Baked & Saved

Desperate for last-minute holiday gifts? How about a cookbook where a dozen Minnesotans make their lives as real as bread?

The first breads came out of the big brick oven as brown as bears. Ode carried them inside on a big plastic screen, a screen that, moments earlier, had been a garage for Matchbox cars until Ode's three-year-old nephew Asher was bribed into moving the vehicles with the promise of hot buttered bread. We cut into the breads: They were indescribably delicious. The pain ancienne was so crisp the crust shattered like spun sugar when you bent a stick of it, but the interior was as light and springy as flower petals. The sourdough made from the grape starter was light and frothy, with a tender crumb and a crunchable crust; the sourdough from Klecko's potato starter was as sour as a wet winter wind, and sturdy as a stable. In the space of a few minutes, I devoured a loaf's worth of bread.

I asked Ode how she found the inspiration to go through the inevitable first failure-laced days of baking, given that one of the best artisan bakers in the country, Turtle Bread, is a two-minute drive from her house. To me, the idea of making bread always seems faintly absurd, because others do it so much better than I ever could. It seems like cats—I like cats, I admire cats, but I don't want to make cats, I want cats to make cats. It's easier for them, and they do it better.

"I didn't see this coming," shrugged Ode, surveying her loaves. "Did you know that gold miners would sleep with their starter, to keep it from freezing?" She made the gesture of a man cradling something right against his chest. She explained to me that she found the presence of Turtle Bread inspiring, not defeating—if they could do it, so could she!

"I guess you would call it a midlife crisis": Kim Ode and her outdoor bread oven
Tony Nelson
"I guess you would call it a midlife crisis": Kim Ode and her outdoor bread oven

I asked her if she's considered that everyone will be in her yard in the event of nuclear apocalypse, in order to use the oven. She squinted at me, marveling at the goofy things kids say. I asked her if her oven and her baking solved her midlife crisis, because, with her clear eyes and confident manner, she seemed the very portrait of the solver of the world's problems, not the haver of them.

"Yes, I'm much happier than I was five years ago," she said, laughing musically and touching her heart, in the manner of someone recovering from a small but startling surprise, a child darting out from beneath a table, say. "I never said that before, not even to myself. I have a new facet to my life now. I sure shook up the routine, and I found a community I didn't know existed before. I have a persona I never had before: I'm a baker. Not just a reporter, not just a mom. I like having that extra identity. I love having baking days, the whole ramping up to what I'm going to bake. Baking is a funny combination of being very methodical and very creative. Bread also doesn't clutter up the house when you make it: It gets eaten, and disappears."

I didn't tell Ode that it was that exact disappearing, that same transience in life, that she didn't like before she started baking—and the reason I didn't tell her is because she left to pull the bialys out of the oven. (At this point, I cowered inside in the warmth with the three-year-old, feeling absurdly daunted by the cold so early in the year.) By the time she returned with the bialys, I lost any thoughts I had—the smell of hot onions and fresh bread was bewitching, overpowering, fantastic.

When I was a kid, I loved bialys—the cute sturdy discs of them, the savory little nubbins, the rugged little dears. According to my dear, departed Grandma Millie, they stopped making good bialys in New York long before I was born, but I've loved the ones I've had, and Ode's were better than all of them. They were rugged, smoke-kissed, bready little angels wearing olive-oil-poached onion smiles; the crust was just resistant enough, the interior just yielding enough. Eureka! Suddenly, I could see the logic in carrying 3,000 pounds of concrete and brick into a Minnesota backyard to permit baking while the snow flies.

On the way home I said a little prayer to the god of future crises: When a midlife crisis comes for me, please may it too be resolved in such a productive, enlightening, fulfilling, and tasty way.

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