Post #102: The Cottage Loaf

IMG_2658It was different this time.

Instead of the usual tumble of ingredients cascading from the cupboards,  sprays of spices gracefully arching from one end of the kitchen to the other,  a true crazy salad of culinary invention,  this was something else entirely.   It was simple baking, nothing more than flours, salt, yeast and water,  but like all things of great beauty, really wasn’t simple at all.

Sometime ago I came across a lovely piece from the marvelous Paper and Salt  (paperandsalt.org) blog, on Virginia Woolf and her immense pride and preoccupation with cookery and particularly the creation of what even in Woolf’s time would have been considered an unfashionable loaf of bread: The Cottage Loaf.  Bulbous,  unwieldy, awkward, Paper and Salt surmised the odd shape of this bread was created to save horizontal space in small ovens.  And yet, as Paper and Salt note, Virginia Woolf herself took immense pride in crafting this old fashioned, traditional English bread, readily leaving her writing to elbow her cook out of the way to knead, to mold, to shape.  Cooking, and especially bread baking, it seems gave Woolf a sense of calm and comfort.  Like so many others I adore her work.  I wanted that kind of comfort for her. But I also I wanted in some small way to experience it. 

I wondered about this. Writing I think is often an attempt to assuage a gnawing hunger. And yet, what happens when one writes?  There an avalanche of literarily thousands of words as you gingerly reach out into the torrent to hopefully capture a few precious pebbles to cup in your hands. Sometimes this is sheer terror.  But gather what you will, you then polish them, cherish them, and pile them carefully into sentences, wincing as you vaguely recall the rules of grammar and syntax.  You lash the trembling piles of your sentences together to move others, to to express the inexpressible.  To give pleasure.  To be memorable. To maybe, just maybe,  leave something of lasting value to the world. Especially for someone of of Virginia Woolf’s immense talent, the pressures to create must have been intensely magnified.

One wonders, does any writer truly feel that they’ve done it all right? That they wouldn’t change  a sentence, a word, a thought?  James Joyce famously continued corrections of  Ulysses throughout his life, to such an extent that to this day there is dissension about some of his true intentions.  One of the towering works of literature is essentially a work in progress.

But there are respites. For Virginia Woolf it was baking. Something that could be begun, worked methodically, and truly completed. This, as far as I’m concerned, is far more fun than housecleaning.  Unsurprisingly, I could find no records at all of Virginia Woolf pirouetting around her Bloomsbury abode with a mop and feather duster.

It was decided! For a precious afternoon then, I would slip on Virginia Woolf’s own apron to make her favorite bread.  And so I set out to make The Cottage Loaf.

Squinting hard at the recipe,  I began by carefully measuring and mixing, solemnly kneading and waiting and watching, reveling in what I hoped would be a meditative experience that left me serene and centered.

But I am who I am.  I typically bake and cook to jazz standards,  punching dough and stirring the contents of pots in time to the beat of Gene Krupa or the thrum of Django Reinhard. So after a bit I reverted to typical form, poufs of flour hovering around me like dust from the skids at the Indy 500, punching at the dough like a pint sized Joe Louis. Moreover, I have found that the results of my cooking and baking endeavors are enhanced with a nearby glass of chardonnay.

This may be why the resulting Cottage Loaf possesses a rather atypical slooped roof.

It didn’t matter.  While I did not channel Virginia Woolf in the slightest, in my own inefficiently efficient way I’d like to think that I felt some of her joy in completing a task, in creating something that if not perfect, was quite real.

Moreover, I think I understand why Virginia Woolf loved to bake.

I stared at the Cottage Loaf and for a moment or two I could not imaging cutting into it. But eventually I did, slowly dribbling honey on each slice, savoring the sweetness.

***

The inspiration for this post comes from the excellent paperandsalt.org literary cooking blog.  They’ve posted the Virginia Woolf Cottage Loaf recipe.  Do check them out via the link below.

Virginia Woolf: Cottage Loaf

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Post #101: Three Walks

IMG_2564That’s that! I’ve had enough. And without another thought, without a look back I am on my way, shoelaces trailing, hair streaming,  papers flying.   Loose ends follow me all the way to the door, cajoling, wheedling, yanking me back.  But I pull past and with a sharp snap the door shuts behind me.

