Editor’s Note: Better Burque today starts a new weekend posting tradition dedicated to things other than roadway safety and MUTCD-compliant temporary construction signage. Author Emily Esterson kicks things off with our first edition of “Breadder Burque,” an episodic personal memoir of a life increasingly, gloriously, spent baking bread.
Baking is not a new obsession for me, but a re-ignited one. It’s origin story, for me, goes back to college, or maybe before, but there’s no one left in this family who remembers me baking bread as a child, although I know I loved to cook and bake, and made dinner for my father (who was chronically ill) on some occasions. But it was in that drafty duplex on Mechanic Street in North Bennington, Vermont, my last year of college, where the passion took hold. There was a reason: I had to write a thesis. In French. It was a slog, and I’d chosen to spend the winter field work term, when most of the other students were off doing internships with movie production companies or writing future bestsellers (Bret Easton Ellis), in that cold house writing. I was no longer in France and I was not writing a future bestseller but an academic thesis on the nature of twins in French literature. Why twins? I don’t know, exactly, except…
I was not alone. My roommate, Rhea, was working on her senior project in her art studio. The Galloway twins were in and out of that house, too. Susan lived with us for a while, and then Kurt, I think, slept on our couch, and the two were close in that way that some twins are, so Kurt was always around, even though he lived in Williamstown. It was Kurt who started baking in our kitchen. I think, and passed it on to me. It was a long time ago, and I can’t find Kurt to verify this fact.
So the baking thing started for me because the long, slow, rise time necessary in that cold Vermont kitchen forced me to sit in my chair and work on that thesis—each rise was at least an hour and half, and there were two, plus the baking time. Rhea was particular about food, and it was the 1980s, so I probably made a lot of whole wheat loaves and likely from the Moosewood Cookbook, which was the only one I had at the time. It was hard to write in a foreign language (even though I’d just come back from an extended period in France, writing was the weak link for me), and even harder still for someone with a naturally busy personality. My graduation was at risk though, thanks to that gallivanting around Europe, where all I ate was sandwich jambon, baguettes, cheese, and chocolate, washed down with wine that came in a plastic bottle and had a screw-off top.
The baguette story that sticks with me from France is funny to me alone, because there was no one else there to witness the moment, or at least no one else who found any humor in it: I rented a room from a wealthy couple in their 70s in the 17th arrondissement. They often invited me to Sunday lunch with their uptight, single, Ronald Reagan-loving son, Daniel (he always wanted to talk about “my president”). On one such occasion, the pere de famille broke off a piece of baguette (as is the custom), but this bread was stale, and a slab of crust jetted across the large dining table, landing squarely on Daniel’s nose. No one seemed to notice, and the conversation continued apace. As much as I tried to maintain my “I am a cool almost-French person enjoying a very civilized meal of pheasant and stale baguettes in an apartment several millions of francs (in those days) above my own net worth of approximately $140 US,” I had one of those laughing fits that makes you clutch your stomach and every time you replay the mini-movie in your head, it starts all over again. My landlord thought me extremely rude, so she excused me from the table.
And yet, I cherished that French bread and bakery tradition, despite such serious etiquette missteps that I seemed to make over and over when I lived there. It’s the fate of a New Jersey-raised Jew in Paris to make such faux pas, especially because I was kind of needy and lonely the whole time I was there, and perhaps the loneliest moment was being the only one laughing at that dining room table. I remember my landlady once telling me—it might have even been that same day–that I was a gourmand. I didn’t know the context of the word, and I knew I was being lightly scolded for raiding her refrigerator (see above, net worth, $140). I rushed back upstairs to my Petit Larousse to look up the definition: A person who loves food, and is also kind of a pig (in not those exact words). The truth hurts.
So yes, in North Bennington I took up baking, but I never made baguettes or pain au chocolate or attempted croissants (that started pretty recently). I only made whole wheat loaves and I made them for my roommates, whom I cherished after my lonely Paris adventures. I was not uncouth on Mechanic Street. Kurt came in one day while I was baking-writing, and he declared “Bread smells like love.”
To Be Continued…
Editor: Interested in adding to our weekend offerings here at Better/Breadder Burque? It’s so, so easy. Just send us an email with post and photos you wish to include and we’ll go from there.