So, in the wake of that last post I decided to try to lighten things up a bit. Years ago, I lived in Talkeetna, a small town south of here on the other side of the mountains. I lived there off and on for many years and held many different jobs. The greatest by far however was when I was a baker for The Roadhouse. It was an interesting life as I worked the graveyard shift, 11PM to 7AM. I used to write much more then but stopped at some point. This blog is perhaps a revival of that.
Anyways, what follows is a short essay that I wrote during that time about my life as a baker…a slice of life if you will….sorry for that. It must have been in 1997 sometime. I edited it mildly from its original form.
Rising Time, musings of a midnight baker
I shake my head in an attempt to break the late night stare. It is somewhere around three in the morning and I am in the bakery of a modern day roadhouse in a small town in Alaska. I was not sure what to think of the hours at first but now I am rather enjoying the monk-like solitude. There are certain quirks; like the quick snap of the head in an attempt to catch the ghost that was just moving at the other end of the room (hallucination), the mid-shift coffee and chocolate sessions (refueling), and the progress stopping reveries that render one seemingly just shy of waking unconsciousness (midnight daydreaming…). The shift starts at eleven…PM. Being the graveyard shift I sleep during the day and if I get up in time I like to wander about town a bit as it is gradually shutting down for the evening. I wonder at times –but never fret over- what I might have missed with the passing of the day. This style of life requires a different way of going about the world.
The first rule is never drink coffee first thing; a cardinal rule. If you do, by the time you really need it (say about four AM) its effects will be less than exemplary. Always have good music; it is necessary for continued forward movement and maintaining an appropriate pace. Like a good mix tape you need to start off strong -not necessarily fast though- to set the stage as it were. About mid-shift you have to slow it down so that you do not burn out too fast. Of late a lot of jazz has been working for me. Start upbeat, but mellow, getting used to the idea. Then, as you move into the night go with swing; it keeps the pace for the early, mid-shift movement. The light flour dust that coats everything in a bakery makes for a wonderful mode of locomotion; not quite like skiing but there is certainly a slide involved. The same “kicking” motion as in skiing is used but not for distance so much as simply for forward movement. One can also incorporate spins, twirls, and a carefully executed split legged crouch…it probably looks more like dance than work. I smile at that.
One must use the early shift time wisely, make a list –ducks in a row- as it were. It can help to pace the night and is really an invaluable first step. It is the time to get everything set, not necessarily started, but ready to be. Never take a real break! Disguise your breaks as various busy work activities; such as the casual “not really looking for a new recipe” perusal of the various cookbooks, or the standing still, “visualization” of what the bakery case will look like –stocked and arranged- when the shift is all over. There is a sneaky, quick sit down time that can be used sparingly, but only at the right time. Used early shift it can ruin your drive. Used mid-shift it can break your momentum. I find the best time to be a brief lag just before the late shift juggle, where –with any luck- all of the last minute products are rising, sort of in a holding pattern just before going to the ovens. Usually this is also the time of morning when the dark of evening is begrudgingly fading into the blue of dawn. The clouds take on a color like dull, un-burnished steel, the trees like solidifying shadows. It is not really light but something akin to a nebulous dreamtime. Everything is real and surreal at the same moment, the time of myth. Luckily this juxtaposition of worlds does not last long and soon it is time to attend to the ovens.
This then brings us to another topic, that of timing. There are essentially two methods of timing that I use; the rigid and defined mechanical timer and the more free form, intuitive “oh shit” method. Pros and cons to each. Baking in many ways is a very measured sort of activity requiring a certain consistency, yet in other ways cannot be forced into a strict schedule. The timer has very obvious benefits. When you have many things going at once it can be set for the things that have relatively predictable time frames; cookies for example. Wasting product out of negligence is a bad idea.
