The water has to be precisely the right temperature. Too hot, and it will kill the yeast. Too cold, and the yeast will never wake. I've mostly got the hang of it now, but once in a while I still screw up the proof, and I have to throw everything out and start all over again.
At the height of the summer, everything got strange. I started feeling a little sad. Or homesick. Or lonely, or something. I don't know. Everything feels different here, and I'm running out of ways to explain it. The sun seems closer, except when it feels further away. The most personal emotions feel distant and strange, except that sometimes they're right there in the skin.
Part of it was the enforced solitude. MV was gone for a residency in upstate New York, and after a whirlwind few months of merging kitchens and adjusting to one another's schedules, the sudden, silent sense of absence in the house weighed on me. Meanwhile, most of my friends in this town, all displaced northeasterners themselves, scattered themselves to the corners of the earth for the summer -- to Paris, to Houston, to Berlin.
But it was also the weather, this heavy-handed mugginess that struck you like a physical blow every time you stepped outside. It had me feeling nostalgic for some earlier time, but I could never quite figure out what it was I was remembering: the summer we spent itinerant in the airless dorms, floating from room to room with the unofficial blessing of the superintendant who thought we were cute; or the magnificent summer days before the storms in southern California, when all the humidity from the entire basin pooled at the foot of the San Gabriels and made the mountains disappear; or the summer vacations during my family's first few years in the States, when the summer Virginia sun burnt me into the tiniest brown smudge of a boy.
I add flour by the handful, scraping down the bowl and smoothing out the clumps until the mixture comes together into a dough. It feels dusty and dry until I start to knead it and some hidden reservoir of moisture wells to the surface. It sticks to my hands, my apron, my suddenly flourless cutting board.
This city is an odd place to be sad.
Wait, that's not fair. What I ought to say is that I'm not very good at dealing with being sad here, yet. In Pasadena, I would slip out of the apartment and drive around all night, until I found my way---inevitably---to Koreatown and its 24-hour soondubu joints, and I would watch the stupid club kids slurp down their soups and come down off of their highs. In Boston, I would venture out to the clubs (to Campus, to Avalon, to the sad, filthy Paradise) and dance up on a box until someone---anyone---saw me and told me I was beautiful.
I used to deal with loneliness by wrapping myself in the crowd where, if I was lonely, at least we were all lonely together. But for all its trappings of a cosmopolitan life, this is ultimately a cow town, and crowds are the one thing this new city won't ever offer me.
Risen, the dough looks like some kind of primordial alien life form. It sighs when I punch it down, it struggles as try to I roll it out. I pinch closed the places where it has torn and try to smooth down the scars as best I can. But in the oven, these will emerge as flaws in the crust that show the clumsy touch of an unskilled hand.
There's this phrase that I've been using for a few years now. My friends and I developed it as sort of a bitchy little sotto voce we'd mutter to one another whenever we heard somebody whining about how their coworkers were out to get them or how all the fags in town were so unfriendly or how all their friends were so unsupportive during their breakup/job search/pet surgery.
We would listen attentively, nod supportingly, and whisper to one another after the fact, "Hm. Maybe it's you."
Sure it's possible that your entire office is conspiring against you to deny you your promotion, or that all of the fifty thousand gay men in metro Boston are sociopaths, or even that every single one of your inconsiderate friends has abandoned you/your cat in your/your cat's greatest hour of need. But maybe it's you, and you need to consider the possibility that, actually, you're the asshole here, and that all the bad karmic juju you've sent out into the universe is now coming back to you in spades.
It's amazing how often you can use this analysis in your day-to-day interaction with the world. After years of observing the world with this jaundiced, critical eye, I have come to accept that, honey, it's always you, and as a corollary, that sometimes it's also me.
The midwest is filled with millions of people who love to live in the midwest. This city in particular is named year after year as one of the best places to live in America. If I am finding it difficult to be happy here, there are two logical possibilities: either everyone else is wrong and completely misguided in their assessment, or I am.
Occam's razor suggests the latter.
I am an inexperienced baker, so the process of converting flour and yeast into bread still has the tang of magic to it. I understand the mechanics of the stand mixer; I understand the purpose of the yeast and the salt; I even understand the science that describes how gluten emerges to structure the dough under the kneading hand. But the oven is still a mystery. In goes a pallid mass of gloppy, wheezing, sickly protomatter, and out comes crust, crumb, flavor, nourishment, home, the body of Christ, American pie, wholesome family values, and, miraculously, bread.
We are shaped by the places we call home. I think we can all agree on this. It explains how George Bush's nasal Kennebunkport squawk matured into a Texas twang, and how Britney Spears, even at the height of her career, could never quite affect glamour.
I am coming to accept that one cannot be happy in the midwest until one becomes a midwesterner. So the trick will be figuring out what that entails and how much California will be left in me when this is all over.
I am trying to take pleasure in the kinds of things I think midwesterners should take pleasure in. The farmer's market is responding to the Fall with an amazing diversity of bright-colored squashes and root vegetables, and I find this beautiful. I run into a neighbor at the symphony and introduce her to my coworker who happens to be there with the woman I buy my coffee from, and this, too, I find beautiful. At one point last week I had a whole three-minute conversation about the Green Bay Packers, which required every bit of knowledge I had squirreled away in my brain about the game of football, and one day, I swear to god this is true, I will understand how this, too, must also be beautiful.
In the meantime, there are good days and bad. The ratio between the two is going to be up to me.
This third batch of focaccia is our best so far. The crust is golden and crisp in just a few places, the crumb is tender and flavorful, and the drizzle of olive oil over the top smells deeply of fresh crushed rosemary. MV and I make sandwiches for dinner -- a layer of our own pesto, slices of whatever tomatoes we picked up at the farmers market this morning, and a few leaves of basil from the garden out back. It doesn't matter that we're halfway into fall. In here, our house feels like summer.