Henry David Thoreau: Hazelnut Raisin Bread

Henry David Thoreau - Hazelnut Raisin Bread

With every new year, I find myself going back to bread. It’s the opposite of what we’re “supposed” to do in January; I should be telling you about a new energizing juice cleanse. But if we diet to restore the body, we bake to restore the spirit, cultivating the qualities we wish to embody throughout the year: the determination to begin, the self-assuredness to knead the dough, the resourcefulness to change course if it goes awry, the patience as it rises, the patience as it cooks, the patience as it cools. 

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” Henry David Thoreau wrote about his two years on Walden Pond. He wasn’t referring to bread specifically, but baking requires a calmness, a deliberateness of the mind. No wonder it was one of the writer’s preferred ways to spend a day. As he wrote in Walden, “I like best the bread which I have baked, the garment which I have made, the shelter which I have constructed, the fuel which I have gathered.”

Thoreau’s tiny cabin was an early version of America’s Test Kitchen: The writer ran hundreds of little experiments on his bread recipe, borrowing local Native American techniques and even going back to Roman times for tips. Hoping to save on the cost of yeast, he dug up Cato the Elder’s unleavened recipe: “Put the meal into the trough, add water gradually, and knead it thoroughly. When you have kneaded it well, mould it, and bake it under a cover.” Bread hasn’t changed much since (although our instructions are decidedly longer).

Although Thoreau baked year-round, it was in the dark New England winters when he gave it special care. “In cold weather it was no little amusement to bake several small loaves … tending and turning them.” Baking helped counteract the mental freeze that came with the cold. “Our thoughts and sentiments answer to the revolution of the seasons,” he wrote in his journal. “Now I am ice, now I am sorrel.” We can’t be sorrel—vivacious and fresh—the whole year. But we can be warm, calm, comforting. We can be bread.

Almost as if anticipating the current assault on carbs, Thoreau’s passionate defense of his favorite food resonates today as it did in that small cabin. “Bread may not always nourish us; but it always does us good, it even takes stiffness out of our joints, and makes us supple and buoyant, when we knew not what ailed us, to recognize any generosity in man or Nature, to share any unmixed and heroic joy.”

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F. Scott Fitzgerald: Prohibition Ale

F. Scott Fitzgerald - Prohibition Ale

With the internet awash in Gatsby-themed gin rickey and mint julep recipes, F. Scott Fitzgerald has recently reasserted his reputation as “America’s Drunkest Writer.” It might seem like a dubious distinction, but Fitzgerald embraced boozing as a literary badge of honor (after all, he had to overcome some stiff competition for the title). He famously dubbed drink “the writer’s vice,” introducing himself at parties as “F. Scott Fitzgerald, the well-known alcoholic” or (when feeling particularly loquacious) “one of the most notorious drinkers of the younger generation.”

Gin has gone down in history as Fitzgerald’s particular drink of choice (he thought it would be harder to detect on his breath). But while gin was mainly for parties, beer was for every other time of day … including breakfast. It wasn’t a writer’s vice. It was his lifestyle.

When Zelda wrote to Scott in 1930, reminiscing about their early days back in New York, her memories were shaped by the beer they had shared. “We drank Bass Pale Ale,” she wrote. “We drank always.” It was after they moved to Europe that the Fitzgeralds started fueling their revels with hard liquor; good ales and lagers were hard to get in France, although Fitzgerald was pleased to encounter some decent brews on a visit to Germany in 1925.  He marveled at the wealth of “Pilsen and Munich beer of fine quality,” noting, “There is less than there was when I got here.”

When Fitzgerald returned to the U.S., he also returned to beer, his first love—a relationship that continued to carry him as his marriage to Zelda broke down. At his peak intake, he went through 37 bottles a day, using beer as a substitute for water (and if we were all that hydrated, our doctors would be so proud). To Scott, beer didn’t count as a real drink—just like when I was a “vegetarian,” fish didn’t count as real meat. In 1937, when Fitz claims to be “on the complete wagon,” he has to clarify: This time he means “not even beer.”

