You know that feeling when despite your interest in the event you just showed up for you’re almost ready to cut your losses and bail because the strangers you find yourself surrounded by don’t seem like your kind of strangers—and don’t seem like strangers to one another at all but rather close friends who all either hung out the night before or are being reunited after “like, ages” apart—but you don’t leave, you stick in there, eating the snacks and drinking the drinks because it’s a pretty rare thing that gets you out of the house on a weeknight, on a Monday night no less, and you know the only thing that could be worse than standing there being ignored and over-politely smiled is the regret and self-loathing you’re sure to feel if you leave, and then the thing starts and people start talking to the whole group as a group and you start hearing people say things like “it gets this lizard-skin look if it overferments” that you thought you only said to yourself in your own brain in your own house in the midst of this semi-obscure thing that you do, which you know lots of other people do but that’s just it, they’ve always been other people, doing it out there, somewhere else, on the Internet, and you suddenly look around and think, Holy shit, these are them. These are my people.
That feeling. You know that feeling?
Well, that’s the feeling I felt a few Mondays ago at Common Grains’s first-ever Baker-to-Baker event. It was a bread-breaking panel discussion held at Vibiana, this deconsecrated Catholic church turned chic event space on Second and Main downtown, which location is almost très LA enough to scare you off to begin with. There were a few obvious restaurateurs, but most everyone else looked like they walked there from an Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Loaves photo shoot.
Now, as people who know me know, I could, in the right light, be mistaken for a borderline hipsteresque typa dude. I wear a mustache now and have rocked the I-want-to-be-Garth-Hudson look and I like snug-fitting flannel and old typewriters and small farms and wooden tables and leather-and-metal things and vintage stuff of all stripes and basically anything “handmade.” But I like to think of myself as a maybe quarter hipster, tops. Without getting into it too much, I always assume that people who identify as something or try to fit their pegs too snugly into someone else’s hole—even if it’s a DIY/”anti-rules”/”anti-conformity” type of thing, like punk rock* or hipsterism, which may seem antithetical at first I know but which do, after all, both overvalue beat-up leather jackets, the more “stressed” the better—are more interested in appearing to live a certain life or like certain things than they are in actually living those ways or liking those things.
Lest I’m misunderstood: it’s not I don’t care what other people think. All too often, my aversion to being grouped with certain groups is so strong that I’ll go to great lengths to not be mistaken for someone or something I think I’m not.
And, I like to think I accumulated all the “hipster” trappings I have one by one without any thought to their overall effect—I am in a lot of ways ways too self-conscious for effect (or affect)—but of course, right? Of course I grew a beard and drank PBR and had a 1923 Remington typewriter before they got co-opted by hipsters.
But how much more hipster than “I was a hipster before there were hipsters” can you get?
Anyway, point is . . . I don’t even know. I meant to talk about bread and now I’m talking about beards &c. Ridiculous.
Ah! My point is that beards &c. Ridiculous is what I’m thinking about when I go into a place and there are people there I don’t know, and don’t know how to talk to, and how they’re taking one look at me in my old-man corduroys and my short-sleeve Patagonia button-up and thinking I’m definitely not worth talking to, and what a square and why is he standing there in the exact middle of the open main room just starting at people what a creep.
That is, I’m thinking about myself, and it keeps me from meeting people. Often, like that August Monday, the very people that I’ve gone wherever to meet.
That’s the At-The-Wellhead teachable moment for the day: be less neurotic, meet more people.
K, back to bread.
For years, the Hollywood producer and restaurateur Sonoko Sakai has been making soba noodles in her LA kitchen and selling them to local joints like Cookbook in Echo Park. Tired of lugging small batches of high-quality buckwheat flour with her back from Japan, Sonoko started looking for local grain farmers who’d be interested in growing high-quality, minimally processed buckwheat. The result is the Common Grains Collective, a group of farmers (four so far, from Santa Ynez to Tahachapi) that Sonoko has gotten on board to grow heritage grains like Sonora soft wheat in small batches that specialty/gourmet/at-home bakers and cooks can use. It’s another arm of the whole slow/local food movement, and it falls pretty squarely into the “rad” category.
This involvement in grains got Sonoko interested in bread, and at one of the soba noodle workshops she puts on, she met Roxana Jullapat of Cooks County Restaurant, herself a baker and nascent wild-yeast aficionada, and they hatched this idea for a series of baker panels in LA. Et voilà, last month’s first-ever Baker-to-Baker event. Zack Hall of Clark St. Bread was there, and Evan Kleiman of KCRW‘s Good Eats moderated, but the main attraction was a guy called Josey Baker (yeah no, that’s not a
stage kitchen name).
