Busily transcribing the interview I had this morning with a recently retired International Labour Organisation statistician. Her area was work that has not historically, culturally, statistically been considered “real” work, nor factored into GDPs, i.e., “invisible” economies of goods and services that the ILO as of last fall refers to as “own-use production.” Its recently adopted resolution on work statistics very openly declares own-use production to be considered work. With “own-use production,” we’re talking homesteading, housework, even, to use one of Sophia’s examples, knitting a sweater. With this resolution the International Conference of Labour Statisticians has redefined productive work in a literal sense — as not just production that leads to growth on paper, but also growth in communities, growth in families.
This may look like a bread failure:
But I am going to tell you why it is anything but a bread failure.
You see, I think I’ve finally left the realm of the nervous beginner who obsesses about following dictates and worries about making mistakes, gets frustrated at the slightest imperfection in a final product, is impatient for the day when mastery will be reached. I don’t generally like making such bold declarations, but in this case I don’t think I’m overstating things. I really do think I’ve stopped worrying about my bread “failing.” (Maybe because it happens so often and so I’m used to it? Ha.) I’ve realized that even when a loaf comes out of the oven looking absolutely nothing like the pretty loaves of bread in all my cookbooks, it is almost always perfectly edible, and often tastes very good despite appearances. Like the loaf of bread pictured above, for example.
My day has gone: work a bit, knit a bit, work a bit, knit a bit, eat lunch, knit for an hour and a half while listening to This American Life, then work a bit, then pick the knitting back up because I’m so close to finishing this hat, then second-guess the pattern because it seems like it’s big enough now, so I start decreasing, and I finish, and I’m so pleased, and I rush to the mirror in the hallway to try it on (it’s for Alvaro, not me, but we both have big heads) and I discover with horror:
Pretty much any sourdough bread baking guru or cookbook writer I can track down from at least the past five years or so talks about a Dutch oven as an essential piece of equipment for those of us stuck with electric home ovens. Even with the ventilator shut off, an electric oven will send steam out its vents so the humidity inside is way lower than what you’d get in a wood-fired one. And high humidity is part of the reason why loaves baked in a wood-fired oven will always, in my opinion, come out way better than electric oven-baked loaves. (“Better” is subjective of course, but I’m using it anyway here, in reference to the general qualities that bread geeks consider when sizing up a bread success or failure: towering oven spring, crisp crust, chewy interior, lots of air pockets. There are others, but those are the ones that I understand are affected by oven temps and humidity.)
When I first learned about this Dutch oven thing I went immediately on the hunt for one, but it seems that Dutch ovens of the sort I was looking for — cast iron with a frying pan for a lid — are not a thing in France/Switzerland, where I live. All the ones I found had deep bottoms and lids with handles, which I knew would make removing loaves difficult, or else they were Le Creuset and I’m not paying 400 euros for a pot, thanks. So I just sort of gave up on the Dutch oven thing and tried other methods: altering oven temperatures, pouring water in a tray at the bottom of the oven, but my bread was still coming out looking fairly sketchy 50% of the time, at least. I was getting very little oven spring, also because I work almost exclusively with whole grain flour and I’ve been trying to move towards wetter doughs, all of which leads to loaves that spread out during the final rise and wind up looking like pancakes. They taste good but are absolutely useless for making sandwiches.
Then this past Saturday I did my usual farmer’s market run, and there was a couple there selling kitchen wares. Either I was blind to them before or else they’re new (I think it’s the latter), but anyway, they had what they called Roman casseroles (cocotte romaine), which are basically terra cotta Dutch ovens with a base and cover of equal size. Yes! So I bought one, came home and got a sourdough sponge started, later made into dough; all told it was a never-ending wait of 36 hours until I had a dough ready to put in my new toy.
On Wednesday Mas and I met up at the garden to catch up, which is an odd thing for me to say because normally we see each other all the time, but by fault of various circumstances we somehow managed to go an entire month without seeing each other, nor even really having much in the way of contact aside from a couple of brief emails. At long last we were reunited then, and before we knew it we’d been talking for 10 hours straight. It was nearly 2 a.m. and we were both too exhausted to make our ways home, so we slept in the house of the art association that cohabitates in the same land plot as the garden (we have the house keys). The next day was Thursday, which would prove to be a highly productive day.
0827 – I woke up, showered, dressed and was in the kitchen making a pot of coffee by 0900.