So simple! Move from one place to another. One foot in front of the other. Repeat and repeat and repeat.  It is the most practical thing in the world. But today I don’t feel in the least bit practical.

A Noticing Walk

I am moving, my feet going and going on the sidewalk,  a conveyer belt to the whole neighborhood.   

To my left, tough gnarled old trees are crammed into plots barely bigger than a breadbox, squeezed into their spaces like a fat lady’s foot in a too tight shoe.  The trunks writhe and twist, their branches reaching up to the sky to sway to some etherial sound, undulating to unheard music, perhaps a concert played by God Himself.

My stride lengthens. 

To my right, the houses are tucked in tight, neat and tidy, like a riffled shuffled deck of cards. A hedgerow stands shoulder to shoulder, in tight verdant formation. A few steps on a fence tightly buckles in a yard, unable to contain the voluminous hydrangeas spilling over the buckle of the gate.  Just beyond, spied through a tangle of branches, a tiny hidden playhouse, complete with miniature yellow Adirondack chairs,  a perfect replica of the big house just beyond.

An untrimmed hedge, tendrils shyly reaching out as if for comfort.  Gaudy necklaces of flowers ring the gardens. A few pugnacious weeds elbow their way through the cracks in the pavement.

Then a break through the hedge and I am at the shore.  The world seems somehow wider, so expansive that my vision cannot take it all in.  In front of me is a carpet of water, the sky layered above, clouds littered carelessly on top.  Gradations of Rothko blue.

A gust and the clouds gambol through the sky.   I am once again on my feet. With the whoosh of wind,  I am remembering.

A Drifting Walk

The whoosh of wind. I remember my youngest sister, slight and small, was so delicate and light that my Dad would joke, we all would joke, “that she could blow away in a big gust of wind.”

We laughed but I always worried.  I could see her carried off her feet, snatched by the wind,  her fine straight pixie cut blown back. her hands reaching out imploringly, her eyes dark and frightened.  I would save her, I would save her for sure, by grabbing her by her red sneakered foot and pulling her back, bringing her back down to earth.

Back on solid ground, my middle sister and I, both of us bigger, stronger, watchful, would then take her hands and walk together.  We would find the ice cream truck. I held the dimes for the Eskimo Pies. Sitting on the front stoop, each of us would be in a race against the sun to eat before the vanilla would melt into rivulets, the chocolate sheaths slipping to the pavement.  After a few tentative bites, the littlest sister would ask for help to finish hers.  And we helped her.

As I walk on,  the air becomes dense, almost damp as the clouds above darken and hover.

An Imaginary Walk

Through the window, I can see clouds are gathering, dark and threatening. There’s not much time. I change my shoes and slip out of the office, climb up the dim stairwell. Shove open the doorway to the roof.

I am all alone up here.

The air has a heavy, muscular quality and I can almost see the delicate scribbles of the wind, the advance guard of the coming storm. There isn’t much time.

I begin to walk around and around. It’s a tight circuit. On a level with the tree tops, I can hear the birds’ nervous twitter as they nestle in the trees, surely looking for cover before the storm. Or are they shouting a warning to me?

I am on a pilgrimage of sorts, here as I am adjacent to the church. Drops are starting to plop around me and I find that I am stutter stepping trying to avoid them.  With a flash the sky releases a torrent of coolness.  I stop trying to dodge the rain and instead am embraced by it.

I continue to rhythmically walk in the tight little circuit of the roof, the rain pounding around me, a ratatat counterpoint to my steps. 

And then, just as quickly as it began, the storm ends.  The clouds recoil and reshape themselves once again, the sun streams through the sky.  I imagine that in a few steps I could break free and leap from cloud to cloud, bounding on high.  From there I could see the grid of the world, the pathways and byways, the swaths of space, the connectedness of it all.

***

My three walks, each path moving from vulnerability to a sense of invincibility through movement alone,  all smudge together as I move my feet ever forward.