Julie and I have the rare treat of both being free this Saturday night, the even rarer treat of going out together to see friends, and the rarest treat of all, which is that these are my friends. Mineminemine.
Friends are good. I now have six, not counting the UPS guy and Gayle, the checker at Albertson’s. Been working at home a long time.
These are fun friends, all of us attending the same high school in Phoenix in the 70s and having, in unconnected but maybe sorta connected ways, ended up here in the Pacific Northwest. Last January we finally got together at a restaurant, the four of us, and repeated that a couple of times, and now we’ve decided to invite spouses/significant others/stray children to join us for a little dinner party on Saturday night. Fun.
Wait. Dinner party? And I have no idea where my tuxedo is. Bummer.
A party. With dinner. Salmon, I understand. And when we were spontaneously throwing this together over coffee last month, we divvied up the responsibilities, and in good Mickey-Judy fashion I said, “I can make bread.”
And I can. So I will.
I’ve been a bread baker for so long the origin story has become a little misty. And it’s been a few years since I really have eaten bread on a regular basis, although I’m still a fan. It’s just that it’s nutritionally marginal and has calories an aging guy can do without, particularly a guy who used to think that any food-like material could be improved upon by putting it between two pieces of bread, including soup.
I like dough, though. And sometimes I’m just in the mood to knead and bake and smell. So I’m good for Saturday night.
I wanted it to be special, though. Not just ordinary bread, if you could call my bread ordinary, which I would rather you didn’t. Something more artisanal, maybe, or unusual. On the other hand, it’s just bread, something to put in your mouth at a dinner party when you’ve run out of things to say.
And I did it. Yesterday, after a week of fooling around with a family favorite, cheddar bread, I found my dough muse and trusted my instincts. I kneaded, I rolled, I chilled, I folded. I used whole milk, real butter, more brown sugar than seemed prudent. I made rolls but almost croissants, stopping before I got all Frenchy but just in time to produce The Best Bread Ever. Cheesy. Garlicky. Flaky like a buttermilk biscuit but still maintaining breadness. It was golden and hot and I realized, then, that you either develop a sense of solitary pride or a peptic ulcer, because no one would know or appreciate my bread.
John had a couple of rolls. “Good,” he said, but then he always says this. Julie promised to have one when she got home at 11pm, but she was too tired and only wanted chocolate ice cream. And by then it was too late, anyway. You can’t nuke bread like this; it needs to be eaten within a narrow bread window. I had to be satisfied with knowing I had created pure goodness and leave it there.
Still. It’s a little depressing, although that could also be due to the darkness and the rainy-windy stuff we’ve endured the last few days. I grabbed a cold, already stale roll this morning and nibbled and I got nothing. A faint memory, maybe, and I walked outside to see if any trees had crashed on my front lawn from last night’s storm.
A crow was also doing a survey. I hate crows. They tear up my roof, they make noise, they peck at my grass and perch on the telephone line, mocking baby elephants and just being smug. I hate crows like I hate raccoons.
So I stood there, cold, once-magnificent bread in hand and watched this crow. Big one. Fat, even. Jet black. Smug, as I say, and completely unafraid. He looked me in the eye.
“I’m sensing some garlic,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said, almost against my will. “It counters the sweetness of the sugar and goes well with the cheese.” This is the way we talk, we bread bakers. It’s always the mix, and anyway the crow seemed interested.
“Do you mind?” he said so I tossed him a scrap and immediately regretted it. He took his time, looked at it from all angles, sniffed and cawed before gingerly taking it in his mouth and chewing thoughtfully. I was his prisoner.
“This,” he said, “is the best bread ever,” and I don’t trust crows by nature but I had to, I guess, or else mope all day. I gave him the rest, and he had more nice things to say, about texture and layering and actually pretty sophisticated stuff for a creature that usually eats bread out of trash cans.
I held my arms at my side, then, palms up and open in the universal sign for I Have No More Bread, and he snorted a little and went back to looking for worms, or whatever. I still hate crows, but a compliment can sway even a bird bigot like me, and suddenly he seemed sleek, beautiful even, all black and wingy and avian.
“You know,” I said, wondering if he’d heard the old joke, “you look like you could be wearing a tuxedo.”
“What makes you think I’m not?” he said, and flew away.