Monday, June 16, 2014

Making Bread as a Window in History: The Platypus Reads Part CCLXVI

I don't think historians are at their best when they limit themselves to abstract thinking.  There's something sensible and salubrious when Jim Lacey takes a look at the Battle of Marathon from a quartermaster's perspective (The First Clash) and asks where the Persians put their toilets (the next question is given the sub-prime location for said outhouses, how long could they have stayed on the beaches before having to decamp in the face of the enemy).  Some things only become clear by doing.  I have a great respect for interpreters, the docents at living museums like Plymouth Plantation, Old Sturbridge Village, and Colonial Williamsburg.  By re-creating the old ways of doing things they preserve (and sometimes recover!) knowledge of the past that can't be communicated by mere letters on a page.

Lacking an organic farm or a stone oven limits my undertakings, but I am determined to make some things with my own two hands this summer.  To that end, I have some helpful little friends.  The first is Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.  By the power of refrigeration, I now have tasty, tasty loaves on the table everyday via a process that's virtually idiot-proof.  I've enjoyed seeing how much can be done with very little (salt, water, and flour), especially the different forms that bread can take from region to region (the picture above and the two below are Couronnes, a type of loaf my book informs me is native to Lyon).

  Moving back into the past, my next little helper is a collection of antique New England recipes collected in the late 1930s, The New England Yankee Cookbook by Imogene Walcott.  We've tried recipes from this treasure trove in the past with great success (Deerfoot chowder and Indian pudding).  Adapting another recipe led to the creation of this Whole-wheat-maple-honey-walnut loaf.
I've made one foray into the world of cheese already with a simple queso blanco under the tutiledge of making Cheese, Butter and Yogurt by Ricki Carroll.  Cheese-making is a much more involved process and I'm not sure how further efforts will go.  Nonetheless, I am determined to make them and I'll be sure to report any striking successes.

So what am I hoping to learn from all this?  I'm not sure yet.  Whatever happens, I'm certainly not going "Wendell Berry" any time soon (poor health).  I suppose looking at historical recipes and techniques and then comparing them with contemporary methods gives a real idea of how much labor labor-saving devices actually save.  It's also impressed upon me the need for absolute faithfulness to routine and organization in sustaining traditional cooking methods.  I still have a lot to think about and experiment with, but I'll let you know if I come to any firm conclusions.  In the meantime, I have a honey-wheat loaf to enjoy!   

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