Friday, October 16, 2009

Baking and Fucking

I can't write in this town. Sunshine is anathema to my process. Heat diffuses my ability to concentrate. And we’ve got another burner today.

This is why I crave the cliffs of the central coast. It’s also why I was tempted last week, when I heard a friend of a friend is looking for a housesitter for their digs in Martha’s Vineyard this winter. I’ve been harboring fantasies of hibernating in that stormswept lanscape for years - brushing against hardened islanders and cooking up endless vats of soup as I go clickety-clack late into the creaky, ghost-laden night - a single bulb pushing me on to the next page of solitary prolificness.

Instead, this morning I open my eyes to a blank white wall and smell the sunshine creep into the room. It’s completely incongruous with my birthday month, which should infuse my nostrils with the New England joy of death and decay – necessary for the rebirth months in the future.

I suppose it doesn't help that I'm regularly waking up in a new bed, unsure of where I am. And I can't blame it on a wicked bender of drugs, booze and loose women - all of which I generally find to be an intoxicating brew of inspiration, though not necessarily a habit which promotes productivity - just inspiration. The trick is throwing yourself at a piece of paper as soon as possible - post inspiration.

I had a composing professor, Amnon, in grad school who asked about my process. At the time I was 24 (15 fucking years ago!) and generally waited for inspiration to hit. I told him if I was ever stuck, I'd bake or cook. At the time I'd been getting into baking challah. My mom's a killer baker and cook and I've been lucky enough to have her skills rub off on me as I helped her in the kitchen as a kid.

I explained to Amnon that baking was profoundly satisfying because whether working on a string quartet or an opera, it took months to finish a piece and even once finished, it could be an even longer time before I'd hear the piece performed. With baking on the other hand, you start it, you make it, and you eat it right then. AND you break bread with friends and you watch their face at the moment they consume it. No darkened theatres, no awkward backstage "I thought it was really...interesting." No hearing from the publicist that no one came to review it because the run is too short for theatre critics and the serious music critics were scared off because it sounded like the score might be too accessible.

No. With food, within hours of beginning a project, you see people's faces descend inward as they close their eyes to fully savor the experience you are responsible for creating and sharing with them.

I love challah in particular because people have always seemed amazed that I could make it at all, much less well.

I mean, it's just bread, right? We take it for granted most of the time. But it's so elemental. And traditional. It's a cornerstone of civilization (even if gluten has a bad rap these days). And by making it, I feel I'm tapping into some greater context of the generations of man. Perhaps that alone is a spiritual or religious experience and therefore fulfilling and reinvigorating. And knowing that I can carry on a tradition both in bread, as a human, and specifically with challah, as a Jew, fills me with a deep satisfaction.

I also love pounding the hell out of the dough while kneading. I tried making pastry dough years ago and I was terrible at it. I called my mom to find out what I did wrong. Apparently for pastries, you have to be gentle with the dough. Not for me. I enjoy the tussle. The throw down. They literally call it 'punching down' the dough in between the first and second risings. I found it a great way to work out unconscious and unresolved frustrations. It was a meditation that sometimes created the free mindspace for new things to emerge and let the composing return to me. (Ah, composing. I almost remember what that is. Been so damn long.)

The thing I loved the most though is to watch people's faces when they bit into the bread.

"Oh, my God. That is sooo good."

Talk about positive re-enforcement. I don't get much of that these days.

Other benefits of break-making:

1) No one gives me notes on bread.
("Have you considered using an extra egg? Why don't you make that again and get another one to me next week?" they suggest, as I see the mostly unfinished loaf lingering on their desk, about to be slid into the trash when I know the fucker can't make so much as a cookie from a Ralph’s bought premade Tollhouse Chocholate Chip Log.)

2) I have no envy around bread:
("I can't believe it. She's never made bread before and BOOM! I open Variety to read Warner Brothers bought a bakers dozen of rolls from her. I mean she has no idea how to proof for godssakes!")

