Dough's Life Lessons

by Les Saidel - November, 2014

I often get mixed reactions from people when I tell them I'm a baker. Some respond with "Wow, that's so coooool!" while others tend to regard me as a lower life form, like a security guard in a mall "Sheesh, how boring can that be!" When I indulge in self reflection I also tend to swing between days of "This is so great!" and "Oh, what a drag!" but in general I feel pretty good about what I do.

No matter how you make your living, whether a gardener, a brain surgeon, a housewife or a nuclear physicist, I guess the trick to being happy with what you do lies in looking for and finding the sublime and perhaps even the Divine in your work.

For a baker, one need look no further than dough! All bakers work with dough of some sort, bread dough, cookie dough, pastry dough etc. Could there possibly be anything sublime or even Divine in this oftentimes sticky goop? Well I started thinking about it a little more deeply and was very surprised to discover how many parallels I could find between dough and human beings and how much we humans could learn from something as simple as dough. So join me now in this revealing journey as we delve down deep into dough's true messages to humanity.

There are so many different types of dough. Bread dough, for example, "rises to the occasion." There is dough that is flexible, dough that is stiff, tight, more fluid, softer, harder, lighter, darker, finer, more coarse, …the list just goes on and on. In fact you could say that there are as many personalities in dough as in people. Any bakery worth its salt will have a wide variety of baked goods derived from different types of dough, to suit different tastes, occasions etc. A bakery that sold only one type of bread would be a pretty boring place. Similarly, our world consists of different people with different personalities, character traits and behavioral patterns, and that is what makes it an interesting place to live. If everyone thought and behaved like you, wouldn't that be boring?

Dough, like people, needs an appropriate and conducive environment to function optimally. Yeast dough, for example, if provided with the optimal temperature of 27 degrees C and a relative humidity level of 65% or more will thrive, flourish and rise well. Dough needs to be handled appropriately according to its state. Tighter dough needs to be handled more gently or it may rupture and rip beyond its elasticity limit. Looser dough needs rougher handling to tighten it up and give it structure. Aren't we humans exactly alike? Don't we thrive when we have optimal conditions, climate? environment? When we are uptight or on edge, don't we need to be treated with kid gloves for fear of pushed past our limit? If we are sloppy, lazy and lackadaisical, do we not require a stronger hand to get us back on track and into line?

One of the features that most makes an impression on me is dough's resilience. How many times do you read in a recipe for bread a line directing you to "punch down the dough?" When you punch it down, it just springs straight back up a few minutes later. In fact, by punching it down, you make it rise even higher than before! If only we were more like dough in that respect. If only we could ride with the punches life throws at us and spring straight back, stronger than ever.

Dough is a very forgiving medium to work with. If you are a carpenter or metal worker, if you make the slightest scratch or glitch in your work, it will remain there for all eternity. If you are braiding a challah, for example and you do not roll the braids exactly right, or symmetrically when you initially braid the challah, you will see all kinds of wrinkles, seams and extrusions. However, if you then leave it to rise, all the imperfections miraculously disappear, the wrinkles are all ironed out and the end result is usually great. How reminiscent of raising children is that? If you harp on all your child's imperfections and accentuate them, they will probably end up being permanent when they become adults. Conversely, if you provide a loving environment that accentuates their strengths rather than their weaknesses, when they grow into adulthood, most or all of their imperfections will disappear and what becomes dominant are their good traits.

Dough that is pumped full of air does not necessarily make a better bread. Lightness or airiness is not always the "be all and end all" when evaluating bread quality. Other factors play a role too like how healthy is the bread? Is the bread better simply because it has more air? What about whole grain bread that is denser? Often we are fooled into thinking that that which is puffed up and more visually attractive is the better product. We know deep down that it is not only the "preening" and the outward appearance that matters but also the substance. What kind of people do you prefer? Those who are puffed full of hot air and little else, or those who have some substance, integrity, honesty, values?

Dough does not become dough in an instant, like mixing a cup of coffee - it requires hard work. You have to carefully select the right ingredients, add them in the correct quantities and order, then you have to painstakingly mix or knead the dough before it obtains the correct structure and texture. Character is not created in an instant. It comes from careful attention to detail and from painstaking, sometimes repetitive hard work. Who is more likely to succeed? Someone who has no clue how to manage finances and who suddenly wins the lottery? Or someone who is a self made man and has made his fortune through sheer hard work? One thing is for sure though, all of us wouldn't mind a little extra dough!

Gluten, the complex protein that gives dough much of its character has two main properties, it has elasticity (meaning that when stretched, it retracts) and it has extensibility (meaning that it can be stretched without tearing). The perfect dough has a balance between elasticity and extensibility. People who have a balance between give and take are the most well rounded individuals. Someone who is greedy and always taking is no better off than someone who is always giving and leaving nothing for themselves. One needs to find a balance between the two.

Dough, if left up to its own devices will become a sticky, sour smelling mess all over your floor. Dough needs to be limited by space, by shaping or placing in a loaf pan. It needs to also be limited by time and then baked or it may become sour and unusable. People also need some kind of framework to turn out right. Without a schedule of getting up at a specific time each day, engaging in some kind of industry, a job or other similar activity, having some kind of framework that defines our lives, we could easily go to ruin. People often fantasize of getting up at whatever hour, lazing on a beach the whole day, sipping long, cool drinks, usually people who lead hectic and pressured lives. I can assure you that after one week of such indulgent behavior those same people will long for their previous framework, their structure. The human organism was not designed to be idle. When astronauts float freely in space without the pressures present here on earth, they quickly develop anatomical and physiological anomalies.

Dough that is made by hand, with love, respecting the natural laws that define it, ends up becoming bread with character, with complexity of taste, texture and aroma. Dough that is made by machine, on a conveyer belt, has a much greater chance of ending up looking and tasting like cardboard. When you treat people with love and respect, those people will usually reward you with a healthy dose of the same and turn out to be people of character, interesting, vital people in your life. If you treat people with disrespect and disdain, they will be indifferent or even antagonistic toward you and detract from your life rather than contribute to it.

I could go on for at least another 8 pages as I have above, but I think you have the general idea. If you try, you could find so many things sublime in even the most mundane, that could fill a book. The trick is opening up your eyes and looking for them. It begins with an optimistic approach that there exists some intrinsic good in everything and everyone on the face of this earth. Even the most evil people in history had something good in them - Hitler loved his dogs. If we all learned from and applied the good things in everything and everybody and discarded the bad things, what a utopian world this would be.

Les Saidel


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