Men who love to loaf around

What’s not to like about a man who bakes his own bread?

Jetta Productions/Dana Neely/Getty Images

Near the back of the Cookbook Store in Toronto on a November evening, two men lingered in the bread-making section. Shane Carruthers, a cook who’s started to experiment with baking bread, carried How to Make Bread by Emmanuel Hadjiandreou in an Indigo bag. And Matt Harris, who doesn’t bake, left with a copy of Nick Malgieri’s Bread—for his wife.

That gave store manager Alison Fryer pause, considering that in the past 30 years, she and her staff have observed that roughly 90 per cent of their bread-making books have been bought by men. “When you point it out to people, they’re not really aware of it,” she explains. “But then the penny drops and they go, ‘Oh, that’s right. It is all males.’?”

What exactly fascinates men about mixing flour, water and yeast is debatable. It could have something to do with the fact that the most prominent European bakers of the past 200 years have been male, explains food historian Heather Evans of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. And although she notes that “cookery-book purchasing patterns don’t necessarily bespeak patterns of cooking,” the only bread-making cookbook Evans and her partner own in their vast collection was bought by him. “Perhaps,” she suggests, “all these bread-making books are being purchased with a view to integrating bread-making into the courtship process. What’s not to like about a man who bakes his own bread?”

Globe and Mail food critic Chris Nuttall-Smith believes the fixation has to do with the fact that there’s really nothing modern about it. “Bread is totally analogue,” he says. “It’s kind of like other things that a lot of men like, [including] golf and cars. Ultimately, they’re unknowable.”

Nuttall-Smith, who is currently obsessed with recreating a loaf of dark rye he had at a restaurant in Copenhagen, points to Jim Lahey as the person who’s “done more for bread and getting people to eat good bread.” After Mark Bittman wrote about Lahey’s revolutionary no-knead loaf in a 2006 New York Times column, it became the most popular recipe ever to run in the paper.

Lahey isn’t certain why more men than women bake bread, he says on the phone from New York City, home to his 18-year-old Sullivan Street Bakery, but he advances his own theory. “I would say that more often with men than women there is a desire or impulse to play with wet, gooey, sticky things.” Over the past 20 years, Lahey has noticedthat “the people who survive as bakers have come to terms with the fact that they’re not playing with a wet, sticky, gooey thing, but that the wet, sticky, gooey thing is a means to an end.” The end, of course, being a plump, piping-hot loaf of crusty bread, preferably slathered with butter.

Lahey learned how to make bread from male master bakers in Italy, where it’s rare to see females in the profession. It’s not so common in Canada, either. There’s Andrea Damon Gibson, the professional baker behind Toronto’s famed Fred’s Bread, who, when asked to name other female pros in Canada, mentions Saskatoon’s Tracey Muzzolini. Gibson, who learned to bake bread from her mother, suggests men’s obsession with dough might have to do with the thrill of creating something from very little, nurturing it and watching it grow. She says European-trained male bread-makers sometimes look at her as though she has a third eye when they learn she is one of them.

Not Giuliano Pediconi, a master baker from the Marches region of Italy, who’s in Toronto to consult on Terroni restaurant’s soon-to-open bakery. The 46-year-old, who also teaches bread making back home, where women are the majority in his classes, is shocked to hear of this postulation. But as he studs bread batter with bits of torn-up anchovy and candied orange peel, he reconsiders. Historically, bakers in Italy are men and, particularly in rural areas, even cutting the bread is left to the patriarch of the family. “Maybe there is a bit of narcissism at work, because the recipe is nothing—just flour, water and yeast—but to create bread out of nothing gives you a sense of accomplishment, a sense of?.?.?.?,” he says, raising his wet, sticky, gooey hands to his chest, “?.?.?.?‘I made this.’?”

Watch Terroni bakers preparing their daily bread (like you’ve never seen bread being made before.)




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Men who love to loaf around

  1. You are correct about the video. I have never seen bread making like that before. My eyes can’t move fast enough to see what they are actually doing. It’s a bit silly, really.

