When Bernadette met Jenny Odell

I bake bread now. I have a sourdough starter named Bernadette, and I plan my weekends around when I have to be home to stretch and fold the dough before proofing it. It wasn’t always this way. I used to be content buying really good bread from the farmer’s market. I convinced myself that I wasn’t the bread baking type, and that I would just be overwhelmed by the amount of variables involved with achieving a perfect loaf. Things changed when I moved out of New York City, and my weekly access to She Wolf Bakery ended. I realized that my breakfast was decidedly less good  without butter slapped all over a thick slice of toast. I also realized that I could make bread and while it might not be perfect, it is pretty good and will get better if I’m willing to give Bernadette the attention she deserves.

So yes, I will admit that my main motivation for learning sourdough is to ensure I always have a properly crusted vehicle for my daily butter intake, AND, I will also say that Jenny Odell has reinforced my enthusiasm given her argument in favor of deep, hardy, and nuanced looking. 

She writes: “If, as I’ve said, attention is a state of openness that assumes there is something new to be seen, it is also true that this state must resist our tendency to declare our observations finished–to be done with it” 

In Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji, his recipe for plain rice is three pages long. He writes words about every step from rinsing the rice to resting the rice to keeping the rice covered at particular points during the cooking process. Once the rice is cooked, there are proper utensils for fluffing the rice and improper ways to serve it. Reading this recipe, I’m comforted by depth of knowledge and expertise Tsuji has to share when it comes to rice preparation. I’m also anxious to revaluate the way I cook rice. It turns out that every method I could use to get dry grains of rice to be soft and fluffy is up for debate.

Baking bread, like rice, is a seemingly simple process of combining dry stuff with wet stuff in specific proportions. In this case the goal is to achieve a “tangy open crumb encased in a blistered rugged crust.” This is according to the NYTimes in their report on what makes an alleged perfect country loaf. The recipe for this loaf is in Tartine by Chad Roberstson and it is 38 pages long. Again, everything matters. There are scales involved. There are instructions on how to orient your body with the dough. There is a breakdown on protein content in flour. What this absurdly long recipe is trying to explain however is that there isn’t an instruction manual for baking bread. 

Instead, the words are there to guide me, the human, in right relationship with my starter, Bernadette. 

Last Sunday, when I attempted to bake off two loaves they were a gloopy mess. The dough didn’t have enough tension in it to hold shape, so when transferring each round into the baking vessel they crumpled, and crust formation was disrupted. Upon reflective research, I believe this had to do with my inadequate dough stretching, and so Bernadette didn’t have enough strength to hold shape. The bread tasted fine, but the warped exterior served as a reminder that my process was not meeting the needs of the dough.

William Buber’s describes the necessary elements of an I-Thou interaction being “will and grace” joined. I keep thinking about this in regards to what I have going with Bernadette now. The overwhelming part of bread baking is also the place that I can exercise the most agency, the most will. This is in how I deal with humidity, temperature, hydration, Bernadette’s maturity, and the way the dough shapes up. As a novice, I don’t totally know how to see, hear, smell, touch, or taste these elements. But I’m giving them attention. Odell, I think, would remind me that I’m not going to figure it out. Instead, I might just learn a lot. 

Sophia Hampton