I have taken a job as a pastry baker. I said I wouldn’t. I said I love food too much to do it professionally. I said I wanted to use my brain more than my hands. Turns out, however, that this is my marketable skill and, darn it, it was high time to go to work. I was missing the structure of a schedule. The social outlet. The paycheck. I was also tiring of rejection – or apathy – in response to my resumes. It seems I just haven’t lain the groundwork for any other kind of employment.
Today was day two. Even after a long, hot shower, I still smell like dough. I have flour in the creases of my skin that will take days to soak out. Today my manager put me at the helm of a Kemper mixer – just the kind that I worked on six years ago when I made bread at the Pearl. This one is smaller, but pleasantly familiar. I mixed dough for cinnamon rolls, croissants, and puff pastry. I prepared thirty-plus white plastic tubs and weighed a few hundred pounds of dough and set them all to rise. I mixed flour and yeast and water into familiar things.
I had forgotten how to do all of this. A week ago, if asked how one mixes dough in this manner, I would have shaken my head slowly from side to side and admitted that it’s been too long. I would have said that I don’t do it anymore. It would have made me sad to think so. Or wistful. Or nostalgic.
But today, bent over the Kemper —
OK, “bent over” isn’t quite accurate enough. Try instead, “bent-into.” Think of a girl, just over five feet, with her head, arms, and one shoulder inside the bowl of a giant mixer set on the floor.
Anyway — today, while I was pulling some two hundred pounds of dough that tomorrow will be laminated with yellow European butter and become croissants, I had a serrated knife in one hand. I used the other hand to reach under a mound of dough and tug at it just enough to make room for the knife to cut a chunk out. You must avoid ripping the dough; the gluten won’t tolerate it. So it goes tug, cut, tug and when a piece is freed it gets flung onto the digital scale that rests on the nearby table. At nine pounds, the dough is made into a roughly rectangular shape and deposited to rise. Tug, cut, fling, form. Tug, cut, fling, tug, cut, tug, cut, fling, tug, cut, fling. And as I tugged and flung, I was no longer the new girl, trying to impress a bakery full of unfamiliar bosses and colleagues. I was not unsure or nervous. As I tugged and flung, I remembered, through my hands, what it is that I do. And a thought snuck up on me, quite unexpectedly and a little bit against my will: maybe this is really what I will do with my life. Maybe this is actually what will make me happy.
On my first shift — yesterday — the final task of the day was forming croissants, a job I had not performed since my internship after LCB. The final graduation requirement was a six-week internship and I chose the best patisserie in my hometown. It’s a long story, and I will only tell you the pertinent part now: we formed croissant and danish second thing in the morning, just as soon as the wholesale and retail bakes were done, between four and four-thirty a.m. I think. Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember anything that ever happened before sunrise. This patisserie was run by a husband and his wife. He was French, unsubtle and straightforward. She was American, equally assertive, critical, and pregnant (which made her, I think, a little extra crazy). Their reputation was well-deserved and they took it very seriously. Our products, including those items produced by the twenty-year-old neophyte intern, were to be flawless. And the croissants that this inexperienced, overwhelmed, and intimidated (not to mention very underslept) girl formed were no exception. Every day, I was shown how to make them, and then how to make them better. Each croissant I formed was critiqued. I became obsessed with perfecting my technique, in terms of both efficiency and quality and, I am happy to write, my improvement was notable and satisfying. Once my internship was over and I returned to Portland, I didn’t give the ol’ croissants a second thought. Until yesterday.
Standing at the bench, flanked by my new coworkers, in what is definitely the largest and probably the most cheerful bakery I have ever been in, I tried to focus on the croissant-forming lesson I was receiving. Every place has their own procedure, and I didn’t want to assume that I knew better, or that knew at all. But my hands would not be stopped. Upon picking up that soft, smooth triangle of inchoate pastry, I was powerless over the will of my fingers. Everything I learned at four a.m. from the Frenchman and his wife came out of me. It felt like I had never stopped making them, like the dough and my hands had some secret language that my brain could never fully understand. The same thing happened today at the Kemper.
I suppose it’s just like riding a bicycle.
Since I had said for so long that I would not return to foodservice after finishing my Bachelor’s degree, this job as been a little bit difficult to feel wholly good about. From one perspective, I have clearly let myself down. But from another angle, this is a homecoming. Today, before the ache and the fatigue set in (bakery work is physically hard and I am quite unused to early mornings), when my body settled into a rhythm and my brain was freed to think of other things, I experienced a zen moment of sorts. As I cut dough out of the mixer, glancing occasionally at the scale but mostly knowing when I had reached my target weight, I noticed that I was having a moment free of doubt. My hands knew what to do, my brain was unconcerned, and my heart was maybe even a little glad. Just like we don’t get to choose our parents or where we are born, maybe we don’t always get to choose the things that ring our chimes. In the kitchen, like it or not, I am home.