In the 2011 movie Bridesmaids, Kristin Wiig’s character, a pastry chef, comforts herself in a moment of turmoil by baking an elaborate cupcake alone. We watch her start from scratch and mix the ingredients, scoop the batter into a single paper liner, and then whip up some frosting and ganache to carefully decorate it.
When the cupcake is finished she sits down, still looking dejected, and eats it.
A few reviews of the film have scoffed at this scene, annoyed at the feminine cliché: Women have always been bakers. Men fire up the grill and marinate slabs of meat, but historically, baking seems to require two X chromosomes.
This is a troubling message, the reviews say: must our leading ladies always be quirky, unthreatening, flour-fingered pastry chefs? Is this a step backward for feminism?
I’ve lately been fascinated with baking – specifically, baking bread. It started with a fairly innocent quest to make passable bagels, but the internet doesn’t let a person stop there.
I started with one bagel recipe and wanted to compare it to more bagel recipes. They all differ just slightly: some want honey and some want malt powder; some ask to sit overnight, others are fine to bake in an hour; I even heard that real bakers boil their dough in lye, which required investigation.
At first the recipes I found were all from cookie-cutter corporate food sites, but eventually I ended up down the genre rabbit hole of Ladies’ Baking Blogs (they do, for the most part, all belong to ladies).
Women who bake and write about it want you to understand what is impossible to understand without personal experience. They want you to know about the magic of it: how you combine a heap of powders which have no real-world meaning (to conceptualize flour, for example, feels impossible), and add something wet, and heat it up, and watch it change. There’s some power in this.
And more than that: baking requires (and imbues) a kind of trust that is absent in everyday cooking.
Take asparagus, for example. When you halve a stalk of asparagus and coat it in oil and throw it on a cast iron skillet, the result is logical: it is still asparagus, if hotter and softer. Asparagus is un-mysterious. On the other hand, the premise that flour and water and sugar and yeast – practically useless on their own – could combine to make something like a loaf of bread requires trust.
In college, we (the collective, collegiate we) baked cookies and muffins and birthday sheet cakes from box mixes. Freshman year, there were section lounges on each of the dorm floors with studio apartment-style kitchen wares: a tiny, wiry oven with burnt tinfoil pressed into the bottom; a two-rack fridge without a light; a drawer filled with that twenty-piece plastic box set of “Kitchen Essentials” from Target everyone buys when they’re starting out.
I liked to take the few hours between classes and Friday Night to bake something easy in order to ingratiate myself with others. Then, I was interested in speed. You got a lot of bang for your buck with cookies: people were impressed with them, and you’d spent only the amount of time it would have taken to watch a single episode of a trashy sitcom.
This was when baking existed for purposes of social capital, and I assumed that was what baking would always exist for.
The women who write about baking online are no longer interested in social capital. For them, baking has been a sort of savior. Almost every baking blog I got lost reading contains a personal testimony of baking emerging as an alternate route, an escape chute at the pit of a dead end.
Kristin, who blogs at A Pastry Affair, writes that she had been studying to be an astroparticle physicist, which made her miserable and left her feeling unfulfilled. “I knew very little about baking […] but that didn’t stop me. With passionate determination, I taught myself to create original recipes.”
Cathy, who writes The Bread Experience, describes her stressful corporate job and explains how she learned to let bread ease her tension: “I enjoy baking bread on the weekends and allowing the dough to slow-ferment to bring out the flavor.”
My favorite blogger, though, is enthusiastic Susan at Wild Yeast Blog. She has an essay on why she likes to bake bread, which culminates with this:
“It’s about something that’s a lot like the rest of my life: I try to control every variable I can think of, and it’s still entirely possible that something I didn’t think of, or can’t completely control, will crop up to produce a completely unexpected result — for better or worse.”
Something is intoxicating about the way these women write about baking. They punctuate photographs of balls of yeasty dough with anecdotes about their children running around the living room. Nothing about their baking is objective: you can see their other lives running parallel to their craft; they are unable to put anything on hold or bake in a vacuum. So their baking takes the shape of a sort of life preserver: you can see them balancing on a sourdough ferment while also managing a sick father or a high-stress job.
