Friday, May 28, 2010

Loafing Around

by Drew Martin

One of my most sculptural jobs was as a baker. On hiatus from my five years abroad in Europe, I lived in Richmond, Virginia for half a year where I worked at the Montana Gold Bread Company. It was a unique bakery, full of young punks, but it was also special in that we even made our own flour and a distinguished variety of breads.

A few years prior, I had worked on an organic farm in California and learned much about growing food. In the bakery, the relationship to food was quite different: there was the power of creation through methods that were both scientific and artistic. I became fascinated with the various forms of bread, throughout the process, and how the final irregular loaf was the embodiment of both the motion and size of human hands.

The dough was initially mixed and kneaded by a big mixer and then it sat for a while. After rising, it was cut up into manageable pieces and kneaded by hand and then rounded and proofed before being placed in the huge, rotating oven. The job was entirely physical, which meant we could talk freely about our interests, which were quite ecclectic for a group of 20-somethings with college degrees in everything from Fine Arts to German Literature.

We were constant potters throwing edible clay and we labored over the small mounds of dough until they were taught, round balls.

"Rounding" was thematic. Our shoulders, arms and chests became rounded with new-found muscles. It was the only time in my life I remember having upper body strength. At the same time a diet that was naturally dominated by bread, rounded our bellies.

We kneaded two loaves at a time (one with each hand), but rounding a single loaf required both hands. This is what took the longest to get used to because it rubbed the sides of the hands on the wooden table, which
could be quite painful after doing it for hours, day after day.

Kneading and rounding was a wonderful exercise in forming an object because unlike clay, dough is living and breathing. It is a scaled up bacterial mass. Sometimes if the initial vat of dough was too warm and the yeast overreacted. It would transform into The Blob and threaten to roam. When this happened it literally crawled out of its stainless steel cauldron. The only recourse was to beat it back: this required taking a long wooden pole and violently stabbing the mass until it whimpered and retreated.

A few times a week we made Challah, which required braiding the dough. We also made Sourdough, which we occassionally sprayed with water to give it a crisp crust.

We hoped to sell as much bread as we could by the end of the
day but since this never happened, we always had a lot of good bread on our hands. We donated plenty to charity each night and I would take a couple loaves and hand them out to the Richmond's homeless people on my evening walks.

My favorite day was Wednesday because it was the only day we made Sourdough and I worked the early shift, which started at 5 am and ended at noon. My mother's father lived in Richmond. He was already in his 90's and lived by himself as he was widowed. He liked Sourdough so after worked I would walk across Richmond in the blazing midday sun with half a loaf (as requested) for him. He was always well dressed and greated me nicely. We would talk for an hour in his clean, bright apartment and then I would walk back to my place in the city.

The baker's life was a simple and humble one but it allowed for a lot of free time, which I spent reading in the local library or swimming in the James River. Once a week I would run down to the University of Richmond after my later shift and watch international films such as Red Fire Cracker, Green Fire Cracker and Burnt by the Sun. I shared a row house with another baker and a photographer. I had a beautiful little white room with a mattress on the floor, a chair, a tiny radio and a backpack of my clothes. I remember lying down and looking at the blue bottles lined up along the high and long hallway window through my transom. Not needing any tools or even a means of transportation other than my own feet, my existence was very contained and loaf-like. If I were one of their loaves of bread, I was probably the Blue Ridge Mountain Herb, perhaps the Honey Whole Wheat...when I was in a good mood.