What is Bread?
It’s yeast, water, flour. It’s heat and hands. It’s the kneading and the patience. It’s the rise and the rest, the care and the investment that it takes to bring a starter to life, feed it, monitor it, and turn it into one of the most basic, staples of the family meal. It’s bread, and it can be found on the dinner table, in different forms, of almost all cultures around the world. But to say that it is just bread is far too simple a statement.
In our modern age, where we have over-evolved to the point where we have lost the ability to complete the basic tasks that we need to live, bread baking is a way for us to devolve into our more basic selves. Most of us can’t make a fire. We can’t grow and harvest crops. Most of us cannot build a home, and we can’t even make a loaf of bread. Baking, sharing, and eating homemade bread is a representation of relearning what it means to take something from the earth and make it into something hardy and sustainable and life-giving.
Kemp Makes My Bread
I can’t tell you the last time I ate something, and I was able to identify where it came from. There is limited, if any, modern connection to where our food comes from and where it ends up. It is a good feeling to be able to say, Kemp makes my bread.
Kemp is a North Carolina transplant. He’s got the slow southern charm of the Carolinas, but, he gets really excited about bread. He started making bread in college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The way he tells it is that he had a college roommate who would make sandwich bread sometimes, and although Kemp rarely cooked for himself in college, he thought it looked fun and got involved. But it wasn’t until the summer after college, when he wasn’t doing too much, that he set out to make really good bread.
Kemp claims that the making of bread was a sort of “gateway” drug for him. Once he learned about bread making, he wanted to make everything. He went from bread to beer to food but came back around to his love for baking and bread making. He says that he likes how bread is a “staple food” that is “foundational to the way people live.”
When Kemp’s wife, Rose, started nursing school at Yale, he moved with her and their two-year-old son, Levin, to New Haven. He talks fondly about the lively bread culture of San Francisco and Vermont but laments that New Haven just isn’t there, yet. He comments that bread bakers have an amazingly open and welcoming community. They are happy to share their secrets and recipes with one another.
We talk about his starter. I imagine him, a blue-eyed, southern mad-scientist, mixing ingredients in a secret bread lab to bring a bubbly starter to life. Lightening crashes outside and Kemp, crazed by a bread frenzy shrieks over his creation, “It’s Alive! It’s A-LIVE!”
Ok, that is certainly too dramatic, but to make bread, you need a live starter. The starter is a simple combination of flour and water that are mixed together at different percentages. The starter needs to be fed. (Now we’re getting back into the Frankenstein imagery). Kemp feeds is once a day, unless he is a getting ready to bake a big batch, then it’s more. He has had this starter for four months, but he told me that some people have starters for years. And some people he said, with a smile, get really attached to their starters.
One6Three, Kemp, and Artisan Loaves
A few months ago Kemp and Rose came into One6Three. They were sitting at the bar, chatting with Andrew while he made pizza, and Kemp mentioned that he was a baker. As Kemp puts it, “Andrew did just what I was hoping he would”. It was busy, Andrew had a line of pizzas waiting to be made, but he stopped, wiped the flour onto his black apron and came over to Kemp and Rose. “Dude! We gotta make bread together!” And of course, what Andrew actually meant by that was Kemp needed to make bread in the One6Three kitchen, using the One6Three wood-fired oven, because Andrew, actually had no idea how to make bread.
At first, Kemp said, it was hard to get used to the oven. The heat comes from all sides and the bread bakes quickly, so it was just another element to master in the bread baking process. Now things are rolling right along. Kemp and Andrew are baking about 60-90 Italian (6 dollars a loaf) and Sour Dough (7 dollars a loaf) loaves a week: 20-30 on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. They’ve developed a “Bread-Share” system. You sign up in the store or by emailing them at firstname.lastname@example.org. This allows the customer to preorder the bread each week to guarantee a loaf (Sour Dough has been going faster than Italian!). Customers can pick their day, they type, and their quantity.
Advice You Knead
When I asked Kemp what he has gained from making bread, he told me that baking bread has taught him a lot about patience and trust. Bread, like life, doesn’t always follow the plans you’ve made for it. Bread, like life, can’t be predicted despite our best-laid plans. About the complication of baking bread, Kemp told me, “You are dealing with a living thing that you can control in some ways, but it’s always changing and it depends on the temperature of the room and how you mixed the dough, and a million tiny variables. Every little thing has an effect, but you don’t always understand that effect. You have to build up an intuitive feel of the bread.”
The best advice Kemp gave about making bread? “You have to be ok with not being able to control every aspect. Just relax and let it happen, and the bread will come out better because of it.” To me, this sounds like good advice for more than just bread making.