My favorite supermarket has always boasted an in-house bakery. But for years, everything it produced bagels, dinner rolls, sandwich bread, hamburger buns came from one master vat of machine-mixed, homogeneous, lowest-common-denominator dough. Sometimes cinnamon sugar sparkled on top of the finished product, or egg-white glaze shone on the crust, or raisins lurked inside, but I wasn't fooled.
Now, however, the bakery has branched out, perhaps responding to the, um, rise in popularity of what are lately called "artisan" breads. Standing at the display case, I watch white-aproned apprentices open oven doors to check on small batches of sourdough, challah, seven-grain, and asiago cheese-infused loaves. (The "rustic French" is my favorite.) These hearty, handmade, unsliced loaves contain five or fewer ingredients, all natural.
They're bagged in plain brown paper, as if to underscore their simple goodness.
The only sticking point, alas, is the price tag: $4 or more. Why is simple wholesomeness so dear? My grandmother who, years ago, baked 50 loaves weekly for her farm family of 14 would gasp at the prospect of paying, for one loaf, a sum that would have bought enough flour for her huge weekly batch.
Like Grandma, my bread-baking friend Allison, who lives across the state, also has a large family at least by today's standards: eight in all.
Occasionally she'll e-mail this simple declaration: "Baking bread today."
"Texture too uniform," she'll report later, conceding, "But my kids' friends love it."
So do I, from 120 miles away. "Your bread smells heavenly!" I'll reply, as memories of Grandma's kitchen waft through my mind.
I'll never forget watching that tiny, typically demure woman punch and stretch giant pillows of dough with a vigor that bordered on violence. Grandma and her friends hardly considered themselves artisans (if such a word even existed in their working vocabulary), but they knew good bread. Frequenting church bake sales, they gave each other the business, as it were; more than once I heard Grandma whisper to my mother, "Did you notice Mabel's crust? Much too dark."
Needless to say, I'm no baker myself. I prefer kneading words. My dictionary defines artisan as "a person skilled in an applied art; a craftsperson."
Rearranging the syllables of "art-is-an" yields "is-an-art."
Growing up, I never considered bread-baking an art, or even a craft. It was just one more domestic chore.
Today's bread artisans seem to take their bread-baking as seriously as Grandma did. As she did, they proof the yeast, then plan the rising and baking so that fresh loaves come from the oven just in time for a warm slice after school or for the 5 p.m. supermarket rush.
When I consider the experience, the labor, the love these bakers bring to their task, whether at home or in-house, the cost seems reasonable indeed.
Maybe even Grandma would agree. (Fortunately, at my store, every fifth loaf is free.) Fresh-baked bread embodies the very taste and texture of childhood. Such a loaf is not merely a luxury, but a priceless indulgence.