In the late 1930s, Fitzgerald tried to curb his intake of the beverage that had shaped his life: “I havn’t [sic] even had a glass of beer for a month + shall try it again,” he wrote. But even as he saw its impact on his health, he couldn’t help but indulge in a cold one every now and then. “The fact that I have abused liquor is something to be paid for with suffering and death perhaps,” he wrote, “but not renunciation.”

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Virginia Woolf: Cottage Loaf

Virginia Woolf - Cottage Loaf

Every time I get discouraged by writing, I engage in a bit of schadenfreude, and soothe myself with the frustrations of others. “I write two pages of arrant nonsense after straining … Then I trust to some inspiration on re-reading.” That’s Virginia Woolf while writing The Wavesbut I’m pretty sure I said the same thing, more or less, while writing this post.

This constant self-effacement is a theme that runs through Woolf’s letters. Her talents didn’t really lie in the library, she would tell you. They were in the kitchen. “I have only one passion in life — cooking,” Woolf wrote to her friend (and occasional lover) Vita Sackville-West. “I have just bought a superb oil stove. I can cook anything … I assure you it is better than writing these more than idiotic books.”

Where Woolf hesitated to praise her own writing, she wasn’t nearly so shy about her talent for baking. “Cooked lunch today and made a loaf of really expert bread,” she wrote. Bread was her specialty, particularly a traditionally British double-decker creation: the snowmanesque cottage loaf. Her dedication to the kitchen was unusual for a woman of the upper-middle class. She did, however, draw the line at doing the dishes (“How servants preserve either sanity or sobriety if that is 9/10ths of their lives … God knows”).

In Recollections of Virginia Woolf, Louie Mayer, the Woolfs’ cook, marvels at Virginia’s calm expertise. “She showed me how to make the dough with the right quantities of yeast and flour, and then how to knead it. She returned three or four times during the morning to knead it again. Finally, she made the dough into the shape of a cottage loaf and baked it at just the right temperature.”

It’s Woolf’s birthday today; she would have been 131, although she didn’t make it even half that far, her mental illness wearing her away. But from Woolf’s letters, the time she spends cooking seems to be its own rest cure, clearing her head of everything else but the dough. “My bread bakes well,” she writes in her diary, and it resounds like a soothing mantra. If all else fails, I tell myself, my bread bakes well. My bread bakes well.

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Virginia Woolf - Cottage Loaf Recipe

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Willa Cather: Spiced Plum Kolache

Willa Cather - Spiced Plum Kolache

Two months ago, if you had asked me to describe Willa Cather, I would have pictured her writing in the middle of the Nebraska farmland, surrounded by as many sheaves of paper as sheaves of wheat. I didn’t realize that, when she was 23, Cather left the Great Plains for the big city; she moved to Pittsburgh and then to New York, where she lived for the rest of her life. She didn’t publish her first novel until 16 years after the move, when Fifth Avenue must have been just as familiar as the farm.

It’s no wonder, then, that food played such a major role in Cather’s writings: She needed it to bring her back to life on the frontier. With their incredible power to conjure up a time and place, food memories are some of the strongest associations around. More than anything else about a trip, I remember the meals: crabs in Baltimore, étouffée in New Orleans, pain au chocolat in Paris. When I left home in California for the unknowns of the East Coast, my mom sent me off with a bound compilation of our family’s favorite recipes. Seven years later, in my New York kitchen, I still flip it open when deciding what to make for dinner. It’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever gotten.

In Nebraska, Cather drew her cooking inspiration from Annie Pavelka, a Bohemian immigrant to the town of Red Cloud whose life (and food) would serve as the basis for My Ántonia. In her own New York kitchen, hundreds of miles from home, I imagine Cather consulting her recipes and rolling out her pastry dough like Annie did,  mentally recreating the pioneer communities of her childhood.

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In Progress - Spiced Plum Kolache

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