I first suspected my husband’s affair in late August during the peak of the garden season. Those weeks when the little lettuces hid in the shadows of the squash trellis and the clusters of Italian tomatoes hung heavy and low to the ground. The Big Boys and Jet Stars ripened pink to red with the heat of the sun and their daily drip, drip, drip from the irrigation system. They grew healthy and doubled in size on a weekly diet of Epsom salts and pulverized egg shells.
Jim and I had a favorite lunch on those hot summer days: one thick, juicy slice of tomato between two pieces of white bread…the kind you ate as a kid with peanut butter and jelly or pressed ham or tuna salad on Fridays if you were Catholic and couldn’t eat meat. With a smear of mayonnaise and a few iceberg lettuce leaves, it was our summer sandwich made in heaven.
One day as my husband sliced and assembled and I poured the milk, I noticed that the bread was not in the usual wrapper, the one with red, white and blue balloons. It was in a cellophane bag with just a simple logo: Panera Bread.
“Oh,” I asked. “Something new?”
“Well, yeah,” he replied. “Just thought I’d change it up a bit. Same old thing gets boring day after day. Right?”
Well, sure, I thought. Same old, same old.
That cellophane packaging appeared again and again. Slices of wheat popped up in the toaster. Sourdough, spread with whole grain mustard, sandwiched the thin layers of ham and Swiss cheese. I questioned him again about the change in his shopping habits and the disappearance of an old familiar brand.
“The store’s right next to Hannaford,” he said. “The bread’s made fresh every morning. And I like being able to slice my own.”
“And how about the price? Just curious, you know. What’s the difference in price?”
“Don’t know,” he said. “I don’t look at the prices.”
Hmmm. I thought. Same answer I get each time I ask him the price of scallops or lamb chops.
And then one day in November, I came across a message in our e-mail box describing “rapid pick-up… at the time you choose with no lines …no wait.”
“What’s this?” I asked. “You’re getting e-mails from a bread company?”
“Well, sure,” he said. “Look what they’re offering. You go on-line, place your order and pay for it. Then you go to the store and it’s there waiting for you on the pick-up shelf. Talk about convenience, huh?”
Well, sure. So convenient, I thought.
The next week the brown Panera shopping bag contained three loaves.
“What are you going to do with all of these?”
“Freeze it,” he said. “I can just take out the kind we want for breakfast or lunch and it will be thawed in a minute. And today, I saw a notice that they’re making a white stuffing bread for the Thanksgiving holiday. How about that? How many loaves should I order?”
“We’re not cooking a turkey. We’re going to my cousin Carol’s for dinner.”
“Perfect,” he said. “I’ll order two.”
“Are you listening to me? We’re not stuffing a turkey! And this whole bread thing is out of control. What are you going to do about your Panera Bread fix when we go to Maine this winter? The nearest store has to be hours away in Augusta or Auburn.”
He thought for a moment and then answered. “Easy. I’ll have it shipped. Fed Ex and UPS go up to the mountain every day.”
“You know that’s not going to work,” I said with a smile. “You know that, right?”
Hmmm,” he said. “Ham or turkey for lunch?”
The writing was on the wall. I woke up and smelled the coffee. Or rather the toast. My husband was deep into an affair with Panera Bread.
Our first afternoon walk in December found us bundled up against a cold wind. We made our way through familiar neighborhoods now decorated for the holidays with nodding reindeer and spiral Christmas trees. White window candles glowed in darkened rooms and colored lights flashed and blinked as we walked down one street and around the corner to the next.
Jim’s voice cut through the stillness of the gray dusk. “I’ve made a decision.”
“What? What did you say?”
“I’ve made a decision about the bread.”
“The bread…the BREAD!”
“I’m going to make my own. I can start the dough in the morning before I go out to ski and then let it rest until lunch. Or I can bake on a day when the lifts are on wind hold. What do you think?”
I turned my jacket collar up against the wind. Oh, my God, I thought. He’s got time on his hands. Wants to learn how to bake? Obviously retired. Maybe even a bit crazy.
That night I called my cousin Norma in Florida. Her husband Em had been baking bread for years. I needed help. Guidance. I needed her to be there for me. “Are you sitting down?” I asked.
“It’s Jim. He wants to be a baker. A BREAD baker!”
“Really? That’s perfect. Just leave this to us. We’ll buy him some basics for Christmas and before you know it the flour will be flying all over that kitchen.”
Christmas morning dawned sunny with an inch of new snow on the ground. A perfect day for the two of us to drink coffee, sip a mimosa (or two!) and enjoy Eggs Benedict on, yes, you guessed it… Panera English muffins. We ooh-ed and ah-ed our way through the gifts until there were just two presents left under the tree.
“These are from Norma and Em,” I said. He opened a copy of The Bread Baker’s Apprentice and then tore the wrapping paper off a commercial bread pan. His smile said it all.
We headed to Maine at the end of January, a cruel transition from the abundant sunshine, gentle breezes and blue water of the Caribbean. The thermometer hovered in the teens, then dropped to single digits and below. The afternoon sky blackened shortly after 4 p.m. and the wind drifted in the twenty one steps to our front door.
Jim settled in front of the fireplace with a glass of wine and his baking book. He spent an hour turning the pages from front to back, to the middle and back to the beginning again.
“How’s that book?”
“I need some things,”
“A need another pan. And a scale.”
“A scale? For what?”
“To measure everything. The sugar and flour. And then the milk and water.”
“This sounds like a lot of work. How about just looking up a Betty Crocker recipe? Can’t you check the Gold Medal web site? Your Grammy Mabel never used a scale.”
“You don’t understand. This is how the real bakers do it. It’s the way Em does it. It’s why they sent me this book!”
