Friday, June 12, 2009


Two very different experiences this week have got me thinking about groups and individuals, consistency and distinctiveness, the general and the particular... you get the idea.

On Tuesday afternoon I did a short shift with Dawnthebaker at the Incubator Kitchen making crackers for Evelyn's Crackers (named after fabulous Evelyn, Dawn and Ed's three=year=old daughter).  The crackers are hand-made, truly made by hand.  The dough is mixed by machines, then divided into pieces which are hand-shaped, then run, piece by piece, through a sheeter, a machine like a pasta-maker that squeezes it flat.  Each sheet of dough on its individual piece of parchment paper is stacked on the last and then when the stack is high, it's put aside to chill while the rest of the dough is flattened.  At this stage we're not nearly halfway in the hand-work.

The chilled sheets come back out and then once again, one by one, are put carefully through the sheeter, now set to a thinner setting.  They double in area (and fragility too, of course).  Once again, after all the sheets in the stack have been run through the sheeter and then restacked, the stack gets set aside in the cooler while the remaining stacks are run through.

Then it's time for the final pre-baking hand-work:  Sheet by sheet the crackers are cut.  You take the pizza-cutter-like roller and run it in straight lines down the dough, trying to space them evenly and keep them straight.  For the cheese crackers that we were making there were six or seven lines vertically and about 11 horizontally per baking sheet of dough.  No wonder Dawn feels her wrists get tired!  I felt it more in my back, because the work is assymetrical, when you bend sideways over the sheet to do the cross-wise cuts.

After each sheet is cut into crackers, it is pulled over onto the stack of already sliced dough. Once the stack is tall, it is covered with plastic, tightly sealed, and frozen.  The baking will take place next day or sometime in the next week.  And baking too means handling the crackers sheet by sheet, putting them into the oven, and then taking them out and leaving them on a rack to cool and crisp up.

Now that all sounds long, doesn't it?  And yet it's just a description, with no details, really.

Dawn does all this physical labour with grace and strength and skill.  Sometimes Ed is there working  with her, or a less-skilled sidekick like me, but most often she's there on her own, either making and shaping crackers, or else baking.

When we were there together, she could get crackers baked while I shaped (and she was often over helping with the shaping process in between baking chores).  The lovely scent of her Barley Noir crackers perfumed the space as we worked, and the spicy Dal Crackers too added their aroma when they were baked.  

The thing about the cracker production, the thing that is valuable (apart from the fact that they are made from local and organic ingredients, and that they taste wonderful and are a treat to eat), is the hand-made-ness.  It creates an entirely different cracker population.  They are NOT all the same.  For though each batch is made from one dough, the fact that they are rolled out and cut by hand, sheet by sheet, cut by cut, means that the crackers each have a personality and clear identity.  There's kind of a "every snowflake is unique" quality to them.

So while the goal of industrial production and chain restaurants is complete consistency and uniformity, the goal of hand-crafted anything, from crackers, to clothing, to furmiture, to home-cooking, is individual distinctiveness within a recognisable form.  That's why we love home-made food.  And that's what we lose if we buy "food" that has been extruded and cut and shaped by highly industrial processes.  

People say, but this is elitist, this emphasis on the hand-crafted; processed food is cheaper.  But it's not.  Home-made food, each of us starting with basic ingredients at home, is the least expensive and best.  Next in line is food made by someone we know, made with care and attention.  And as we tried to emphasise in our book HomeBaking, let's not, as home cooks, start to think that our food should look like food that is made by machine, all "perfect" and predictable.  Let's treasure the unpredictable, the individual, the idiosyncratic.

The big event this week felt far from crackers and hand-made:  Yesterday Dom graduated with his Honours BA from the University of Toronto and I was there, along with Tashi, in fabulous Convocation Hall.  I know from others that graduations can be long and tedious (this was my first university grad attendance, since I missed both of mine, long ago).  But I found that there was entertainment and enlightenment to be had, both at the time, and when I thought about it all afterward.

The event began for us in the quad at Victoria College, with grads and their families standing around on the grass under the trees, surrounded by gracious and lumpy old stone buildings, eating sandwiches and fruit and cheese, and drinking juices or tea or coffee.  It's an interesting problem, feeding a huge crowd of very diverse people, many of them with dietary restrictions because of culture, religion, or belief.  Sandwiches are a great solution.  And so are trays of cut cheese and trays of assorted fruit.  There was something for everyone, the meat sandwiches separated from the non-meat; the trays easily distinguishable.  And there was plenty.  

It was a happy crowd, the young grads looking fresh and yet mature (young men in white shirts and dark pant, some with ties; young women in frocks with high heels or in dark trousers with dress shoes), their dressed-up parents looking proud and sometimes a little overwhelmed.

We family and friends walked across campus to Convocation Hall around 1.15 and found seats- the place was packed.  (This was the Convocation for Victoria College grads only; during this week and next there will have been a total of 22 convocations, graduating all the grads from across all of the University of Toronto, a mind-boggling exercise in organisation!).  The grads came later, escorted by a piper, and followed by the Chancellor's procession of dignitaries, garbed in their medieval robes (the chancellor in yellow and black-striped gown; others in black with red, or in scarlet with pink, or... you get the idea).  As the grads filed in and took their seats, we looked across row upon row of figures all dressed in black robes with a rabbit-fur trimmed cowl draped front and back.  So there they all were, all alike, a class of nearly 600, the graduating class of 2009.

And yet each face was different and distinctive, and behind it, for sure we know, each life story, each set of aspirations and fears, was distinctive, important, momentous. 

They came up two by two, their names called out in pairs, to receive their degrees.  The pairings were by the chance of the alphabet.  Each grad had that moment to pause and be noted by friends and family, by all of us.  The Dean of Arts and Science had told us that 40 per cent of them reported that they were the first person in the family to graduate from university, and that 60 per cent had reported that they spoke a mother tongue that was not English.  A lot of that diversity was apparent in the wonderful mix of names called out as the pairs of grads walked up the steps.

And so no, it wasn't boring or tedious, it was amazing.  And it made me think of the crackers somehow.  It all takes work, this crafting of our lives and the lives of our nearest and dearest, and the lives of our neighbours, and the lives of strangers too.  And we need to enjoy it and be tolerant, knowing how different we all are, how even when we seem to share aspirations, we may be interpreting the world in wildly different ways.

It's easy to feel disappointed when we find a friend disagreeing with us on a fundamental issue.  But it's more important to tolerate that difference than to insist on conformity and uniformity, however hard it may be.  We are all hand-made and distinctive, but we are made of the same flesh and bone, brothers and sisters out in the world, charting our paths, just like those young grads... looking forward to what comes next.


a said...

I think "unique" takes a pejorative tone when applied to my dinners.


Mmm....that's good said...

Nice the crackers and your graduate! Making homeamde strawberry jam today and then some bread to go with it. Cheap and really, what could be better?!