3) I don't need an agent to get my work to the people who can enjoy it:
("I keep making this challah, but I'm not repped, so I can't get anyone to eat it. I mean, I've not only sliced it, but here's a piece with butter, another with honey and this one... Nutella. From Europe! Not the American shit! And no one has any idea how much they'd want it cause they don't even know I made it.)


Perhaps I should just be a baker. Trust me, I’ve thought about it. It may not be art, but people seem to love my bread much more than my artistic endeavors.

"Oh, my God. That was sooo good." goes the refrain.

I've never heard anyone say that after a show, as they wipe the drool from their lips. (except, perhaps, the airsex gig a few months ago)

I suppose I have heard stonehearted souls mutter a speechless 'wow' after a performance. (Speechlessness was a common thread of reactions to my work which I guess I appreciate as much of it was positive speechlessness.)

But those things take years to make and bread gets almost the same reaction even when…
.
It's just bread.

The simplest thing bread. But I think I understand. We're so disconnected. We're so unaccustomed to the simple things done well, made from scratch, by a person right in front of us and shared with no expectation of reciprocity, that to re-experience bread can be a profound experience.

And I suppose I’m not trying to reinvent bread. I aspire to make bread like my mother and her mother and her mother before her. The same is not true of my music or theatre. That might account for people’s reactions. We are designed for self-preservation and new things are inherently dangerous and take getting used to. If you want something to be liked, it seems you need to make it just like things people already know, just a little different. I’m happy to do that on the bread continuum. I have little interest in pushing the envelope with half cooked, jalepeno, egg-free challah made with Tuvan millet baked with a solar-powered, post-ironic, converted Holly Hobby oven. And for that I’m rewarded with a chorus of:

"Oh, my God. That was sooo good."

And for me, to see that I'd given someone pleasure in the course of a few hours is amazingly satisfying - and so different from the timeline of the art that I make.

And that's something I like about sex as well. While certain aspects in the bedroom are undeniably selfish, being able to take my lover to the point of ecstasy is vital to my enjoyment in the bedroom.

To climax, but be unable to cause my partner equal pleasure just breaks me. I suddenly feel as incompetent in my personal life as much as I do in my professional life. And I partially retreat to find success in the bedroom as a salve to the wounds of my professional battles.

“I may not be able to get a job on a TV show, or sell that screenplay, but at least I can make you cum!”

And if I can't, then what the hell can I do well?

That's when I retreat to the kitchen.

And start pounding the dough.

Amnon listened to me talk about how the baking was even the inspiration for my first string quartet (called "Challah" - each movement based on one part of making bread. Proofing, Kneeding, Baking, etc.) He though about it for a minute and then cautioned me:

"It's good you've found some inspiration there, but be careful. You never know when inspiration might hit and if you're baking instead of composing, you may make one of the best loaves you've ever made, but that creative energy went to the bread, not the string quartet. Try sitting with the composition even when you can't compose. And something might emerge.

So I wish I were making bread right now to break with you as Shabbat approaches.

But in this damned heat, I simply cannot write.

And I'm writing about it.

5 comments:

  1. OK, 1) I want your challah recipe, and 2) maybe I can help out with those self-esteem issues.

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  2. David replied:

    I'd be happy to give you my recipe

    and...You'd like to buy a screenplay?

    Sweet.

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  3. Have you considered using some whole grain flour? Ha, ha. My whole wheat challah recipe even has a 'biga' too.
    --Kathy Lacey

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  4. This is a great read, David. Very entertaining. Why don't you hit up Amy to put in a word to her peeps at the Jewish Journal? Maybe they can give you a monthly column or something. (Might have to clean up the sex part a bit, though.) :)

    Spencer

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  5. Clean up the sex part Spencer? Then who would read it? Seriously, though it's something I've thought about. Talked with Rob about doing something this last summer, but it never materialized.

    And Kathy, I have tried half whole grain flour and I have to say it always comes out too dense for my taste. If you have a special secret to making a tasty whole wheat challah I'd love it.

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