I’m working on How to Be a Breadhead: a beginner’s guide to baking. People have been telling me to write a beginner’s book for years now, so here I am at the computer, writing outside in the dark, the keys illuminated by the built-in light of my school laptop. I spend most of the day here as well, starting at 7:30 a.m. and working six to eight hours. There’s no land-line and we can’t get cell phone service here—it’s amazing how much work you can get done when the phone never rings.
But I took a break from writing tonight to watch Julie & Julia, in part because Norah Ephrem, who wrote the screenplay, produced and directed the film, died earlier this week. I’ve seen snippets on cable while channel surfing between innings of Cardinals’ games or shows on Food Network, but this is the first time I’ve watched the entire movie. In short, I loved the film. I’ve been a fan of Julia Child since I was ten, and I could relate to Julie as a writer and blogger and self-taught cook.
But watching their stories unfold also made me reflect on how different my experience of being a baker has been compared to their lives in the kitchen. My path has been relatively straightforward: no sexism to confront in a French cooking school, no McCarthyism to threaten my hopes, no meltdowns in the kitchen, no tortured relationships or anguished self-doubt. At least until now.
What I am beginning to realize, after seeing their passion and struggle and self-discipline, is that the cookbooks I write are not particularly complex or profound. I read Peter Reinhart’s incredibly detailed descriptions of the science behind baking with a combination of awe and dismay, and see my own recipes as ordinary as those found in a parish cookbook. I compare my slim volumes to Bernard Clayton’s New Complete Book of Breads (300 recipes, 748 pages) and realize that if you removed all the hardback covers, the stack of my complete works would still come up short.
I’ve always known that there are far better bakers than I, and a lot of them have never been on TV or published a cookbook. I can’t make decent biscuits or pie crust, for example, and I admire anyone with the patience for really first-rate pastries. But seeing Julia Child depicted as working for years on a manual typewriter on a book that changed American cooking makes me wonder if a paperback beginner’s book banged out in a year is truly worthy of being called a cookbook at all.
Nonetheless, I keep writing, in part because I belong to an abbey with an aging and shrinking population, and somebody has to pay for health care. I write because not every aspiring baker has the time and patience for an artisan bread recipe that takes nine hours to complete, regardless of the perfection the crust and the complexity of the flavors. I write because people taste my honey oatmeal bread and ask for the recipe, and then later tell me it’s become a family favorite. And I write because when I pull tomato basil focaccia out of the oven, fragrant with herbs and olive oil and real Romano Pecorino, I can’t imagine not wanting to share.
I guess what I’ve come to realize is that ultimately publishing cookbooks is an exercise in humility. I know what I know because Julia and Peter and Bernard, Beth Hensberger and Ed Wood and James Beard and my mom all know more than I do. Recognizing that, without resentment or envy or bitterness, is something St. Benedict would want me to do. He wrote a chapter in his Rule for monks called “The Ladder of Humility,” describing twelve steps leading to monastic perfection. I know I’m still near the bottom of the ladder and have far to climb, but perhaps I have set my foot, however tentatively, on the next rung.
for what artist is in possession of the perfection
to which he should aspire?”