A trip to the grocery story. An order to Amazon Prime with two day shipping and he was in business.
“What are you making?”
Six muffins, baked and then fried in the black skillet. The next morning they were toasted and topped with a poached egg and a few slices of crisp bacon. They were chewy and on the small size. But we ate them all, spread with butter or strawberry jam. A few days later, the cookbook and cannisters once more lined the counter.
“What’s next?,” I asked.
The first loaf came out of the oven…hot, brown, yeasty.
“It’s baked to perfection,” Jim announced.
“How do you know that?” I asked.
“Because I used a thermometer to measure the internal temperature.”
“And how do you know that?”
“It’s in the book.”
Oh, right, I thought. The book.
But he was not happy. The the bread was delicious but nowhere near the size of a Panera loaf.
“Well, maybe they use different pans. And they’re baking in commercial ovens,” I offered.
He scratched his head, got out his book and started reading. Minutes later, he opened the fridge and took out the jar of yeast.
“Ah. I’ve found the problem.”
“And that would be?”
He pointed to the label on the jar. “It’s right here,” he said. “Refrigerate after opening.”
“But you just took it out of the fridge.”
“Yeah, but I brought this jar from home. How long has it been sitting in the cupboard? I think I have dead yeast.”
Hmmmm. Bakers should read labels. Note directions for storage.
“Oh, and one other thing. You have to mix the yeast in a bowl with water and add sugar and that has to rise.”
I tried to add a note of surprise to my voice. ““Really? And what have you been doing with your yeast?”
“Oh, I’ve just been throwing it in the flour. Mixing it altogether before adding the liquids.”
But wait, I thought. Wasn’t that in the directions? In the book?
And with that, he picked up the car keys, grabbed his coat and headed six miles up the road to the market. A half hour later, he returned home with packets of Fleischmann’s dry yeast and a new look of resolve in his eyes.
The next day we had our first glimpse of spring in the mountains. Bright sunshine, a blue bird sky and temperatures warm enough to melt the ice on the walkway. Jim skied early, anxious to get in a few runs before the March sun softened the trails. By noon time, he was back for the day. He donned his white apron and was ready to bake.
“It’s a beautiful day,” I said. “Let’s drive up to Fotter’s. I need a few things for dinner tomorrow night. Some romaine and a red onion.”
“Ok,” he said. “But let me start this recipe. This yeast mixture needs to sit and then I’ll add the flour. After the dough rises in the bowl, I’ll punch it down and get it in the pans to rise again.”
“For how long? Does that mean we’re not going out?”
“No, we have a window of opportunity of an hour and a half…that’s how long it has to rise in the pan before it goes in the oven.”
“What time are you thinking?”
“At three o’clock it’s in the pans, covered and we have time to go to the store.”
“I was thinking we could stop at The Boot Strap.…Check out their fish and meat market. Have a late lunch.”
“Perfect,” he said.
We finished our shopping, put the groceries in the car and made our way across the muddy parking lot to the restaurant. The front door was propped open to let in the sunshine and the seventy degree air. Inside a dozen young people sat at the bar drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, rum and cokes or the drink of the day: tall Margaritas with salted rims and wedges of lime. Jim and I ordered glasses of wine, chatted with the bartender and listened to the mountain news and local gossip.
“Terrible pot holes on route 27 this year.”
“Can you believe that communication tower on top of the mountain blew over in those winds?”
Jim checked his watch.
“How are we doing for time?”
“No problem,” he assured me. “Plenty of time.”
And with that we ordered another glass of wine.
Apparently, the loaves did not agree with our shopping and late lunch date. By the time we returned home, the bread had risen…and fallen. The centers were caving in as Jim preheated the oven. An hour later, they came out of the oven…pale and sunken.
Was there mention of the word over-proof in that book? I wondered.
And so it went . Our first winter of retirement in the mountains. Jim skied and baked and I wrote first drafts and sent short stories to literary magazines. Finally, at the end of March, Jim made double loaves of a light wheat with a glistening egg white wash. They rose perfectly, baked to a golden brown with an airy texture inside. Perfect. Loaves. Of. Bread.
And then in his matter-of-fact way, he cleaned up the kitchen and returned the ingredients and his book to the pantry. But before taking off his apron, he opened the freezer and took out two of his earlier breads. His not-so-perfect-for-one-reason-or-another attempts at baking. He lined up the three loaves, stood back, crossed his arms and smiled.
“Do you remember the post that your writing coach sent to all of you awhile back?” he asked.
“The one about how she believed that anyone could learn to write.”
“Yes, I do remember. Kate was talking about those of us who sometimes get lost. Lose faith in ourselves and our writing.”
“And what was her message?” Jim asked.
I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and did a few shoulder rolls. “She said that if we were willing to put in the time and energy and work hard, we would learn and grow and strengthen our writing skills. We would get to be better writers.”
“That’s what I did with the bread. I wanted to be a baker. So I practiced and failed and practiced some more. I know there were times when you probably thought I was crazy. And there were times when I wanted to give up, to just walk that baking book down the road to the dumpster. But I knew what I wanted.”
“I never thought you were crazy,” I replied. “Well, maybe just once or twice. You were just so obsessed, so determined about baking bread. Maybe I was a little jealous of your passion. That you were baking and sometimes I wasn’t writing.”
The next day we packed up the kitchen, emptied the fridge and threw our clothes into the old Bean bag. It was another going home day, this one the close of our winter season. We were headed back to the land of Panera where bread’s ordered on-line, waiting for a quick pick up.
Or maybe not. When I opened the door to throw my jacket on the back seat of the car, there was a box on the floor that I hadn’t packed. Inside were the scale, the flours and yeast, the pans and yes…the book. Maybe not, Panera. Maybe not.