Josey’s tall and quick to smile, and in his cutoff denim shorts and faded tie-dyed t-shirt he looked like he walked there from a Phil & Friends photo shoot—which fits with his having made San Francisco’s Mission District his home for the last decade. An erstwhile science teacher, Josey stumbled upon the magic of sourdough when a guy who surfed his way onto Josey’s couch left him a chunk of the gob of sourdough starter he was traveling around with (of course he was traveling with sourdough starter, right?). Instantly, Josey was hooked, and he transformed his place in the Mission into ground zero of what became Josey Baker Bread, which eventually became the better, or at least breadier, half of a San Francisco café called The Mill.
Now, The Mill is one of the better-known and more-maligned of San Fran’s trendy slow-food joints. In a city with such a long and profound food culture, one would think it’d be tough as week-old sourdough crust to spark a new trend in the most basic Western food staple there is, but The Mill managed to do just that. Josey makes and sells bread and other pastries; Four Barrel Coffee, the other half of the enterprise, makes and sells coffee.
. . . and toast. And there, as the Dane said, is the rub. They take Josey’s bread, cut a nice thick slice of it, toast it to perfection and slather on peanut butter or almond butter or just plain ole butter and then sell it to you for an amount of money that would give your back-in-the-day-everything-cost-a-nickel grandfather an equally authentic conniption. But people love the toast. I mean, love. The Mill opened in the summer of 2012 and within a few months there were lines out the door. In August of 2013, VentureBeat‘s managing editor J. O’Dell wrote an article excoriating The Mill and other purveyors of overpriced “precious processes” like pour-over coffee for selling out to the nouveaux riche “techsters” ruining San Francisco.
may or may not be is probably true (the ruination part, that is, not Josey’s), but the article certainly spawned jeers and cheers and rebuttals and backlashes, primary among them being an understated and exceptional article by John Gravois. Called simply “A Toast Story,” it has a bit to do with toast but most to do with Giulietta Carrelli, the proprietress of Trouble Coffee & Coconut Club.
In short—and really short because of all the stories I’ve linked to in the history of ATW, this is one I really, really want you to visit and read—Trouble is a spot in the northwestern corner of the Sunset District that sells coffee, coconuts, fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, and toast. Only coffee, coconuts, grapefruit juice, and toast. Each of these things has a very specific, and rather heavy meaning to Giulietta: for a long time she’s suffered from something called schizoaffective disorder, which Gravois describes as “a condition that combines symptoms of schizophrenia and bipolarity,” and each of the four things she sells symbolizes a certain kind of peace or respite from that illness.
I don’t say this about too much stuff, but Gravois’s article on Giulietta was heartbreakingly good. I sent a copy of it to Tom Robbins because Giulietta and Glen and Trouble are things that he could have written into existence if existence hadn’t beat him to it—and he wrote back to tell me he agreed. Giulietta’s zany and a little fragile and ultimately triumphant in ways that make you glad that you inhabit the same plane of existence, and that there are people who have figured out antidotes to much worse poison than you’re ever likely to encounter.
Gravois’s writing is laconic and full of small truths and just the right blend of humor and gravitas, but, if you really want to get some dust in your eyes, listen to the version Gravois delivered on This American Life, “The Hostess with the Toastess.” You hear Giulietta say, in her own soul-piercing voice, things like “Everything that works for me I put in one little spot” and not only do you want to weep and make a pilgrimage to this place she’s built, but you also realize that this philosophy is maybe the best one anyone’s ever come up with and if you can’t say it about yourself now you better figure out how to change your life to make it so.
And this is one of the things I got from Josey Baker, and one of the ways I knew I was around my people.
He’s no Giulietta Carrelli—there’s not enough tragedy in his story, not enough sadness behind that infectious smile—but minus the heartbreak, his story’s just as inspiring. It’s not every day that a guy stumbles upon something as both simple and complex as bread and gives himself over to it so completely that it revolutionizes his world. Josey made that first loaf of bread from that traveler’s starter and he was hooked. He started selling loaves out of his house and, thanks a to a bit of skill and a lot of perseverance and a good amount of something in the air (that’s a sourdough pun), he was able to capitalize on that passion and make it his livelihood.
Everyone at Vibiana that evening was a bread enthusiast, and a lot of us are more or less solitary in this pursuit, making a loaf or two a week at home, experimenting with hydration percentages and steam contraptions and oven tiles, baking early in the morning or late at night, clicking our ways down the yeastier rabbit holes of the Internet. When you’re in love with something like that, something you do as a hobby and that you don’t get to talk to many people about, being around someone who’s made that thing his living is like a nine-year-old Little Leaguer meeting Satchel Paige. It validates what you’re devoting all this time to, sure (and baking bread from wild yeast starters that you grow and maintain yourself definitely is no while-you-watch-The-Wire type of thing), but more importantly it gives you motivation to work harder, pay closer attention, take more notes—bake better bread. I don’t know that I’ll ever try to make a living baking bread, but I know I care enough about it to do it. And that I care about it in the right kind of way.
