Today, I finished Byron Hawk’s A Counterhistory of Composition. Tonight, I’m making focaccia. Again. (I made it last week, too, after writing notes on Susan Miller’s Trust in Texts, but didn’t like the recipe. Today, I’m working from a cookbook).
Last week: Steven Mailloux’s Disciplinary Identities, Miller’s Textual Carnivals, a few essays from The Norton Anthology of Composition Studies, and brioche.
The week before that: A. Suresh Canagarajah’s A Geopolitics of Academic Writing, more of the Norton, shortbread cookies to share with my colleagues for Valentine’s Day, standard white bread, and my first attempt at brioche (it didn’t rise quite right, but still melted on my tongue like the fresh, buttery croissants I all-too-often get at the bakery beneath my apartment).
In addition to those items listed above, in the last eight weeks alone, I’ve also made, for the first time, two kinds of gnocchi (sweet potato and plain—make sure you ignore your impulse to peel the potatoes before you boil them; there’s a reason to boil them skin-on), shepherd’s pie (really a country riff on boeuf bourguignon), a considerable number of dishes involving gruyere (French onion soup—an old favorite—as well as Ina Garten’s gratin with fennel root), jambalaya, and this regrettably delicious gut bomb.
This routine may sound familiar to those graduate students enduring the long march that is the exam process (or, as I refer to it, “The Year I Learned to Bake Bread”). Whether you’re into bread, pastries, cookies, soups, sauces, casseroles, or other delightful, delectable, and preferably time-consuming sundries, elaborate cooking projects can be a welcome distraction from those towers of books scattered and stacked precariously around your living quarters. It’s true that, at this stage of the game, each of us has our own arsenal of finely-tuned “productive” procrastination techniques to help us avoid the real work of reading, writing, and grading, and far be it from me to pass judgment on anyone’s time-tested methods. But while baking started out as an avoidance strategy for me, it has evolved into a tool for invention.
Culinary projects are the perfect counterpart to intellectual work. They get you up out of the chair and moving, exercising centers of the brain that might otherwise atrophy in the shadows of the cerebral monstrosity that is the graduate student’s mind. Engagement of the core senses—taste, smell, sight, hearing, and touch—has a rejuvenating effect on the body and brain, reminding us that we are whole bodies. I find it important to remind myself of this fact daily. And while exercise or other physical activities might be assumed to have the same effect, I appreciate culinary projects for the opportunity to engage body and mind in creative pursuit. When I’m baking, I’m alert, fully engrossed in the detail work of measuring, eyeballing, tasting for salt. Seeing that dough double in size, surveying those rows and rows of perfect little gnocchis, I’m proud and excited to know I made that. Back in my office, work ain’t no thang.
Best of all, most cooking projects require only periodic attention, so they’re perfect activities to do on days when the only other agenda item is reading a book (or writing a paper, or doing something else tedious and never ending). If you’re highly distractible, as I am, you’ll appreciate the built-in study breaks that cooking provides. And once it’s all finished, there’s evidence of your labor that others can recognize, appreciate, and validate. (These kinds of projects are also perfect outlets for all of those perfectionist tendencies that Julie wrote about recently. Let the bread dough suffer the fallout of your anxiety.)
There’s something about being in the kitchen—a place where I feel comfortable, relaxed, and totally focused. The kitchen offers a satisfaction rarely felt in my work life: the satisfaction of seeing a creative endeavor through to completion. When I’m feeling tired, overwhelmed, or stressed out, wilting under the seemingly endless list of texts, the kitchen becomes a place of refuge where I can throw myself into a project that relies on my hands, my palate, and my intuition. Here, the coterie of doubting voices and petty rivalries (real and invented) vanishes, and it’s just me and the sweet, boozy scent of proofing yeast, the low drone of the mixer, the tacky, elastic dough rising steadily on the radiator. Here, a handful of simple ingredients cohere and transform into something wholly different from before. No disrespect to Plato, but this is art of the highest order.
Whether you’re an old pro at the stovetop or bound to a microwave-only diet, bread baking can be learned and mastered without too much heartache. Start with the white bread recipe (linked above) and go from there. You’ll only need a few cheap ingredients and a few hours (divided). If you succeed, you’ll never buy Wonder bread again. If you fail, who cares? Throw it away and start over.
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