Saturday, June 28, 2008

White Bread

In many places on this planet, let's take Europe for example, it's hard not to be conspicuous if you're a 6'4" American. And if, somehow, information gets out that said conspicuous yank is a musician, well then, folks met in passing (e.g. neighbors, strangers in trains, people in shops and on street corners, schoolkids), are bound to ask if my music either rocks or swings, and I'm bound to disappoint with the news that, no, my music is rather more the kind that scares housepets. Yes, even in lands of famously old and high culture, the default setting for "musician" is assumed to be entertainer. Fortunately for my psyche, an American youth prepared me well for encounters of the sort. They are opportunities for educating oneself as well as the inquirer: how do I talk about music (mine, other) without technical terms, how do different musics (mine, other, 'nother other) relate to one another, if at all, and what functions can musics play in the real world? (You ask a lot of questions for a Comanche...)

Sometime I'll write a nice long item about my accidental displacement in Europe. It wasn't ever planned, not even expected. (In fact, I never actually had plans to venture past the American west and I still avoid the right coast as much as possible: my music may not be played on the island of Manhattan.) But the facts on the ground are these: I ended up here, a conspicuous presence, and it became necessary to see this as an opportunity. It has not, as far as I'm concerned, been a career opportunity; there is no land of milk & honey for experimental music composers anywhere, and I have none of the institutional affiliations that would make Europe either more milky or sweet. But Europe, in taking up the negative space absented by my own continent, has been an opportunity for better focusing a musical and cultural identity, coming to grips with tradition and experiment, with materials, methods, & forms, and, in my case, even with my inner white bread.

Yep, white bread. I shout a lot about being a Californian and, on my father's side, it goes back generations. But my mother came to California as a toddler, during the second world war. She was born in South Dakota, Irish Catholic mother, Dutch Reformed father, which means meat'n'potatoes, white bread'n'butter all the way. Okay, canned salmon patties on Fridays, that special midwest Catholic specialty, but you get the drift. (Not to disparage South Dakota -- home, after all of the National Music Museum-- but some friends report that, during a continental roadtrip, a request for dessert in a South Dakota diner was met with a plate on which sat a crustless slice of Wonderbreadtm soaked in Coca-Colatm. But I digress.) With this background, I probably have more legitimate musical connections to Lawrence Welk than to either rock or jazz, let alone the whole European art music tradition, but the path to legitimacy often follows a wide trajectory, even including Wonderbreadtm, enriched in twelve different ways, and American accordion bread (as one calls it here) is, in the end (or was, as the product is now being discontinued in Southern California as fashion and nutrition turn to whole grains and loafs with added nuts, seeds, and herbs) a unique technical accomplishment along a trajectory with no certain terminus, and a trajectory with roots as legitimately European as Boulez, Nono, Stockhausen, or even that 95% rye bread that makes Hessians so happy.


While I can't reproduce Wonderbreadtm in my own kitchen, I do have a favorite white bread recipe. To be honest, it's more like Italian bread, with great big holes throughout, and a hard crust, but if I'm going to admit one white bread to my life, it's this one. It's messy but requires no kneading and less thinking, and while the total duration is 16 hours or so, the elapsed working time is only a few minutes.

By hand, with a spoon in a large mixing bowl, mix together:

3 cups bread flour
1/2 teaspoon instant dry yeast or 1 teaspoon dry yeast
a bit more than 1 teaspoon salt

Stir in

1 1/2 cups cold water

Cover bowl with plastic wrap and a dark towel. Let sit for 12 to 18 hours.

The dough should now be covered with bubbles, very wet, almost like pancake dough. On a well-floured work surface or cutting board, pour the dough, dust the top of the dough with flour and turn over once. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 15 minute.

Adding just as much extra flour as needed to keep the dough form sticking to the surface, shape the dough roughly into a ball. Again dust the top with flour. Flour a cotton kitchen towel, and lift the ball of dough onto one half of the towel, then cover the dough with the other half.

Let the dough rise for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. At least fifteen minutes before baking, heat the oven to 450F (230C) , placing a large cover-able pot, casserole or dutch oven into the oven. When the oven has reached temperature, put the dough into the pot -- seam up is nice, but it's not essential, and it can get pretty sloppy and still be great -- , cover, and return to oven. Bake covered for one half hour. Remove cover, and let continue to bake for 10 to 30 minutes, browned to your own taste.

This is a trajectory with its own variations, too: Omit the salt, Tuscan-style, or use some sourdough starter, San Francisco-style. Dust with corn meal instead of flour. Add some chilies or cheese or garlic or roasted onions.

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