I tried baking bread about three years ago the first time I lived in Boston. And by me, I mean I watched – horribly impressed – while my roommate did the mixing and kneading. There’s something that feels ancient about making a food that has been essential for so long to so many different people. When I’m baking, it’s inevitable that I start wondering about all the other bakers that have come before me. About making bread in a castle versus making bread as a pioneer (the temperature and ingredients differences!) and how I really should make a sourdough starter. Whether you love the old-fashioned or gluten-free variety, I think the smell of baking bread is one of the most delicious smells on the planet. I would go so far as to say I like that smell more than I like the smell of chocolate chip cookies. This may also be because I’m obsessed with cheese and nothing goes together like fresh bread and creamy cheese.
Last week, I stumbled across a new recipe for an old favorite – rosemary bread with sea salt scattered on the crust. For the curious, the recipe is here on this cool blog called Fritz is Fine. I immediately went out to buy fresh rosemary and half and half from Trader Joe’s which I use in most recipes in place of milk – it may not be super healthy, but we so rarely have milk around the house that it’s just silly to go buy a small carton and watch it go to waste. Plus, half and half tastes better.
Unfortunately, there was a run on rosemary that day and there were only two packages pushed to the far back on the top shelf. For those of you who know me, you’ll realize that this is a problem. When I need things out of the top cupboards at home, I either take a wooden spoon and scooch the desired item to the edge so I can reach/tip it into my hand or I ask my husband. As I had neither a wooden spoon nor my husband, I spent about fifteen seconds on my tippy-toes like a toddler, arm stretched far above my head as I wiggled my fingers to try and hook the package to send it falling in my general direction.
Thankfully, a guy who was basically eye-to-eye with the top shelf noticed and offered to get it down for me just as I was getting desperate enough to start searching for an alternative means of knocking the rosemary loose – honestly, a bag of carrots looked promising. Anyway, I think strangers helping strangers is common in grocery stores in part because it’s pretty neutral ground to offer assistance i.e. the situation is probably not life-threatening and will be easy to resolve and everyone leaves the interaction generally feeling good about the world. Somehow though, I always manage to be awkward about accepting help. In short order, I got embarrassed for being too small to grab my own rosemary, then felt awkward for feeling embarrassed and then realized I hadn’t thanked him yet. So, I said “Thank you!” and wandered away feeling awkward.
What makes it so hard to accept help from others? Without making it sound like I’m writing a parable for bread baking and grocery shopping, I think it has to do with being taught from a young age that self-sufficiency is the end-all, be-all. As a kid, my heroes were MacGuiver, Indiana Jones, Caddie Woodlawn, Meg Murray and Merlin; all pretty obstinate and self-sufficient people. But really, a big part of growing up as an adult means honing your own skills, accepting your limitations and knowing when to ask for someone else’s expertise. This is fairly easy to write but really hard to put into practice and I fail on a regular basis (see awkward interaction over accepting the fact that I’m not six feet tall.)
When I first started baking bread, I had no clue what I was doing – it was like magic watching the dough rise, putting it in the oven and getting a loaf of bread out half an hour later. So, I educated myself by seeking the experience of others. I watched YouTube videos on kneading, read recipes online and user’s comments for tips and lucked my way into owning the King Arthur Flour Baking Companion which has fantastic sections devoted to teaching about all kinds of baking. I am proud to say I’ve even made crackers from that book.
Accepting help from others doesn’t have to be as difficult as I make it. In fact, helping others is pretty high on my list of happiness activities – right next to baking bread. How these two mesh together, I can’t really say other than this is my life – baking bread, being awkward, accepting help, giving help and learning to do all that gracefully and in full appreciation of the happiness that comes my way.