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Pondering the Puzzlement

Bushido: Japanese, the 'way of the warrior'

Jack Deatherage, Jr.

Arete: Greek, the goodness or excellence of a thing.

Bushido and Arete have worked their way into a conversation I'm having with my homesteading friend in Texas. She was trying to express her attempts to perfect a wheatless bread she could tolerate eating on a regular basis. I made some comment about the Samurai Code of Bushido requiring the practitioners to seek perfection in every aspect of their lives. She came back with the Ancient Greek's goal of Arete.

The Texan is evidently a very good cook, though few people are likely to ever test that brag because she seldom cooks for any but her husband. I'm always getting pictures of meals she put together along with descriptions that set my mouth to watering.

For her, Arete in the kitchen is the goal. Having decided on that, she quickly realized that perfect meals require perfect meats, vegetables and seasonings. Those, she hasn't been able to acquire from her readily available sources. She's turned her mind to her garden and the livestock she keeps.

Instead of trying to grow food for a market, she seeks perfection among the rows of peppers and cabbages for her own use. That led her to taking a serious look at her soil and what she feeds it. As a Pagan, her first concern is to do no harm to the earth, her Mother. Seeking the best additives to feed and encourage the life already in the soil has become part of her Bushido, the way of the warrior gardener.

At her urging, I've begun to consider Arete in my life. I've been seeking the perfect loaf of bread for more than 20 years. Now I'm taking a new look at my past efforts and have decided to toss much of what I thought I needed. No more expensive flours or additives to improve flavor, crumb or crust. I'm bread building with "off the shelf" flour my mother would have used.

The only items my mother wouldn't have used (they were never in her house, but are a must in mine) are good olive oil, a baking stone and parchment paper. I have a recipe I've had some success with, an Italian bread from Peter Reinhart's "The Bread Baker's Apprentice". Armed with these essentials, I become a Samurai following the code of the Bread Builder.

And what a Samurai! I haven't a knife sharp enough to slice a loaf of bread. Which leads me to Arete in knife sharpening. I used to carry an Arkansas stone and always kept my pocket and belt knives sharp enough to shave with. Having long since stopped carrying most of those tools I also lost the stones and the ability to put a razor edge on a blade. Like the Texan, I'm finding I need to expand Arete into other areas of my life if I want success in something as simple as building bread.

I think the Texan set me up! Knowing how lazy I am she tricked me into working toward a goal I wasn't likely to resist. She knew very well what would happen once I began seeking Arete in bread!

I guess working toward perfection in simple tasks isn't so bad when I take time to consider how everything sort of pulls together. I'm thinking the mead ferment could be used to start the bread ferment. As I've not yet found the patience to let a mead age to perfection maybe I could pass the time working out the perfect bread and getting a knife sharp enough to slice it. While I wont go so far as to try growing perfect wheat I could get serious about growing excellent lettuce, or chickens, or beef to put between the perfect slices.

There is a chance I'll abandon the bread and knives in favor of something I'm already good at- napping. Currently I don't have a chair suited to perfect napping, but I've been considering one based on the Adirondack style. I'd have to make it bigger to accommodate my long frame, and I'd have to make my own cushions. All that requires a knowledge of lumber and tool craft I don't have. I'd also have to learn to sew. Which would require my learning about fabric!

Life would simpler if I accepted what is available from the stores. But where is excellence in that?

Read other articles by Jack Deatherage, Jr.