It's like diving off a stage at a punk rock show and, instead of concussing yourself on the hard, sticky floor, actually getting caught. It's like opening the fridge, afraid that you already used your last egg, only to find a live chicken. It's like worrying your car won't start but when you turn the key you discover it's now an airplane--and there's plenty of gas--and you know how to fly. It's like waking up in the middle of the night from a bad dream to discover it was somebody else's--you were just holding it for them and they're really grateful but they want it back so now it's time for your own dream. It's like finding out that Miller High Life really is the champagne of beers. It's like finding out your mom wasn't just being nice. It's like hearing your two-year old say, upon receipt of an ordinary, generic brand facial tissue, "Tank you, Daddy." It's like seeing a cute girl at the mall and realizing you're married to her. It's like writing one last letter to someone you haven't heard from in a long, long time and are afraid is trapped under something heavy to find out that your notes--not just the last one--many of them, in fact--kept him going until help arrived with just the right jack. It's like having a story to tell you're pretty sure no one will care about but, when it comes right down to it, it's about all you've got that you recognize as your own, and then be told, Hey, that's not all that bad. What else you got?
I only have metaphors to describe how glorious it is to receive this NEA grant. I have endeavored to find something restrained and classy, but I am too dazzled and humbled to be laconic. I feel as though I've lived in the Arctic my entire life and a stranger in a boat just arrived with a fresh pineapple. I am astonished.
I have been working on a book about a house my wife and I bought and renovated, and this grant will help me in every way by providing me with time to work, resources to travel for research, and encouragement to complete the project. I am deeply grateful to the National Endowment for the Arts for this show of support.
From the essay "The Path of Righteousness"
A couple of years ago my wife tried to get a sourdough starter going but ended up making a home-brew batch of penicillin. My mom couldn't make toast without the fire department knowing about it. My dad used Ho-Made white bread as hamburger buns. My grandmother could bake some resplendent cinnamon pastries out of the dough-waste from pies, but she grew up in Toledo during the depression when recipes were simpler, more opportunistic. Put bone in boiling water, serve.
By the time my mom was cooking for me, Cold War technology took over. If you couldn't microwave it, then what the hell good was it going to do you when the nukes flew and you were stuck hunkering in the fallout shelter for a hundred years? She can cook now, and I guess I can too, but I still don't know anybody who can bake.
Day fifteen. The prognosis is not good. Silverton insists we taste the starter.
I will not.
It seems to be a blend of beer, evil, and vomit rather than the key to artisan bread.
"Take care of your starter," Nancy swears, "and it will be ready to work whenever you are." I presume she means that for people like me, whenever will be never. I have to admit, however, I kind of like Nancy for her cruel abruptness. She is not afraid to tell me about failure. She is the Bobby Knight of baking. She is not an enabler. She is a disabler--a needler, a bully, a double-darer, a my-way-or-the-highwayer. The father I never had and am not particularly eager to become.
Maybe she's right. Maybe I should stick to buying Wonder Bread and babysitting other people's kids.
Nancy's "Basic Country Loaf" recipe is sixty pages long. This includes the directions for the starter and a preamble about the baker's life, but still, sixty pages? This is the flour, this is the water, this is the oven--I get the idea, I think.
I like to read a recipe to get an idea of the proportions and the ingredients, and then close the book and make it myself. Nancy foiled this tendency. Her recipe is all micromanagement and brutish condescension. "Start here," she says, "and you won't have to unlearn any bad bread-making habits." And, by implication, those of you who think you know what you're doing, bend over.
"You should know that this isn't what most people would consider a beginner's bread," she says. "There's no commercial yeast to push the sourdough starter into action, so you've got to make sure the starter you grow is strong enough to do the work on its own." I interpret this to mean, You'll be buying your bread again within a week.
It's not that Nancy's a bad teacher, but I don't imagine any of her students have ever given her a Kiss the Baker! apron. Everything she says--and I don't yet know if she's right or wrong--undermines everything else I've ever done or known in the kitchen. I thought baking would be easy, intuitive, relaxing. She's stressing the science and the rigor and the pain and the failure and I just don't know if I can take it anymore.
"Know that the first loaf made with the new starter won't be as good as the fifth--just as you need to get used to handling dough, your starter needs to adjust to its surroundings." Don't give up too early, she begs. It's not your fault you're a failure.
I grew up Lutheran, so I can take a lot of unprovoked shame, but Nancy pushed me one step too far. "I don't mean to sound too much like your mom," she says, "but in cooking--and especially in baking--it's easier to clean up after yourself as you go." So what if she's right? So what if every time I put flour and water together I end up looking like a dough-covered Elephant Man? So what if I can't mix, or knead, or measure, or bake, or even clean up after myself without her telling me how to do it? The way she makes me weigh and measure and clean and fuss over everything like I'm running a fertility clinic . . . why doesn't she write in Sumerian or, better yet, just invent a new secret language that only priests, parents, and bakers can read?
But I don't have a choice. Am I not baking for my life?
My first loaf sucks.
I went into it thinking, I'll do all the tedious proofing and resting and retarding and reproofing and wrapping and covering and dusting and fussing, and it'll be as inert as a bag of sand. Instead it's like I put a balloon on a tail pipe. It inflates so fast I can practically watch it blow up. And then when I slide it out of the proofing basket, it flattens like a sheet settling on a bed.
I bake it anyway and it comes out, more or less, like a dense, airless, Quonset-shaped loaf of despair.
- "The Path of Righteousness" was originally published in Tin House
Matthew Batt's fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Tin House, Mid-American Review, The Isthmus, and elsewhere. He's working on Sugarhouse, a memoir of renovating what was likely once a Salt Lake City crack house, despite having no real skill or experience doing any such thing--writing a memoir or rebuilding a house. He received his PhD from the University of Utah and his MFA from Ohio State. He teaches creative writing at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, where he lives with his wife and son.
Photo courtesy of the author