Bake my day



'Of bread and clay' Ceramics: Art & Perception 6: 66-67 (1993)

Introducing bread-making to ceramics

LONGEVITY Millennia Several days
ELEMENTS Water, earth, fire Water, grain, fire
STATUS Craft Trade
PURPOSE Holding food Food
PROCESS Expelling air Aerating
BASIC TOOLS Wheel, oven Bench, oven

The table above gives a schematic overview of possible comparisons between ceramics and bread-making. Certainly, there is a parallel line of development: both involve shaping a soft, wet substance which is then baked in an oven. But this parallel also serves to reveal the differences between them. While the potter attempts to expel air from the clay, and shapes it such that it eventually serves to contain organic matter, the baker through a leavening agent injects air into the dough so that it is more digestible and capable of filling the stomach. The potter deflates, while the baker inflates. In this difference, ceramics and bread-making fulfil complementary functions: to hold and to fill.
This comparison of the processes of their manufacture shows ceramics and bread-making to be travellers along parallel, though separate paths—paths that eventually meet at the domestic table. But let's take the process further. Ceramics is a lot more than the process of baking shaped clay. It's also a highly significant component of what we know as `human civilisation'— as such it has developed particular myths and varieties of cultural significance. One might even say that the craft of pottery is one of the primary essences of civilisation: the Judaic god breathed life into shaped clay in the creation of man. Where might bread-making find itself in such an epic history?

Bread-making has to a certain degree already established an identity for itself within the mythology of ceramics. The writing of Bernard Leach points to a fellowship between the two pursuits. For Leach, bread-making represents a certain ideal for the potter—a kind of asceticism which its finds fulfilment not in eccentric displays of individual genius but in the regular application of repeat work. He writes in 1944 about the difference between the intrinsic and extrinsic components of the potter's life:

There are two parts to each of us: the surface man who is concerned with pose and position, who thinks what he has been taught to think; and the real man who responds to nature and seeks life in his work. How then does repeat work fall into the scheme of the young potter today? They are so keen on a one-of-a-kind, they want so much to be artists, that the acceptance of work for life's sake has been lost ... Repeat work is like making good bread. That is what it is, and although one is doing repeat work it is not really deadly repetition; nothing is ever quite the same; never, cannot be. That is where the pleasure lies.

Leach looked at potters in terms of their `inside' and their `outside' characters: the `outside' character desires extrinsic rewards such as fame and material goods (typically young potters who aspire to be `artists'), whereas the `inside' character rests in appreciation of the intrinsic worth of any activity or thing (the older potter who take a less worldly satisfaction from the simple activity of making). The `inside' remains the same, whereas the `outside' moves with fashion. In terms of pottery, the `inside' is involved in repeat work, whereas the `outside' seeks one-off exhibitions, it moves with and ahead of the times. The `inside' denotes an unchanging essence, while the `outside' appearance is unstable and false. A `true' potter, then, for Leach, is happy to do repeat work— making a pot should be like making bread, a taken-for-granted part of the daily round. Although it appears to others to be tedious and monotonous, to those who actually perform this activity it is actually quite stimulating and changeable. The point is, this changeability is essentially a private experience that is inaccessible to an outside audience—you can't see the differences. To the Bernard Leach style potter, the bread-maker is a humble yet noble fellow—or, in the contemporary idiom, `the quiet achiever'.

The relationship between bread-maker and the potter is thus similar to that between a journalist and a novelist: one is seen to submit to an apparent daily grind while the other turns towards the exceptional event of an exhibition or publication. What is interesting is the possibility that the consistency of the trade provides a necessary supplement to the adventure of the craft: that is, a `tradesman'-like performance is a necessary complement for an exhibition of `pure craft'. Trade provides the sturdy framework in which a more delicate or creative practice can develop, and craft makes space for a care and responsiveness to material which trade in its anxiety to get the job done might overlook. Clearly, trade and craft relate to different kinds of ethical qualities: one aims for reliability of performance while the other seeks a kind of grace between maker and material. But these are both qualities in the way our world is constructed: the architect dreams while the draughtsperson lines up the reality.

But it this the reality? Indeed, this `mutual respect' may be a rose-coloured picture which ignores the difference in status attached to the hierarchy of labour in our society. No doubt there is envy and condescension present as well. This certainly has been part of the energy behind the art/craft debate. I think it is more challenging to think about crafts from a position in which they seem to have an initial advantage: as a practice which those in the trades and professions might seek to emulate. Rather than the crafts identifying themselves as fine arts, it is interesting to see what develops when other labour practices seek to identify themselves as crafts. To explore this further, I interviewed bakers who might be seen to be the most artful of their trade: the sourdough bakers associated with Natural Tucker Bakery.

