Baking isn't a solitary act
A Guest Post from Dayna Evans
Today’s email is another Wordloaf guest post, this one from Dayna Evans, one of my favorite writers/bakers/people. Dayna and I met early on in the Sourdough Gold Rush of 2020, and we became fast friends, trading baking tips and admiring pictures of one another’s latest bakes.
Dayna is better known for her work as a writer (and for good reason, since she is one of the best there is), but she’s also a skilled baker. Her baking career started in 2017, when she launched Permanent Bake Sale out of her then Bed-Stuy apartment as a way to raise funds for Hurricane Maria relief. She recently took things up a notch with the purchase of a Nero 400 bread oven — of which I am mildly envious — and the arrival of Downtime Bakery, aka ‘Philadelphia’s smallest smallest bakery (probably).’
For Wordloaf, Dayna writes about the complicated relationship many bakers have with solitude: We love both the peace and quiet that an empty bakery provides, alongside the camaraderie that being a provider of flour-based joys engenders. It’s a feeling I know well myself, and I’m so happy to share it with you all here. (Don’t miss the Spotify baking playlist she links to, she’s also got excellent taste in music.)
Baking isn't a solitary act
Here’s how it begins: My alarm goes off and it startles the absolute shit out of me. Usually, I’ve been dreaming about baking. More specifically, I’ve been dreaming about how that morning I’ll somehow mess up the bagels or burn the cookies or the bread will be ugly and dense. I get up and soldier on, mostly believing that this dream fate will not manifest into reality, and the second I get out of the shower, I am wide awake, and I am always, no matter what, unless I had a little bit of wine the night before, extremely excited to get going. It’s Saturday morning at 6:30 a.m. and it’s time to bake.
I’m not up as early as most bakers, as my output of couple dozen bagels and a few cookies and sometimes some other small treats, doesn’t really require me to be — yet. It’s quiet downstairs and I find it eerie, so before I’ve even touched the kettle, I queue up my baking playlist. It isn’t energetic — it’s full of albums that keep me company, the ones that I turn to to lower my heart rate. It maybe sounds weird but I play the same few albums on repeat because one of the things I love most about baking is the routine, almost like I’m a superstitious sports fan, which I also am. I wear the same overalls every Saturday. I drink tea out of the same mug. I put my hair up with the same scrunchie. If it was a vinyl record, the newest Cleo Sol album would be completely worn down from the constant, repetitive spins.
Thanks to a flash of ingenuity, my oven is on an outlet timer, so it’s been warming up for an hour and a half, while I was still sleeping. That leaves me to the boiling, seeding, and baking, with only a small amount of waiting in between. I’ve made bagels so many times now that I know exactly how long it will take from start to finish — 15 minutes to get the water to boil, 1 minute to boil the bagels, 30 seconds to drain and dredge, bake for 20 to 25. Everything is done by 8:30 if I’m efficient or if I’ve decided to not take on too much, which I regretfully often do. The final half an hour before people show up at my door I spend washing dishes and vacuuming hundreds of sesame and poppy seeds off of my kitchen floor. When Sam wakes up a few hours later, he vacuums the couple hundred other ones that I’ve missed.
For me, the mornings are meditative and I hardly think about anything at all. So little, in fact, that I realized bakers have a lot in common with runners. The pleasure of focusing on something else for once, not my petty thoughts, heavy feelings, concerns, complaints, insecurities. It’s all about the bake. I like to go running for the same reason, though I bet you can guess which one I dread doing less.
The routine life of the solitary baker is a familiar trope. When I worked at a bakery, I would spray a hundred sheet pans half-asleep at 6 a.m., and yet the other baker had already been there for two hours prepping the dough and the ovens before sunrise. Bakers are often seen as a peculiar breed with an affection for private time and quiet, with lots — sometimes too much — time to think. For me, the mornings are meditative and I hardly think about anything at all. So little, in fact, that I realized bakers have a lot in common with runners. The pleasure of focusing on something else for once, not my petty thoughts, heavy feelings, concerns, complaints, insecurities. It’s all about the bake. I like to go running for the same reason, though I bet you can guess which one I dread doing less.
Isolated though bakers may be, when 9 a.m. rolls around and people begin to knock, I question the broad assumption that we like to be left alone. For the few years that I’ve sold bread and bagels in some capacity to people in and around my neighborhoods, I’ve found that meeting the people who are about to enjoy the carbs of my labor is just as — if not more — essential to the process. I love a good chat. Even more, I love a good chat about baking. Every Saturday, for a few nice hours, I get to see people’s smiling faces and talk to them about whatever is on their minds. Sometimes, if we don’t know each other, the conversation is short, as I probably look a little crazed and tired in my overalls and scrunchie. More often, though, the chat lasts and is nourishing. Baking has delivered many new friends to my doorstep.
By the time all the pickups are done, usually around noon, I power down and force myself to sleep for an hour. It’s always hard to fall asleep after all that activity and caffeine, but I know that I have to try or I won’t make it past 9 p.m. that night. When I close my eyes, I think about how excited I am to bake again next week and, best of all, who I’ll get to share it all with.