0910 – Mas and I are sitting at the table on the garden terrace, drinking our coffee and enjoying the still of the morning. I’m working on my latest knitting project. The still was interrupted when the birds arrived to feast on the grape arbor hanging over our heads. “I’ve had enough of their gluttony,” I said. “I’m fine with them eating some of the grapes but last year they ate everything. Let’s pick everything that’s ripe and make wine.” Mas said, “Right,” and got her laptop to start looking up how to go about such business, because neither of us had ever done it before. I got a pair of scissors from the kitchen and stood on a rickety wooden chair cutting down bunches of grapes and loading them into a plastic bag hooked on my elbow. I picked a huge pile, something like six or seven kilos I’d say, and then returned to my seat to continue knitting while Mas read aloud to me instructions she was finding online for how to make wine.
I was talking with someone the other day, I can’t remember with whom, and we were talking about mainstream education, standardization, norms, etc. And I was reminded of something Doris Lessing wrote in the introduction to The Golden Notebook, talking about critics and their inability to write what they really think and to consider works of literature in any other way than as in comparison to other works of literature. She expands what she says into a deeper criticism of the factory model of education and the competition and value judgments it encourages. She writes:
It is not possible for reviewers and critics to provide what they purport to provide — and for which writers so ridiculously and childishly yearn.
This is because critics are not educated for it; their training is in the opposite direction.
It starts when the child is as young as five or six, when he arrives at school. It starts with marks, rewards, “places,” streams,” stars — and still in many places, stripes. This horserace mentality, the victor and loser way of thinking, leads to “Writer X is, is not, a few paces ahead of Writer Y. Writer Y has fallen behind. In his last book Writer Z has shown himself to be a better writer than Writer A.” From the very beginning the child is trained to think in this way: always in terms of comparison, of success, and of failure. It is a weeding-out system; the weaker get discourages and fall out; a system designed to produce a few winners who are always in competition with each other. It is my belief — though this is not the place to develop this — that the talents every child has, regardless of his official “IQ,” could stay with him through life, to enrich him and everybody else, if these talents were not regarded as commodities with a value in the success-stakes.
The other thing taught from the start is to distrust one’s own judgement. Children are taught submission to authority, how to search for other people’s opinions and decisions, and how to quote and comply.
There’s a lady who sells yarn at our farmer’s market and I normally pass by her, but this past Saturday I stopped at her stand, and not just to browse aimlessly. Before I’d even turned the corner on the market street I had already decided to buy yarn from her, because Friday night on the train back from the bake party I finished Jonah’s hat, and so Saturday when I went on my market run I was still jacked up from having completed a project, caught in the momentum of production excitement, and wanting to jump right into the next one.
This lady is not my preferred yarn lady. I have my favorite shop that I always go to, but the main reason I’ve never bought from the market lady is because she doesn’t have particularly interesting yarn. It’s all wool-acrylic blends or 100% acrylic in mundane colors, plus several baskets of ugly, sparkly yarn that looks like Christmas tree tinsel. This past Saturday was no different, but like I said, I was in a yarn-buying mood that would not be put off till Monday. So I stopped to look for something for a hat for Alvaro, and also something for me, because until now I’ve been knitting things for other people but never for myself, and I’ve decided I want to knit something for myself. I picked out some forest green wool for him, and when it came to me I was looking for a quantity of something blue for a scarf. I decided on this:
I felt like very much the seasoned knitter, buying in bulk like that. When I got home I realized that I didn’t have the right size of circular needles to do the scarf, and I wanted to get going on a new project right away so I picked out a different scarf on my Ravelry queue, one that’s worked flat. I got to work on it without being sure if I’d keep it for myself or give it to someone else. But never mind, I just wanted to knit, with no big plans in mind, just knit for joy. Alvaro said he’d wear it, and so for a short while he was the scarf’s intended recipient — until I got 14 rows in and decided I hated the yarn.
Last Friday I went to a bread baking party on a rural hillside outside Bern, which began with a speech by a historic building preservationist about what I had already assumed was a pretty old oven that we would be using. He was speaking in Swiss German dialect, and I was understanding every eighth word plus getting occasional whispered translations from a woman next to me named Katrine, so I was only following about half of what he was saying. Then I thought I heard him say something like “the year 1650.” I turned to Katrine: “Did he just say the oven was built in the 1650s?” Yes, Katrine replied. This is when I understood that I would be baking bread in what was, indeed, a pretty old oven.