Love: A Secret Ingredient?
This post originally published at buylocalpa.org.
It’s 11:59am Thursday morning and my table of fresh-baked loaves is set, its contents ready to be distributed to the Huntingdon Farmers Market goers in exchange for bills and quarters. My friend Ellen is waiting for me, grinning, glad to see me here on time today. She makes a passing comment, as a number of regulars have, about the secret ingredient mixed, worked and baked into each loaf—love.
It may seem to be a cheesy sentiment or a kind way to make small talk as I bag Ellen’s loaf, but I’ve come to find that love—or care, attentiveness, stewardship, if you prefer—is as essential as flour and water when it comes to small-scale artisan bread baking. And the same can be said for local producers of all kinds.
It’s this love factor that truly differentiates local products from their industrialized competition each step of the way. Since bread is what I know, and they always say to write what you know, I’ll start with bread.
When I select the ingredients and sources for those ingredients, I am weighing multiple factors—quality, price, environmental impact and nutrition. Some decisions stem from my own personal commitment to a certain ethos, but others are informed by the relationships I have with my customers. When I choose a local, organic grain I remember the article my customer shared about Round Up’s role in the modern wheat industry. But also in my mind is my customer with six children and one income who wants to provide her family with healthy and nourishing bread. Finding ingredients that are both healthy and affordable is not just a marketing ploy—it’s a labor of love.
It’s not just what goes into the bread that is shaped by love, but the baking process itself. When I bake, each loaf passes through my hands at least four times as it’s pre-shaped into rounds, shaped into batards (oval loaves), scored and placed on the oven’s hearth, and finally removed from the oven, inspected and bagged. A baker’s hands are the primary tool of artisan baking.
Using one’s hands instead of machines isn’t just a nostalgic sentiment—a hipster-esque preference for the old and outdated. Dough in its purest form—nothing but flour, water and salt—is meant to be worked with the hands. It is dynamic and fickle, altered by the slightest of changes in temperature, humidity and even the direction the wind blows. Working with wild yeast rather than commercial yeast means I depend on the bacteria on the grain and in the air to facilitate fermentation which literally can change with the wind! Hands can sense these subtleties and adapt accordingly by adding more water or flour, creating slightly more or less tension in the loaf, letting the dough rise 30 minutes more or less, etc.
By comparison, most modern bread is made with machines, not hands. Machines lack the signature flexibility and intuition of a baker’s hands. So with the standardization of the machine comes the standardization of the dough and the addition of ingredients that ought to be foreign both to a loaf of bread and to our bodies.
The bread industry is not alone in this. My organic farmer friends sometimes wonder at the absurdity of their practices when compared with their large-scale neighbors. Hours of hand weeding can look foolish when a simple and quick spray would do the trick. This is just one of many examples, for they too hold relationships with their customers and an intimacy with their work that require love to be a factor in their decisions.
As we invest in these connections—the trust between producer and consumer and the intimate knowledge of our crafts—we grow in our understanding of our work and its purpose. And with that understanding comes love. And with love comes stewardship. Stewardship of the knowledge, places and communities that make our work possible and ultimately, something worth doing.
So, yes, my friends. The secret ingredient is love.