They do not blog about their other, non-baking lives because they want to complain; they do it to tell other women that it is possible. There is a quiet sisterhood that emerges in the annals of recipes on women’s baking blogs. You can see it in the comments sections, over and over again: thank you for making me feel less alone.
In May, I was getting ready to move from the city where I’d lived for the better part of a decade to go to graduate school. I was taking out massive loans, saving whatever money there was to save, and working extra jobs to make the move easier.
Also, I was crying every single day. I found myself holed up in my room, head buried in a pillow, shipwrecked against the wall which would soon no longer belong to me.
I spent a lot of time saying to myself, “You are an adult woman. What are you doing in a heap of saliva and panic on your bed? Shouldn’t you have stopped doing this years ago?” That attitude, naturally, only compounded my grief. I was a disaster.
So, because I had been reading these Ladies’ Baking Blogs with fervor that bordered on obsession, I went online and ordered a sourdough starter.
For lack of a better word, sourdough starters are incredibly weird. You can order them from places like Paris or San Francisco (cities which have reputations for their excellent sourdough bread), or you can make your own.
In researching sourdough and how it works, I came to understand it as almost mythological. Sourdough comes from wild yeast – which is the kind of yeast that floats around everywhere, eating sugar and partying on the skins of apples.
People can’t see wild yeast, even though it’s all around us all the time. Wild yeast is what is used in sourdough bread, but here’s the thing about it: you have to catch it.
Wild yeast requires a medium (sort of like a demon requires a medium) in order to be useful. This is where a starter comes in: you use a starter (essentially a very gooey version of flour and water) to harvest the yeast and make it happy. Receiving a sourdough starter in the mail feels a little like receiving an alien in the mail: it is a quarter-sized dollop of off-colored muck in a plastic bag with a label that says: “The contents of this bag are alive.”
You can’t use a sourdough starter right away. You have to put it in a jar and feed it flour and water for a while, storing it uncovered in a cool place. Soon, the sourdough will start to bubble and froth, which is supposed to indicate that the wild yeast is having a field day, and that you could make bread with it if you wanted to.
I loved everything about this process. I loved feeding the jar on top of the fridge twice a day (I named the sourdough start Mary). I loved pulling the jar down in the very early morning to look at the bubbles and smell the ferment. The experiment required an amazing amount of patience and trust, which, incidentally, were the two most useful parts of baking for me.
Here is what I mean. I am not a patient person. I am one of those people who pushes “Reload” on my phone’s email inbox while I wait in lines. I dislike yoga, stretching, meditating and smelling the flowers. I love, on the other hand, multitasking: I like to have a podcast on while I vacuum and curl my hair at the same time. Furthermore, I am not a trusting person. I never take anyone’s word for it; you should never tell me your email password or the location of your diary, because I will mercilessly spy, against my better judgment.
And so: bread is very difficult. Things that are difficult, however, are useful.
Especially when – as with bread – there is a payoff. With bread, the payoff happens throughout. You feel the ingredients congeal and pull at each other when you hit the right consistency in the dough; you marvel at the way that the ball of dough, which had started the size of a whiffle ball, doubles or triples in size given a good hour under a damp cloth in a stairwell; you feel it change as you knead it into knots and double it over itself for “at least 10 minutes” (that’s what all the baking blogs recommend); and then you get to smell it as it changes again in the oven in the final two hours of the process. I do this thing where I open the oven just a little to say “I can’t believe you are real” to the bread.
I know that’s crazy, but I also know that other women must have a version of this. We are grateful to the bread. We needed something to live up to its reputation.
A few years ago, Nigella Lawson published a cookbook called How To Be A Domestic Goddess. In its introduction, Lawson posits that choosing to bake is actually, perhaps antithetically, a feminist act: “There’s something intrinsically misogynistic about decrying a tradition because it has always been female,” she writes.
One thing about baking that separates it from cooking is that it’s not as necessary. People don’t need bread the same way they need hot asparagus. By this I mean: it is a requisite that people get nutrients by eating meals; it is not a requisite that people have bagels or cookies or scones. In fact, nutritionally speaking, the stuff we bake is not good for us.
Baking exists for pleasure only. It has no alternate agenda. More and more, it seems, women are baking not out of obligation, but for themselves.
If that isn’t progress, what is?
Written by Sophie Lucido Johnson, Originally published in The Guardian: link here
Image Via Localmilkblog.com