Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Of Bread Labor

Whole Wheat Potato Sandwich Bread
Last year for Christmas, my wonderful mother-in-law gifted me with a book from my gift list: “The Good Life: Helen and Scott Nearing’s Sixty Years of Self-Sufficient Living.” Even if you’re new to homesteading, you’ve probably heard of the Nearings. Amazing people they were – people who shunned both debt and the accumulation of wealth, people who loved physical labor and building with their own plans and skills, and people who strived above all things to be well-rounded inviduals – contributing daily to their own sustenance and the well-being of their community and planet.

(What I didn’t expect was that they would be such Socialists, but one can’t deny that even back in the 1930’s, they’d figured out a lot of the woes that plague “progressive” industrialized nations and it’s commendable that they took a proactive approach to solving those problems. Basically, they got the heck out of Dodge and moved to the country!)

One of the most profound things I gleaned from their writings is the concept of the “four-four-four formula”. In a nutshell, they believed in spending 4 hours a day involved in what they called “bread labor,” 4 hours a day in professional activity (doing what you love), and 4 hours a day “fulfilling our obligations and responsiblities as members of the human race.” (That is, spending time with family, friends and community.)

Of bread labor, they wrote “Bread labor provides the basic essentials of living normal, healthful, serviceful lives. The work of the world must be done and we should all share in it…. Everyone, rich or poor, can contribute somewhat to the world’s physical work…. Bread labor should be an obligatory and honorable phase of the daily routine in which everyone can take an active part as a matter of course. This daily contribution to the work of the world will make a vigorous, self-supporting society.”

(I love their use of the words "obligatory" and "honorable" in regards to physical labor. There are too many people in this world who think work is a 4-letter word, especially if it involves grubbing in the nasty old dirt for your food!)

So what exactly IS bread labor? On a hard-scrabble, subsistence homestead, it is the jobs demanding physical activity that results in putting food on the table and providing shelter and warmth for people and animals. It is plowing, planting, weeding, harvesting, threshing, flailing, chopping wood, building, tearing down, fencing, canning, cooking, butchering, milking and a hundred other things that are necessary in a direct-use economy – that is, an economy in which most goods produced on the farm are used directly on the farm and most other goods are traded for from the surplus cache of goods produced on the farm. Bread labor is the production of a cash crop to provide a meager income for paying taxes and purchasing other incidentals. It is what people did before there was a Walmart in every town where people can buy all the goods they need to live far too lazily and comfortably. And it is the exercise, fresh air and sunshine one gets from living in the country.

I’m only sorry to say that few of us can truly appreciate this lifestyle, though that is of our own choosing. Most of us are too busy working full-time jobs paying for McMansions, new cars, “retail therapy” and credit card debt to have the luxury of having 4 hours a day to put towards working on our own farms, let alone 4 hours a day to pursue a hobby or artistic endeavor. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We gave up a lot of luxuries to pursue a homesteading life. (In retrospect, we didn’t give up anything important, but it didn’t always feel that way at the time!)

In any case, one may not be so hardcore about homesteading as to have to do all of the labors listed above, but if you’re already serious about putting at least some of your own food on your own table, you’ll recognize the need for a lot of them.

Summer arrived here in North Texas at least a month too early. And as usual, it’s been a mad scramble trying to keep up. It’s been worse than usual this year, as we’ve had no appreciable rainfall since last autumn. Every day has been a prioritizing over which row or bed needs a soaker hose or impact sprinkler worst, and most days, we’ve been dealing with temperatures in the triple digits and high winds. There are grass fires all over the state, though thankfully, we haven’t had any in the immediate area. And there’s no hay to rake for garden mulch, which would greatly reduce our need for watering.

But I’ve been more determined than ever not to let these bad conditions get the best of me, and “Bread Labor” has taken on a life of its own! Forget the 4-hour time slot – I’m working about 8 hours a day just to stay on top of the garden, the butchering, the yardwork, the housework and putting good meals on our table. And there’s no procrastinating this time of year either. If I’m not out there reporting for duty at first light (about ) there’s no making it up later. It’s just too hot to stay outside past (for me, anyway).

So I’ve been getting up around to get a few things done inside while the house is still cool.  Dishes, laundry, baking, canning – those sorts of things. And we still have too many chickens and more on the way, so I’ve been aiming to butcher four a week until I’m down to just a few. That takes about an hour a day. I start working on lunch around and after eating and getting the kitchen cleaned back up, by I’m ready for a nap!

Anyway, there hasn’t been much time to blog lately and I don’t suspect it will get any easier until September, when it finally cools off a little. That's just summer in Texas though.

The bread pictured above is an old favorite, adapted originally from “Cooking From Quilt Country” by Marcia Adams. It looks a little small in the picture, but that’s actually an oversized 9.25” x 5.25” baking pan. The dough is also the perfect amount to bake in a Pullman (Pain de Mie) pan if you like square sandwich bread. The toasted bread perfectly complements sweeter spreads and fillings (jams, egg/chicken/tuna salads), is perfect for breakfast toast, and makes an excellent salad crouton tossed with some olive oil, herbs and garlic, toasted in a skillet.

I grind my own whole wheat flour from soft pastry wheat for this bread, but regular store-bought whole wheat will work fine as well. I’ve also found it’s best not to adjust the yeast in this recipe to allow for longer rising times – it really needs the full quota to rise the heavier ingredients. I’m going to assume you already know how to mix, knead and rise bread and just give the basic ingredients and minimal instructions. Enjoy!

Whole Wheat Potato Sandwich Bread

2 packets yeast (4 ½ teaspoons)
1 ½ cups warm water
3 tablespoons brown sugar
3 tablespoons honey
½ cup potato flakes
1 tablespoon salt
½ cup canola/vegetable oil (NOT olive!)
2 ½ cups whole wheat flour
2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
(plus about ½ cup more if you’re using an electric mixer)

After the second rise, knead ALL of the air bubbles out of the finished dough before placing in the pan of your choice. Plunge a fork all the way through the dough at regular intervals to allow gases to escape while the dough rises the last time. This prevents big holes in your sliced sandwich bread.

Bake a large loaf at 300 degrees for 15 minutes, then turn the oven up to 325 and bake another 25-30 minutes. For smaller loaves, start the oven at 325 and turn it up to 350 for the last 20-25 minutes. When in doubt, the center of the dough should read 190 on an instant-response thermometer.

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