The simple wholesome act of baking a loaf of bread can fill your kitchen with warm aromas and quiet your mind. That is, unless you’re writer BJ Hollars of Eau Claire. For him, it’s a little more complicated.
Every now and again, on some late November dawn, as the ice crackles along the kitchen window, I find myself drawn to the leisurely pursuit of baking a loaf of bread. Not by hand, but by following the bread machine’s foolproof step-by-step instructions.
I measure flour, water, sugar, and dry milk into their proper portions, and then—as instructed in step number 8—use two fingers to create a small well within the bread machine’s mixing barrel, into which I pour two teaspoons of yeast. Shut the lid, press start, and three hours later, I’ve got bread.
But on this morning, three hours later, all I’ve got is a problem.
In my burst of baking zeal, I’d forgotten to insert the mixing blade into the bottom of the bread barrel. The result: a sludgy pile of unmixed dough that neither looks nor tastes like bread.
Grumbling, I dump my muck and prepare to start anew.
I reach once more for the flour, only this time—having squandered most of it—I fall far short of the necessary four cups. I’ve got one cup at most, along with a freshly emptied flour bag.
No matter, I think. I’ll simply drive the mile to my parents’ house to borrow a bit of theirs. Upon my arrival, I decide not to wake them. Who wants to be woken so early on a Saturday?
Instead, I cat burgle my way through their front door, silently rifle through their cabinets, and discover their own meager flour supply. I steal all of it, but that still leaves me two cups short.
No matter, I think, eyeing the shortfall. I’ll simply text my neighbors asking if I might borrow a few cups from them. Within minutes, they reply that, regrettably, they are out of town. Which, I realize, is not the same as not having any. I briefly consider cat-burgling their home as well. What’s one more B&E alongside the rest?
My quest continues at the gas station, where, in desperation, I purchase a five-dollar bag of flour. Now flush with flour, I attempt to restore order to the universe by cat-burgling my way back into my parents’ house, this time to return the stolen flour.
The task complete, I return home so that I might begin again the leisurely pursuit of baking bread.
I whirlwind through the instructions, and then, while lost in the hypnotic churning of dough, I consider the many humiliations I’ve endured before breakfast.
How I managed to turn a one-second oversight into an hourlong adventure that cost me more time and money than any loaf of bread could ever be worth. Somewhere, an apron reads, “Baking is my therapy.” I want the one that reads, “Baking sends me to therapy.”
The irony is that I have no need for bread. Our breadbox overflows with more multigrain and split-top wheat than any carb-loving family could ever enjoy. Had I been faced with a true bread shortage, I could’ve purchased any number of loaves at the gas station.
As my bread machine bread begins to rise, I’m struck by an inconvenient truth: had I done nothing that morning, I’d have managed a more favorable outcome.
Any number of aphorisms might speak to my failed baking experience: “measure twice, cut once”; “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”; and, on the subject of stolen flour, “possession is nine-tenths of the law.”
But the lesson I most need is the one I’m most reluctant to hear: how, in my attempt to engage in some societally agreed upon “leisurely” activity, I’m left more anxiety-ridden than ever. I could blame America’s hustle culture for our inability to unwind, though I view it as a personal problem.
Until people like me learn to start viewing “leisurely” activities as an essential part of life, rather than an indulgence, we risk falling victim to another aphorism: burning the candle at both ends.
I can’t help but feel some kinship with that bread machine: both of us are hellbent on trying to reap a reward through constant churning.
Yet on this fateful morning, after three hours of bread machine surveillance, I notice something new: the mixing blade churns intermittently rather than continually. Meaning that for the bread to rise to its full potential, it requires both motion and rest.
Work has its place, but so must leisure. The recipe calls for both.