I have never been much for baking my own bread, although I have a vague memory of some recipe for a whole-wheat batter bread found in Cricket magazine. It turned out damp and yeasty, reasonably tasty yet uninteresting. My mother rarely made bread, either. When I was cleaning out the kitchen earlier today I found a baguette pan in one drawer; another cupboard yielded dark non-stick loaf pans, so surely she must have attempted it at some point. In the pantry there was a bread machine, a gleaming white thing with buttons for rapid-rise, quick bread, dough only, regular bread, timers, all sorts of bells and whistles. I remember when she bought it. It was during that phase when she took calligraphy lessons and spent hours at her table making perfect black strokes up and down sheets and sheets of paper, as well as pottery lessons, which filled our house with earthenware pots glazed in textured earth tones.
The bread machine turned out crusty rectangular loaves with a neat hole and a slash in the bottom from the blade of the machine, which mixed and kneaded the dough as you slept, then waking you with a beep-beep and the smell of fresh bread that filled the house. Our friend K. was the first to get one; dinner at her house usually involved steak (expertly barbecued by her husband, J.) and freshly baked bread, and wine from their extensive, perfectly chosen cellar. One night she not only forgot to press the start button on the rice cooker, but had also forgotten to put yeast in the bread machine. B., her brother-in-law, was dispatched to buy rice at a nearby Chinese restaurant, J. opened another bottle of wine, and K. laughed at her own folly and sat down to dinner.
For a short time we made bread in the bread machine often enough so that the gleaming white machine lived permanently in the dining room. Sometimes we merely mixed the dough and turned it out onto the countertops to shape into rustic loaves that were slid onto cornmeal-dusted baking sheets preheating in the oven. Somehow we never progressed to buying wooden peels and baking stones or covering the bottom rack of the oven with unglazed tiles. Then artisanal-style bread became popular and widely available, one of those trends that started in New York and Los Angeles (or San Francisco, or whatever) and slowly trickled to other cities. Crusty round loaves speckled with olives or rosemary or plain oval loaves appeared in their brown paper bags on supermarket shelves; new boutique bakeries sprang up everywhere you looked.
I have been reading Jeffrey Steingarten fervently for some ten years now, and every time he writes about pain au levain (which the late Lionel Poilâne brought back to life and a new popularity in the 80's) or the Roman pizza bianca and pane Genzanese, I have the urge to leap into the kitchen and whip up a natural starter. I want to buy unglazed tiles to line my oven and wooden peels for sliding the neatly formed loaves onto the hot stones and organic wheat-bran flakes to strew across the aforementioned hot stones before sliding the loaves in. And all of this has yet to happen. I have made biscuits (leaving a trail of flour around the house) and croissants (leaving a trail of buttery streaks) and scallion bread (leaving a trail of sesame seeds and chopped scallions) and cornbread (leaving a trail of cornmeal). But this, the rustic bread I buy every week from the grocery store or from my favorite bakery-of-the-moment, eludes me still.