On the other hand the “oh shit” method is so called for somewhat obvious reasons. Human error can be a major factor in this, either through poor judgment or forgetfulness. Everyone that has used an oven has burned something at some point…hence the timer. However, there is a certain esthetic quality to variance in repeated occurrence…in my opinion. If the cinnamon rolls look exactly the same every single day for months on end it would begin to seem dubious on this scale. Too perfect. Perhaps many would not notice, given the standard of repetition in modern human life; but then on that note inconsistency might be viewed as somewhat of a public service. Anyways, I like the personal judgment involved in this method and beside, baking times often need to be adjusted to account for environmental variance. Each to their own devices though.
For the time I double as both bread and pastry baker. Admittedly I prefer the baking of bread to that of certain delicacies such as brownies or cookies. Those and timers go very well together…personal experience you understand. I suppose though that my true joy is making cinnamon rolls, or “cinnies”. The dough is one that we make ahead of time and freeze. When I first come on shift the dough is in the cooler –thawed but still cold- having been placed there at the end of the previous shift. About mid shift one must begin preparing for the almost ritual like process; make ample space on the workbench and in the timing schedule, take the dough out to warm up paying it plenty of attention. It cannot dry out or it is difficult to work with. Nor can it be too cold. Once it is workable enough the process begins in full. The dough is stored in a round ball, but has to be shaped into a flat rectangle in order to make the roll. Both gentle handling and pin rolling are used to accomplish this goal. I love working the dough, using my hands to wake it up and get it active. Once the shape is sufficient the butter is brushed on and the various ingredients evenly distributed. Now as you know, or should at least assume from the name, cinnamon is a main ingredient. I have heard things about the effects of cinnamon on the human libido…certainly not something a monk-like baker needs in the middle of the night. I cannot truly testify one way or another on such claims, other than to say that this is a particularly sensual time of morning; the working of the dough, the wafting scents of hot butter and cinnamon/sugar, and the actively growing yeast. This is the preferred time for the mid shift coffee break reveries, the time when either the ghosts or my reactions are moving slower. This time is often followed by the quick sit down described earlier. This is time to gather your thoughts, make sure everything is in order, pick yourself back up and get moving. For now you face the final two hour crunch where you have to be right; right in the head and right with your timing lest the whole operation fall apart.
At this point the breads are coming out of the ovens, the pastries are cooling, and the cinnies are rising. A feeling of accomplishment begins to life my spirits, seeing all that has come to pass through the hours. It gets me ready for that final juggle. It is a good time of morning; the world is coming alive, the shift is nearly done, the cinnies have worked their magic and a generally pleasant state of mind settles in. The coffee high begins to ebb and fade; the timer now used more often. The end of the shift is the final push, a critical element in the entire process. Several items are going in and out of the ovens, the cooled items need to be arranged in the case, prep for tomorrow night’s shift, and the whole place needing to be cleaned and organized. It is a good time to reassert your skills of motion and busy work. The day crew comes on shift, bleary eyed and adjusting to the idea of another day. Music must be switched to something mellow or perhaps news.
Then, once everything is finalized I sit down to watch, waiting for the availability of breakfast. The staff wakes up, the doors are opened, and customers begin to arrive. Generally “oohs” and “aahs” occur with the first views of the bakery case. That is not meant as a boast, but I certainly accept the compliments when they come. My favorite so far being, “Uh Oh, the calorie man is back. Now I can eat this stuff again, I almost cried when you left.” It is nice to have a following. I do not know what happened here in my absence, but my return has been more than welcome.
I sit in my favorite spot on a stool in front of the window, watching the town come to life for the new day, knowing that I will not be involved. I casually wait for and eat my breakfast (dinner), all the while relaxing in preparation for the pursuit of midday sleep. Eventually I saunter home, the town not yet bustling. Arriving home I lay aside my “uniform”. I look out the window at the sunny day that is just beginning and with a bit of a sigh –of both relief and regret- I close the shades to block out the day and head to another land.
3:17, April 21st, 1997?