embark on the next.
Stay tuned to this channel. I doubt this is the last time we will see the fruit of an oven such as this. I still have the one in my back yard, after all…