Good evening, friends and neighbors!
As I write this, I'm sitting in the central court of Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, PA. I dearly love coming here. It feels like a microcosm of the wild, manic city it's nestled in. All around me are people from all walks of life- youth groups on tour, oohing and ahhing at every little thing,
professionals taking late lunch breaks before hustling back to the office,
husbands and wives doing their grocery shopping,
and, of course, in the background, the men and women who call this place their office- the ones who spend between 8 and 12 hours everyday making sure this place is just as remarkable, wild, and exciting as it is.
Writing is sometimes an awkward thing. I sat down three times this weekend, determined to write SOMETHING for this blog. Three times I sat down in placid surroundings- quiet, calm, and nothing to distract. It was only here, however, amidst the noise and manic choreography of a marketplace that I felt I had something to write about.
Good evening, friends and neighbors!
I'm willing to bet everyone has heard the aphorism I picked for the title of this entry in one way or another. "You get out what you put in." "You get what you give." "If you want the best, use the best."
Obviously it applies to your work, your relationships, your hobbies, your lifestyle- virtually everything (food and baking in particular!)
It applies to your mind too. I've mentioned in a previous post about how artists build up a mental gallery, comprised of everything in a given medium they've ever experienced. Painters recall their favorite works, poets their favorite poems, cooks and bakers their favorite dishes. From these elements, they draw inspiration to create what's new.
It follows then: if your gallery is filled with asinine crap, what can you possibly put out? The only thing you can get out of bad examples is dire warnings. Good musicians seek out the work of other good musicians. Good writers read good books, and culinarians should eat good food.
As I was thinking of what to write for this entry, my eyes wandered around my bedroom and fell on my bookshelves. I read quite a lot, and very varied subjects- religion and philosophy (comparative theology was an interest for much of my life), psychology (my BA degree), poetry, fiction, biographies, epics, and- of course- my cookbooks and food texts.
Much of what I know and do is not just due to personal experience and education- formal, tangential, and otherwise,- but also to the sheer amount of information and quality of work I had chosen to surround and bombard myself with.
Here are some of my favorites. The list nowhere near definitive, but for anyone out there that wants to build a mental gallery of their own- or just have some interesting material to hang in it, I highly recommend these as a starting point.
I was working my day job not too long ago, and got into a conversation with one of the other bakers- a talented cake decorator of 20+ years who confesses that, after so many years in the culinary world, she has developed a love/hate relationship with baking. The conversation echoed ones I've had with students and professionals alike, with various amounts of scoffing. We were looking at a catalogue from a chocolate decor company, depicting fantastically designed cakes and desserts (using their chocolate elements, of course.)
My friend: "Look at that, how gorgeous is that!?"
Me: "Very pretty. Looks a bit too busy for me, though."
My friend: "What do you mean, busy? This is art!"
Me: "I never said it wasn't! Whoever did it clearly has skill, talent, and vision- I just wouldn't want to eat it."
I wasn't lying at all. The picture was of an immaculately conceived wedding cake- pristine flowers of gum paste exploded from the corners. Delicate chocolate work clung to the velvet-smooth sides of the tiers seeming to defy gravity. Flashes of color seemed to dance over the cake, like wisps of flame against a snowy field in a full moon.
It was pristine.
It was exquisite.
It was positively breathtaking.
I didn't want to eat it.
So, in my opinion, it failed as food.
As I've discussed before, very often I've been asked by friends and relatives if I didn't want to have my own show someday, going into a business like Ace of Cakes or Cake Boss, and my lack of desire for such work has been met by various levels of incredulity. I recall one conversation with a relative who was positively exasperated and infuriated when I insisted that I didn't want to grow my business to such a point that I would no longer have to bake- in his words, where I could "just show up on Monday, collect my check, make sure no one's hurt themselves, and leave."
He insisted I was being idealistic and naive. I insisted that he just didn't "get it."
In a way, we were both right.
To my mind, food shouldn't just be beautiful- it should be appetizing. Any outward beauty or elegance should be in service to making the dish whet the appetite- to make that first bite "taken with the eye" utterly intoxicating and addictive. Food is a unique art form in that a vital part of its existence and reason for being is its destruction. Name a single book what was written with the INTENT it should be destroyed. How about a painting? A song written so that it should never be sung by anyone again? It doesn't exist.
Only food finds its ultimate fulfillment in its moment of destruction.
Food, despite all the meaning and beauty and symbolism we attach to it, is what in the end? S*** in waiting.
What makes food beautiful to me? Three words- "Simplicity, with elegance."
Put another way, ordinary things done extraordinarily well.
I want my food to look like food, but I want it to look like EXQUISITE food. For example, can you think of something more plain and ordinary than a pie? They are everywhere- housewives make them. Definitely not something you'd find on the menu of a Michelin Star winning restaurant.
A pie done with ELEGANCE, however, is something else.
A warm, soothing aroma from the oven that wraps its arms around you like a loving grandmother.
A soft, crackling sound from the crust as it cools and the layers shrink and separate.
The intricate, delicate crimping of the edges- reminiscent of a wreath of flowers, or a hand-sewn lace.
The engaging, golden color and shine, provided by a perfectly mixed eggwash, brushed on the crust at the RIGHT temperature, at the RIGHT time.
Vents, clean and sharp as the knife that created them, offering a peek at the goodness inside.
And finally, the filling- homemade, with the BEST and FRESHEST ingredients, in the PRECISE proportions to create a filling neither too stiff, nor too runny.
Just writing all that made me drool.
It is wonderful, necessary, and desirable to have artistry and skill. But elegance and finesse are something completely different. If you can execute your work with that, even the simplest things can be a work of art.
And they'll be food.
Food that people want to eat.
and of course,
Good afternoon, my friends! Sorry about the month long silence- restarting my day job has unfortunately drawn much of my time and attention, as well as recipe experimentation and baking for a few weddings and parties upcoming. Please accept the following blog and picture dump as recompense:
About the Author
The Black Hat Baker, a.k.a. Matt Strenger, lives in SE Portland, Oregon as a professional baker. Here, Matt bakes, cooks, exercises, and explores, returning to his wife and their hobbit hole up Mt. Tabor to write about all of it.
Email the BHB at blackhatbakery(at)gmail(dot)com
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