A great many times in my life I have felt that I am profoundly out of sync with the universe. True, the newly prevailing debate from theoretical physicists is that we are part of a multi-verse and not a single universe. This means I am out of touch with a whole bunch of universes but also creates the Goldilocks possibility that one is “just right.”
These are the boys and girls who can mathematically show me I can only cross the street so many times before the other side is not there. It sounds like something from a movie but they are serious. They stake their doctorates on it. Who am I to play poker with brains like this? I fold and yet this has created optimism in me and I don’t know why. And when things are looking rosy, I’m from a family who bakes. Let me explain.
I remembered the mysterious “bread gypsy” once hired by P.J. Brown & Company in Abingdon, Va., where I worked in college. She would randomly plod into the restaurant and order me to scald every bus pan in the place. That lady would bake like one possessed for half the day, producing huge amounts of rolls and all manner of breads. It was magical. I’m sure the smell of all that fresh bread is what packed the place for lunch.
The Broyles’ (my branch of the tree) were imported to the colony of Virginia as indentured servants to the governor. Our mission was to bake him bread. Upon arrival at what was to become The Commonwealth, my ancestors tried to jump ship and earned 14 more years of servitude. We have a history in kitchens (barring my grandfather Overton, who was a coffin maker. That’s another story.)
For me, bread baking is creative and a skill just out of my reach. The same can be said for biscuit making. If you ever have a truly good homemade biscuit, one that’s so light you have to hold it down with your hand while you reach for the butter and the honey so it doesn’t float away, you know why they are still popular.
Part of my mountain heritage included baking, biscuits and sourdough. Every spring I would set out a jar of water left over from boiling potatoes at the kitchen window — it has to be the kitchen window. I asked my Aunt Dorothy why and never got an answer. She cooked like Southern Living Magazine before the magazine came out. Anyway, I’d catch me some wild yeast and from there on the “mother starter” was like adding a fussy pet to the family.
It has to be fed, kept at the correct temperature. It is fussy, guys. I remember reading books on how the old cowboy cooks would sleep with their little crock of sourdough starter it was so important to the cattle drives. (That mental picture alone stalled sourdough for me for a couple of years there but I eventually drifted back to it.)
Over the last three years I haven’t wrestled with raising a starter. Normally I do well at the beginning but make a culinary miscalculation and kill my sourdough by the fall. Then, this optimism, in spite of a lot of bad things worldwide, hit me and I just had to do what generations of my family have done when times are tough. We bake. As much as I like the mystique of sourdough, I figured I needed to try something different.
Then Dr. Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois’ “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day” caught my eye. Visions of French baguettes and a jaunty beret flitted through my mind and so of late I’m trying out their recipes on my family. I’ll let you know how it goes unless a headline in The Mount Airy News reports, “Baking boo-boo blackens dough bro’s buns.”
David Broyles is a staff reporter, and part-time bakery chef, at The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at email@example.com or 336-719-1952.