  2. As a professional baker with over 30 years of experience I would like to comment on this article. The notion of bread making as a masculine endeavour leaves many other voices out of the narrative. Bake rooms may be dominated by men, both here in North America and certain parts of Europe, France and Italy, where patriarchy exists, but there are many other traditions in the world where women are the bakers of bread. Throughout the middle east, Asia and Africa where flatbreads are cooked in residential clay ovens or on flat metal skillets, the baking is done in groups, communal fashion, and is the sole domain of the women of the house and neighbourhood. In eastern europe in countries like Poland, Russian and Ukraine, Slovakia, Latvia, etc, women are the builders of the sour dough rye cultures that are mixed by hand in a wooden bucket or trough, and women fire the old Russian masonry stoves with wood gathered from the back yard. So the general thrust of this article leans toward a sort of masculine apologist argument that bends facts to fit the various cliches about the pursuits that men…pursue.

    Also, the writing, research and various quotes show a lack of basic knowledge about baking whether it be as a home activity or a ramped up in a commercial/industrial setting. Although bread baking is a craft with “recipes made out of nothing” as Mr. Pediconi states, there is a world of science that lies behind those simple ingredients, “flour, water and yeast”. The wheat and milling industry from farm to mill to baker’s mixing bowl exists because of modern technology and high tech digital systems that place innovation, consistency, transportation, marketability and profitability as its central reasons to continued viability. The baking industry also has deep ties to it’s past, it’s ancient traditions are worthy ones, but don’t get lost in some of the romantic visions that some people still have about the grinding long hours, working by hand under candle light that our baker ancestors endured for centuries before the era of electric mixers, refrigeration technology and multi-deck steam injected ovens with computer controlled bake cycles.

    Take some flour from a bag in your cupboard and mix water, salt and yeast into it and see how far you’ll get. It’s harder than it looks in a book or on the TV. You may well end up with a leaden lump of dough that once baked, may be of more use as a door-stop. Your girlfriend, wife and/or family will praise your efforts as a “nice try”but it’s doubtful that “nice try” would last you long in a real bakery.

    That’s because baking is a skill that combines empirical knowledge, muscle memory, baking theory, baker’s percent, finely honed intuition, and knowledge and respect for the functionality of ingredients.

    Analogue indeed.

    The baking industry may be male dominated, and men (like me) may be drawn to work with bread dough for various reasons, but there are some fascinating stories about the pivotal role that women have played both historically and in the modern sense. One need only to Google or YouTube to read about or watch our sister bakers in action, worldwide. Before falling under the sway of of somnambulist hyperbole such as this article, see what’s really going on in kitchens and baking rooms across your street and across the world.

    • Good points. Never baked before tartine the book. Now I have a nice house yeast started and two loaves in the oven every weekend. I’m stoked with the result. So is everyone else who has tried it. It’s not me it’s the boom… me

      • Foot in mouth. Autocorrect: it’s not me it’s the book…

  3. Nice article I’m a baker myself and its great to read an article about the magic and romance of bread baking. I was a manager in a credit union for twenty years before I came back to the family bakery that was started in 1918. Since I been back my life does seem a lot more analogue and I like it.
    Tony Blak Windsor Ontario

  4. Thanks to David it’s pretty clear now how complex baking of bread actually is. To many things can go wrong especially in a home setting. Some very serious singular attention and deep focus has to be employed to make it work. Never mind sufficient kneading to make proteins properly line up. I have a hard time to imagine a woman with a million things on her mind, and a million things they do in a busy day to have energy and will to spend 2 hours in totally concentrating on making a loaf of bread. It’s just like it is for Jessica “the recipe is nothing—just flour, water and yeast”. Also it seems that men have natural tendency to single out one thing and focus on one thing at a time which is important for baking bread. Not very many woman behave that way.

  5. Thanks to David it’s clear how complex baking of bread actually is. To many things can go wrong especially in a home setting. Some very serious singular attention and deep focus has to be there to make it work. Never mind sufficient kneading to make proteins properly line up. I have a hard time to imagine a woman with a million things on her mind and million things they do in a busy day to have energy and will to spend 2 hours totally concentrating on making a loaf of bread. For most of them it’s just like it is for Jessica “the recipe is nothing—just flour, water and yeast”. It seems also that men have natural tendency to single out one thing and focus on one thing at a time which is important for baking bread. Not very many woman behave that way. They would perhaps rather go to a nice friendly bakery on the way home and enjoy buying bread.

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