What distinguishes sourdough from normal baking is the absence of yeast. Instead, the bread is made with a naturally-fermented leaven. This takes much longer and is less reliable than processed yeast, though it is meant to provide a much richer flavour and mix of organic material. Because of its irregularity—the strength of the leaven can change daily— sourdough baking relies on a much greater sensitivity in the baking. To bake with the sourdough method is to do things the hard way. Most large scale bakeries and hot bread kitchens work according to a formula which remains constant every day. By contrast, sourdough baking introduces an element of risk.

Natural Tucker Bakery (North Carlton) was set up by John Downes who now runs Firebrand bakeries (Ripponlea). Downes' method seems almost designed to make mistakes. In using wood-fired brick ovens, the two bakeries must rely on a relatively inconsistent oven. Their methods are sensitive to the quality of the flour, the nature of the water, the temperature and humidity of the room, the wind direction, etc. While all this might seem inefficient, it means that the resulting bread is a product of great care and experience. Particularly, it means that the baker must make decisions that require sensitivity to the material: decisions such as when best to put the bread in the oven, and how long to leave it there. The baker has to use eyes, nose and ears, as well as hands. In hot bread kitchens the process is routinised to the point where individuals with baking qualifications are no longer required. John Downes regrets this development: `An unfortunate side effect of monopoly mechanisation in the bakery trade is that it has brought about the demise of another human skill, replaced by the dreaded machine. Bakers have become food technicians instead of craftsmen.'

While what happens in the mixing, kneading, and baking of bread might seem irrelevant to the person who goes into the shop front, it adds an element of risk to the process, and so opens up the possibility of inconsistency. As such, buying a loaf of bread from such a bakery involves an element of excitement and adventure—each loaf is a test of the baker's skill. These are hardly the kinds of thoughts one would entertain in buying food from a McDonalds where consistency is sacred.

Given the kinds of skills required by a baker, it seems inappropriate that they are so little recognised in contemporary society. But when I spoke with the bakers, I found that recognition from others was not a problem. In fact, bakers probably had more immediate and rewarding contact with their clients than the majority of artists. The problem was more the lack of any enduring product with which to tie their own achievements. Paul Fox, baker at Natural Tucker bakeries (North Carlton), regretted the loss of satisfaction that comes with a craft that is purely a daily business: `One night you might have baked the most fantastic and almost perfect batch of loaves, but when you return the next day, that's it, they're gone.' Fox looked enviably on the life of a potter, whose products will last beyond a lifetime. For bakers, by contrast, the ultimate proof of their worth is how thoroughly their work is destroyed. The most tangible recognition of a baker's craft comes from the customers, who might comment on their appreciation of particular batches. For John Downes, the recognition of his work is more abstract. Looked at as a health product, he sees it as improving the general state of being in his customers. This is linked to an interest in Buddhism. In talking to the various hands in Firebrand bakeries, I found an almost unanimous reply to my question of what it was like to work in a bakery: `Every day is different'. (Of course, it could be because bread-making is expected to be monotonous that they give this response. Still, it is the excitement of the changing conditions which they choose to highlight.)

Making every day different might be seen as a special role for bread-making in our contemporary world. Today, days of the week are becoming harder to distinguish from each other—the expansion of Sunday-trading lessens the distinctiveness of the one commonly experienced day of rest. But with smaller bakeries, each day brings different possibilities: the loaves might have risen too long, the bread comes late on Mondays, the baker might decide to make a special focaccia on Fridays, etc. Bakers have the potential to occupy a strong position of sentimentally-based power in our society. Hilaire Belloc argued that the `lonely contemplation' involved in the baker's day made them `stirling and of bright influence'. Given that the average life consists of as many as 30,000 days, it appears easy to forgo any one of these without appreciable difference. You might feel the same in casting a single vote in an electorate of 30,000 voters. Yet days are the basic units of life and so require some work in themselves. Without a culture that provides a sense of the day through religious and civic rituals, it is all the more important that trades like baking provide opportunities to make and appreciate the days allotted to us. The American poet John Ashbery describes the day as a life within a life: the day `is a microcosm of man's life as it gently wanes'. The days in a life can come either as slices of white bread, each identical, or a sourdough loaf which carries a unique message about the combination of elements that occur only on that day. Bakers offer us that choice. And their existence prompts us to wonder what it might be about our own form of production which provides a response to the unique features of the drama that fills out the day.

For ceramics, the example of bread-making might serve as a caution against overinvestment in exceptional, prize-winning work. It leaves some space for the dignity of repetitive work—not as the expression of the maker's imagination, but rather as a kind of gift to the day. In this way, the baker stands as an important counter-weight to the other role models of ceramicists: painters and sculptors.

And from the other direction, ceramics has the power to lend to bread-making the kind of appreciation of skill which it has normally considered its own: the fluidity of the maker's hands in shaping nature and the intelligence necessary to govern its course through firing. Certainly there are other techniques more specific to ceramics, such as glazing, but there seems enough in common with bread-making to promise an mutually rewarding dialogue.