Testing the Waters

This past weekend, my wife and I camped with other couples and families on the Northern California coast at MacKerricher State Park near Fort Bragg to celebrate the 4th of July. What a great place! Just a few hundred yards from the ocean, it was calming to hear the constant pounding of the surf, and the copious fog – at least for me – gave a sense of coziness rather than casting a pall over our festivities.

Food was as plentiful as it was delicious and, of course, I brought some bread.

Unbeknownst to anyone but me, this was going to be a major test for me as a baker. It would be the first time I gave bread to total strangers as I only knew a couple of people there and those that I did know I hadn’t seen for at least ten years! Most of the bread I’ve given away has been to friends and family and while I’ve gotten some great feedback, well, they’re friends and family. They’re always supportive.

And yes, for those that are in the know, I do give bread to shelters, but I never get any feedback as I drop it off and go home. But this time, people that I didn’t know at all would eat my bread and I could see their expressions. Needless to say, there was a little part of me that was nervous.

Why all the fuss? Simply because I needed to get affirmation that people I didn’t know at all enjoyed my bread. It’s one thing when friends and family rave about it. It’s an entirely different matter when there’s no personal attachment to it. And getting that kind of feedback was important to me because I’m going down a path with my baking that’s going to involve some serious financial investment. So I needed to see reactions to make sure that it wasn’t my own hubris that was driving me down this path.

On purpose, I brought loaves that were slightly flawed. Normally, the ear on my loaves is much more pronounced, and the crust quite a bit more crunchy, with a moderately open crumb. The ears didn’t form as well because the crusts set too quickly. I think after hundreds of bakes, the seal on my oven is giving up and I’m literally losing steam. That also affected the crumb. It was still airy with a nice chew, but because the crust set, the crumb didn’t have a chance to open up more so I ended up with lots of smaller holes.

Bringing bread that I knew was not to the aesthetic quality of my ideal was akin to something I learned from my late father when he took photography classes. Instead of bringing his best shots to class for critique, he’d bring, in his words, just okay shots so he’d receive feedback on what was wrong in the shots, and more importantly, get the affirmation that what he felt was wrong with the shots were the correct observations.

So I did a similar thing with my bread this weekend. I figured that if people responded positively to bread that did not completely live up to my standards I would know that even on an off day, my bread would still be good.

Admittedly, that’s playing with fire because it would be easy to let the positive reaction get to my head and just keep on putting out just okay product. But I’m not about “just okay.” To me, there’s always room for improvement. That’s not to say that I’m a perfectionist. I do my best to not be one. But knowing that I can always improve drives me to always get better. And with those loaves (they’re pictured above), I can do better.

So what was the reaction? Generally positive and what I was hoping to get. I wasn’t expecting anyone to rave about it. My expectations were much more humble. And though folks gave great verbal reviews, I was looking at their facial expressions and those little micro-expressions that speak WAY more than words ever could. And thankfully, I didn’t see any crinkled noses. 🙂 Finally, I left the bread out on my cutting board as much as I could. If people just left it alone, then that would be plenty of feedback. But luckily they didn’t. Whew!

For me, this weekend was very impactful. I feel confident now that I can move forward with my plans!

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