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The Village Idiot

If I had a hundred dollars

Jack Deatherage, Jr.

(2/2017) If I had a hundred dollars for every time someone told me I need to open a bakery I'd still not have enough cash to do it. One of the bread books I have, by a baker willing to share his start up experiences, relates his first bakery ate $75,000 before it failed. Oo baby. Not this boy.

What started out as a desire to taste the bread Mom made in 1960 turned into an adventure that left me cursing in frustration as multiple failures plopped onto counters in three different kitchens. Groaning over scientific explanations of what goes on in a fermenting dough, and later in a hot oven, left me scratching my head when I wasn't thumping it on a kitchen wall. Some small enlightenment dawned when I picked up a book on the history of wheat and learned that the flour Mom had used isn't available today. Nor is the cream rich whole milk she used.

Abandoning that hopeless loaf I took to trying my hand at artisan breads and with encouragement from local Librarian Sue, I managed a few loaves worth eating. The adventure found me consistently shuffling good loaves from the oven. I felt confident enough to begin experimenting with the recipes. To my delight, even my mistakes tended to come out edible. (I'd also begun building breads on Saturdays for a very early Sunday bake so I could take them to the Frederick IWLA youth program for the kids who devoured them as if they would never again sample their like.) All the while I kept reading bread books hoping to find the secret to what I considered the perfect bread.

The Mad One was the first to tell me I had reached a level worthy of opening a bakery. "But not in Emmitsburg." She declared. "Emmitsburg doesn't deserve good bread. Come to Bulgaria. My people still appreciate bread. You could make a good living in Sofia"

I laughed. I wouldn't move to Frederick to open a bakery, and any town smaller than that wouldn't support the effort (Thurmont didn't), no matter how good the bread might be.

Onward I went, experimenting with flour, water, salt, yeast, temperature and time. The breads became better and then I seemed to peak. I simply could not reach what I thought of as perfect. I was close, oh so close. And then I decided to take a former baker's advice. I built a sourdough culture. And another one when I killed the first one. And a third when I killed the second.

Bah! I switched back to commercial yeast and went off exploring flours made from grains other than wheat. And as often happens, someone needed such bread. An Iranian Bear (Coach Ben) asked, well, told me to make salt free bread for him because such bread, when he could find it in the stores, was disgusting.

"Make me some salt free bread with whole grains, and nuts, and dates, and, and anything to give the loaves some flavor!"

I groaned at the the thought, but I plunged my hands into the dough buckets because building loaves in quantity would give me the practice I needed should I ever totally flip out and decide to bake for a living. The first few loaves were horrible, though they were eaten out of desperation by the carb starved Bear. A few tweaks to the recipe and suddenly the Bear tells me, "This is great bread! You need to open a bakery!" I laughed at him as well, when I was out of his reach.

After months of cranking out multigrain, salt free breads I got bored and went back to building a sourdough culture. This time I managed to keep the starter alive and built it up to its full strength. Sha-ZAM! The adventure moved a leap closer to perfection! I built the second best pizza I've ever eaten from my favorite focaccia dough fermented with a sourdough starter.

Inspired by that monumental success I began building every bread with sourdough. Not that even half of them turned out as well as that pizza did, but they led me to seek out information on bread building that I had ignored because I wasn't ready for it, or simply hadn't been aware of it. One source of info was a baker in Florida who builds his breads using Old World techniques, mainly sourdough.

To my surprise, I was asked by this professional (so into his passion that he vacations in France, studying their bread techniques) if I had encountered anyone suffering from gluten allergies. I allowed I knew two people who had nearly died from Celiac disease and I have a mild wheat allergy. I was told the French bakers have never heard of wheat allergies and from what I've read on the subject, neither have the Italian or German bread builders.

A BBC documentary on bakers in the Victorian era reports that the average family of six ate 55 pounds of bread a week! The average laborer burnt 6,500 calories a day, most of them from bread! Which makes me wonder, what bread were they eating? It certainly wasn't any of the white flour loaves I've been building!

And why am I having adverse reactions to the breads I build, especially just as I get good at building them?

Stephen Yafa, author of "GRAIN OF TRUTH, the real case for and against wheat and gluten" may have found the answer. Though it comes as no surprise that his hunt for the truth leads him through the industrial food complex (that unsustainable model of man-made chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and hybridization designed for machine harvesting and modern high speed factory bread making requirements) that temporarily saved much of humanity from mass starvation. Oo-RAH! Norman Borlaug, the hybridizer who gave us modern wheat!

Unfortunately, Norman's wheat also replaced the hundreds of locally grown races, cultivars or strains (whichever scientists call them) and in conjunction with the ever growing desire for soft, white bread (like the wealthy once ate exclusively), and the invention of roller mills that replaced grinding stones- Well, we demanded, and got, a flour that has been eroding our quality of life instead of being the staff of life our ancestors thrived on. We got starch and gulten.

According to Jeffrey Hamelman (Bread: a baker's book of techniques and recipes) slow, sourdough ferments allow the bacteria in the mix to neutralize the phytic acid that prevents humans from absorbing the minerals locked in the grain's bran as well as building flavor that isn't possible in a quick rise yeast recipe. Bran? What bran?

Meanwhile, Yafa writes of wheat that taste of vanilla or chocolate. He explores small farms that produce ancient grains and millers who invent new ways to turn the grains into flour without destroying their nutrition. And he's fired me up to acquire some of these grains and flours to trial on my own, if I can convince DW to let go five or six dollars a pound for them!

She does agree that a nutritious bread makes more sense than one that bloats my belly and- We'll leave it at bloats.

Read other articles by Jack Deatherage, Jr.