Sometimes, it’s the things we collect that ease and define our path in the world. I loved this book about the Vietnam War I read in graduate school, The Things They Carried. It’s written as a list of things that soldiers carried in the battlefield.
The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, write watches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes…
Last Sunday afternoon, beginning of Week Four in Quarantine, personally observing, as if from a long distance, the painstakingly slow (like a really long dough fermentation) and perhaps inevitable demise of my business, I had a full on panic attack—a pace the house, ring my hands panic attack, and I went into a big crazy baking frenzy—bagels (lots), sourdough (multiple loaves), big mess in the kitchen, every tool used, heaping tool pile in the sink flecked with sticky dough.
In a year when I have lost so much, from my mother to friends to most of my business, it is baking, and its many talismans and countless tools, which calm me down. Use this tool. Do this step. Move on to the next step. It feels certain, controlled, careful.
In just the past few weeks, I have accumulated multiple different sizes of kitchen containers with measurements on the sides from a restaurant supply store, along with:
- A cloth couche (“diaper,” in French),
- A baguette peel, a high-tech kitchen scale,
- A 50 lb. bag of bread flour,
- A Thermopop instant-read thermometer,
- A lame (razor blade on a stick for scoring),
- A large bread board with a lip which fits snuggly on to my counter engraved with measurements (excellent for rolling out a stretch of 40 centimeter croissant dough or shaping 18 inch baguettes),
- A special bread proofing oven (also makes great homemade yogurt), and
- Many assorted bannetons, flour containers, glass jars of different sizes, a bench scraper, a bowl scraper, and a dozen new kitchen towels with which to clean all my mess.
But there’s more. I’m really, honestly not much of a shopper, but lately I’ve also been avidly scrolling/watching for fire bricks, steel ball bearings (Why? I’ll try to explain in a future post); backyard brick oven building plans, home-sized bread ovens with a steam function, and new residences with enormous, HGTV-worthy kitchens capable of housing all this stuff (oh, that butcher block island is as big as my current kitchen!), in a place other than where I currently live, where my neighbors continue to irritate me with their constantly bleating, under-fed sheep and relentless weed whacking.
I love my kitchen, I really do. We renovated it about 18 years ago, banishing the 1970s in which its original version was built. I designed it so that I could see my horses from the window where I bake. It has a ton of nifty cabinets and a beautiful walnut bar.
But lately I’ve wished my kitchen was bigger.
I’ve wished my oven had a steam function (what oven does, besides one in a professional bakery?); I’ve wished for the long, wide acres of wood counter space, with hooks for flour brushes. Because once you’ve baked with all the gadgets and space, suddenly everything else feels a bit, well, cramped.
As a horse owner (another gear-intensive activity that would require 900 blog pages to catalog), it took me a long time to realize the value of the right tools. It is, believe it or not, absolutely necessary for you and your horse to have the right saddle, even if the process of finding that saddle requires buying and selling, buying and selling, including endless trips to the UPS store to pack and ship the wrong one back. Once I had the right tools collected (decades…) I didn’t really want anything else—and now I rarely shop for horse items.
What they carried varied by mission.
When a mission took them to the mountains, they carried mosquito netting, machetes, canvas tarps and extra bug juice.
On ambush, or other night missions, they carried peculiar little odds and ends. Kiowa always took along his New Testament and a pair of moccasins for silence. Dave Jensen carried night-sight vitamins high in carotene.
When (or if) we move, I’ll be sorry about the equipment intensity of my hobbies. But I’m not sorry now—these tools carry me forward into the next project with some confidence—e.g., the new scale allows me to weigh big bowls of dough. My lame scoring technique is getting, well, almost artful. My containers help me watch my starter rise (look! It’s working!). When I analyze my bread failures, I know I’m missing an important tool in the process—that darn two minutes of steam (because it’s the last missing link in my tool chest!).
I’ll head to Home Depot someday soon, face-mask and horse surgical gloves adorned, for those fire bricks and ball bearings to MacGyver the steam needed in my current, normal, oven to give my bread its final boost—appropriately called “oven spring” in baker vernacular.
The things I carry may just be things, but they define me.