Yeast Are Never Depressed

Jim Lahey's Bread

Best Food Writing 2015
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I am depressed.

I can’t choke it down any longer. Like a fat birthday boy demanding the largest chunk of cake by moving his hands farther and farther apart, my depression has eyed me, every day wanting a bigger and bigger piece. This morning it took all of me.

Maybe I’m still sick with the flu, I think when I awake. It’s possible. I’ve been pummeled for more than 12 days with it. That could be the reason. I consider calling my assistant, Annie, and telling her not to come to work. Annie is cheerful. Sometimes relentlessly cheerful. I want to murder relentlessly cheerful people when I’m depressed. But I flutter the idea out of my mind. Isolation is the worst thing, I’ve learned from a lifetime of experience. Then I remember the bread dough that has been rising on my counter for almost 20 hours. I’m happy until I walk to the bathroom and forget I’m happy.

A walk. I will take a walk. And at the unholy hour of eight in the morning, I am outside, walking down the gentle slope of our road. I smell wet: damp leaves, sweet; soaked bark, earthy and dark. Crows caw and warn the others of my approach. My stomach clutches. When I’m depressed, everyday pleasures cause me such angst and guilt. I’m reminded that I’m constitutionally unable to be buoyed—no matter how momentarily—by something outside of myself. I prefer gray, obliterating skies, or better yet, night; the cold shoulder of winter; lashing storms, like yesterday’s downpours—anything that a normal person would consider depressing because I find refuge in them. Unlike an animal that changes its appearance to blend into the background, I am camouflaged by bleak, gloomy, and untoward surroundings, and I don’t have to explain myself to others. Doesn’t everyone get down on rainy days and Mondays? They even wrote a song about that.

Depression is cunning, I think, watching the floodwaters gush over the falls down at the bottom of the hill. It first figure-eights between my feet like a cat trying to trip me up. I can usually outmaneuver it–a few quick steps and I fox-trot out of the way. But then the seduction begins. It slithers up, licking my calves, the insides of my thighs. For the past several days, I’ve felt it trying to lace its fingers between mine, wanting to pull me toward it so we can waltz. Me listless, feet dragging while it, haughty and victorious, sweeps us through the rooms. When this happens, The One usually steps back, watching from a distance. He knows I will, in one vicious swipe, attack him. Twenty-two years of trial and error has shown him that only when I reach out should he comfort me. And I like to call him to me when I’m sitting down. He wraps his arms around me and strokes and kisses my head. The thrum of his voice deep in his chest soothes. At these times, I need to feel smaller-than, to feel someone bigger in who I hold the childlike hope that he can make it all go away. When I am well, I will again tower over him, but not before this leaves.

Back from my walk, I turn on the oven and inspect the bread dough. The top is a riot of bubbles, like winking eyes. Although I’m a baker of sweets, I turn to bread when I’m down. Single-cell microscopic fungi springing to life, not just surviving but thriving, give me hope. For each loaf, they have the equivalent of a frat-house kegger, gorging themselves then farting, belching, and gorging some more. I think how apt it is that “yeast” rhymes with “feast,” for that’s what they do, that’s their sole job. To feast.

Jim Lahey's Bread
“Yeast are never depressed, I bet,” I say to no one. I fold the dough over itself several times, place it on a floured towel, and cover it. I sit, watching, knowing I will grow too distracted to notice it rising. It will take more than two hours to double in size, but I hope some of the party atmosphere will rub off on me.

I write. I clean. I sigh deeply. I miss my mania. I want somehow to ignite those fireworks that have sparked and exploded in me, whispering, “You can do anything,” making plans for me that I will never keep. I want to sing; singing is always a sign I feel good. But no song comes. Just two lines from Hedwig and the Angry Inch: I put on some make-up, I turn on the eight-track…” loop through my head. I try to divine meaning in them, but there isn’t any, just some detritus left over from a Times Talk.

After the dough has risen, I flip it into the searing-hot Le Creuset pot, and it sticks to the dish towel. I try to shake it off, but the clump hangs above the pot, pendulous. “This dough is a piece of shit!” I yell, which expands to include “This recipe is a piece of shit,” and inevitably bleeds into “I am a piece of shit.” I am a screwup. I claw the dough from the towel, throw it into the pot, and slide it into the oven. Any joy I had derived from baking the loaf is gone. It will be a mess, look freakish, and I will have failed. I will feel no modicum of accomplishment, which can, sometimes, lift me, just for a moment, when nothing else will.

Pulling the loaf from the pot 45 minutes later, I marvel, Yeast is amazingly forgiving. The loaf is not even misshapen, and it’s richly brown, with pockmarks and desert-like cracks ripping through its surface. That’s why I turn to bread when depressed, I believe: It bears no grudge. Puff pastry, brioche, and pâte à choux are punitive doughs. But this ordinary bread, with its punch-drunk yeast, can cope with being cursed at and mangled. Bread is the dough of the depressed, the worried, the anxious, the burdened.

I am still depressed, but at least I now have the carbs. I cut myself a slice.

David Leite's signature

Recipe

Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Bread

Comments

  1. David, It’s a good deal later than when you wrote the above, so I’m hoping that things are looking up. I’ve been such a bad communicator lately, but I hope you know that you are never far from my thoughts. I mean, every time I step into my kitchen I’m reminded of you. I was here to print out for the umpteenth time the fabulous, gooey Hepburn Brownie recipe (Q’s request), and I started reading this essay. It brought back so much of that crazy “Year of the Saint” — I notice a commenter above also mentioned it. I hope you know, if you could perch atop all the gratitude and admiration I have for you, you’d be sky high, David. As is, I’m glad you have yeast! Please be well and say hi to The One for me.

    1. Allison, it is so good to hear from you–and Q. Thank you for writing. Things are better, yes. I’m still not sure why I fell into the hole. Could have been just happenstance. I hope all is well with you and your new life. So much possibility!

  2. Well… you made me tear up. You express yourself so well. I hope the bread/ yeast is a metaphor for your/everyone’s life. What may look like merde, will be fine in the end.
    Keep writing, keep venting. You have lots of online support 🙂

  3. Beautifully written, David. I find there is something very comforting in baking, especially bread. My dear mother passed away on 20 April, after a courageous battle with cancer. In all of my grief, my thoughts keep turning to wanting to bake. Perhaps I will make my mother’s cookie recipe when my brain isn’t so consumed with sadness. I did make bread this week… in the breadmaker and it came out terrible. I’ve been making the same bread in that machine for years, never came out bad… but the end result wasn’t the point. It was the process… listening to the machine churn and the smell of freshly baked bread permeating my kitchen. I will make a loaf from scratch. I think it will be even more therapeutic. Thank you for writing your thoughts…. keep them coming. You will always have readers that appreciate them, no matter how dark they are sometimes.

    1. Thank you, Pina. I’m so sorry for your loss. I hope your bread making sessions help. I’ve been baking bread every day since last week. It seems to have done something, somewhere inside.

  4. Well. Once again, you’ve inspired me. If you can make something beautiful (the bread and the writing) out of the depths of sorrow, that’s something to attempt. Next time I’m down, I’ll think about this. Much love!

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