While I think a lot of people would have liked to hear Josey go on about the love affair, passion is a tricky thing to talk about. The spiritual, esoteric, soul-food type aspects of the craft—of any craft—are so subjective and so personal that it’s nigh impossible to keep from deteriorating almost immediately into cliché. One thing that Josey said in this vein, though, did strike a cord. In response to a particularly Zen-of-bread type question, Josey leaned back in his chair and waxed poetic. Emphasizing each phrase with increasingly wider sweeps of his long arms, he said grandly, “You take flour, and put it in water, and mix it up, and you get, somehow, this mystical laffy taffy, called gluten, that turns, amazingly, into bread . . . which you can eat . . . that tastes phenomenal.”
Which is all fine and good and fun to feel, he said, but magic doesn’t get you through a baker’s workday. A lot of days, being a baker is repetitive, annoying, even boring work, and Josey said that sometimes “I wonder what I’ve done, having created this life where all I’m doing is this repetitive thing that I don’t even find interesting.”
He went on in this vein, appearing to depress even himself with the Sisyphean analogy, until Evan Kleiman saved him. “But,” she interjected, “when the synchronicity or mindfulness or whatever does happen, it’s the greatest thing ever.”
“Yes!” Josey shouted. “Thank you! It is. But then the next day, you’re proofing and shaping again.”
This is the thing that hit me. I don’t know whether he meant it as such, but that caveat was the most “Zen” answer he could have given. Most days, meditating is sitting on your cushion. Maybe a hundred, maybe two hundred, maybe six hundred days in a row of just sitting on the cushion, bringing your mind back to the present, to the anchor, to the breath. Hundreds and hundreds of days of sitting and breathing, like an uninspired chore. Except, every day is a little better if you do it than if you don’t, and you’re accumulating the experience of, at the very least, having done it, and then one fine day when you’re least expecting it you have this breakthrough, this thirty minutes or twenty or two, or even two seconds of insight and internal revolution, if not straight bliss, and you think holy shit this is it!
And then the second you think about it, it dissipates.
And it can be the same with bread.
The stuff’s so ubiquitous that most of us don’t think much about it. True, it’s been
enjoying suffering a renewed spot in the limelight recently thanks to this whole gluten-is-the-Devil fad, which will pass, but which also makes the timing of the also fairly recent surge of interest in “old world” breads rather interesting. Not that “old world” or “artisanal” bread ever exactly went out of style, but on the other hand it’s not as if there’s always been networks of grain collectives and local sourdough aficionado clubs in urban areas across the country like have sprung up in recent years. Sure, people make jokes about Wonder Bread or gush how amazing baguettes are in France and bagels are in New York, but for the most part, bread’s a lot like water—it’s important, sure, but mostly we think of it as a vehicle for the “real” stuff.
Substantiating a wild yeast sponge out of flour, water and thin air, and nursing it into a robust and virile starter that can rise any bread you throw at it, even the heaviest seeded polenta pumpernickel rye is no easy task, and the rewards of doing so can be great—but they’re also few and far between. I couldn’t even get a good starter, the very first ingredient, going for a couple months (when it exploded like a bomb in the kitchen and gave my roommate a heart attack), and even then it was shitty loaf after crappy loaf after sticky, undercooked, overhydrated, oversalted, underrisen, overfermented, too-sweet, tough, mushy, crumby, gaggy, not-bad, maybe-you-could-convince-a-starving-person-this-was-edible loaf before I got to anything I’d actually give away let alone think about letting someone pay money for. And most of the time, during that learning curve process, when your hands are covered in rye dough so sticky it feels like The Blob has finally come for you at last, or when you’re paring half-moons of dried sourdough from under your nails in meetings at work, or slicing into yet another loaf with barely any holes, or talking out loud to your crock of starter like “why won’t you just grow?! Are you too good to grow?!” you’re thinking wait why am I doing this?
And then one this happens
and you think fuck yes and people taste it and say “Mm, yeah, it’s good!” but you know they don’t know how good it really is or how long it took you to get it to be that good, how much of your goddamn life you put into making that halfway-decent loaf of bread, like Pablo Picasso who told the guy he charged a million bucks for a thirty-second sketch on a napkin that it took him thirty years to be able to sketch on a napkin in thirty seconds, and there’s that feeling that it’s even sweeter that you’ve done that work in obscurity because it makes you feel like an elect, like a secret-bearer—shoot, like an alchemist—and the less these mere mortals know about your pagan, life-sustaining arts, the better, and you smile and say back to them, “Eat up, I’m glad you like it.”
And there I was, surrounded by people that knew this, or that practiced it even if they didn’t know it, and while we didn’t get to talk about it all that much—while we were spared having to talk about it—it was enough to know we were among our people, and we could talk about stupid things, like hats and flannels and beards, and be sure it was all going to be okay.