Friday, June 22, 2012

Swimming Holes and Ghost Stories

"Mise en place." The fundamental starting point to all good
cooking and bread baking. It means “everything in its place”. Cooking is all
about timing, and having your ingredients measured out and to hand is important
for the perfect simmer, sizzle, and sauté. Bread Baking requires precise
measurements of flour, water, salt, yeast…a work surface to develop the dough....a
place for it to rise and shape, and a hot oven. Mise en place. Good life
requires mise en place too, as a principle to build upon…Summertime always
reminds me of this, beautifully. With the first few week’s of CSA deliveries
underway, and the bulk of the heavy transplanting loads behind us, we take a
breath…quit early one evening and leave the daily work in it’s place, allowing
leisure to resume some sweet existence in our lives once again.
In bread baking there is a technique of resting the dough
after an initial mixing. Peter Reinhart describes this in his “Bread Baker’s
Apprentice”. The French call this period autolyse. He tells how during this
period of rest the protein molecules complete their hydration and begin bonding
on their own...causing more complex gluten development later when you finish
the mixing process.
Churchhill knew about autolyse. He never let a day go by
without his customary nap. He recognized that great things can come from a
small rest. Great doings from small nothings. One of my favorite anecdotes from
David Monson’s memoirs are about Summer evenings after the heavy load of farm
chores and field work, growing up on the next door neighboring Oak Hill Farm:
“But when it was hot in the summertime…when all the work
was done up and it was getting late in the evening, we would start to go off to
Square Lake to go swimming. As we started off and got to the next door
neighbor, the guys there would be ready to go and the nest neighbor and the
next neighbor and they’d all be ready to go. When we’d get to the lake there would
be lots of guys there ahead of us and some would come behind. We’d be a great
big gang of guys all swimming and carrying on you know. We’d be diving and
throwing each other overboard like we were pitching them off a diving stand.”
Autolyse. Then comes the best part:
“When it got real dark, then it was to get to shore and put
on our clothes. It was no hurry to bet back home then. That was story time.
Some would tell about hunting stories, and some would tell about trapping
lines, and it was just like you were in a library where there would be a lot of books read, but they were all told by
the boys that were good at story telling. Sometimes they would get to ghost
stories….some would tell ghost stories so good that you could almost see the
ghosts if you would just use your imagination.”
Wednesday afternoon, in the drizzling rain, after
deliveries were finished. We snuck off to Square Lake too. I watched my girls
soften into smiles, sighs, laughter, and cries of joy. Sometimes parents need
it spelled out for them…and I felt like I’d hit cloud nine when I heard
Bothilde squeal “I’m so happy” as she bobbed up and down on the little waves. I imagined a big old gang of boys splashing
eachother and hollering 90 years ago in this same spot, free from the very
grounded work of the farm for one evening. Aware of the paradox, it struck me
that children back then had more responsibility laid on them, more expectation
in one sense, and yet were more child-like than our children today. As a
nation, we continue to foster abilities in our children that are marketable,
yes, but further and further from their primary needs. Our children can text,
send emails, upload videos on You-Tube, and Skype. They can do logarithmic
equations, tell you all about climate change, and explain quantum physics. But
how many of them can tell you how much a chord of firewood is, how to make a
pie, how to bake bread, or slaughter a chicken for Sunday supper, or how to
speak to an adult? Children of 90 years ago were taught how to use trapping
lines, how to use knives, tie knots, drive horses. These things weren’t put
into their hands because people eschewed “safety” but because “safe” meant
knowing how to do these things for others and yourself, to be able to make it
in life…quite literally. Make a bale of hay, make a makeshift halter to lead a stray
cow, make a meal, make a shelter. But if their bodies were more hardened to the
elements, the rain and the sunshine, the heat and the cold, and the work on the
farm, their minds were, at the same time, very much more free. Free of the
pyscho-babble we continually spoon upon our children in our modern age, asking
a toddlers permission to go somewhere, or “honey, be careful, be careful honey!”
or “go and play” instead of “grab a spoon and help me stir this pancake batter!”
And then we shuffle them off to dance and soccer and computer club and Sunday
school and play-dates, busy saving time, not passing time…and somehow autolyse never happens…and our children
simply sluff off their childhoods early. Gone too soon is the fascination with
butterflies and bees. Playing in the dirt for hours:a thing of the past. “Bored”
suddenly stumbles into the vocabulary…and most painful of all: the light in the
eyes, a light of wonder and delight, dimmed. All these straight A students,
ready to shuffle off to a “good college”, at the same time unable to feed,
clothe, and shelter themselves without a plastic card to swipe. The weakened
Adulthood we find ourselves in today is the direct result of a non-existent
childhood. The mires and bogs of self-pity, self-help, and selfishness we
gossip with as adults begin with the absence of real mires, real bogs, and real
self-less ness experienced in childhood, as a valuable part of a whole family
and community. I preach to myself as much as to anyone.
We all of us desperately need that Grandmother with the
rolling pin standing in her apron at the back door, calling us in for supper,
and threatening a good wack to anyone who comes to the table without washing up
first. We need that bastion of solid tradition, culinary reliability, firmness,
and softness in one personage, a woman in the kitchen in no need of liberation,
for it is from there, she rules the world and nurtures each new generation. We
need a reminder that the very first and most important crop we grow is our
children…and two things are needed for their cultivation:
Mise en place and Autolyse.


  1. Oh, I miss keeping bees. And, oh, I can't wait to live near a swimmable lake. And, oh, I am so glad that bread needs to autolyse because my arms need a rest, too. And, oh, life is wonderful, and I am so glad to be alive. Deo gratias.