Bread-Baking and the Art of Sucking

Note: This post was originally published on my embarrassing old blog, Project M, nearly three years ago. It was one of my more popular posts, and I’m re-posting it here because I still need to be reminded of this truth. And also because I’ve been too busy reading YA novels to write a new post.

For the record: I have since become a bread-baking NINJA. 

baking bread multigrain

I’ve been baking my own bread for the last year.

Which is to say that all the birds in the neighbourhood have been extremely well-fed in the last twelve months.

For an entire year now, I have been putting various flours together, mixing them with various different ingredients (yeast, oils, sugar, salt, etc), kneading them, baking them, letting them cool, and then taking the misshapen bricks of hardened dough to the back yard and pitching them into the neighbouring field.

I suck at baking bread.

I have created enough dense flour bricks to build a small palace for my gnomes. I have spent countless mornings munching on stiff rectangles of baked dough with my husband while we reassure each other, “It’s not so bad . . .  Just needs to be doused in oatmeal . . . It would probably make good croutons . . .?”

But for some reason I’ve kept at it. And occasionally I have made excellent loaves. Every once in a while, I get a beautiful, fragrant, springy warm loaf of wheatey goodness that quite possible makes the angels sing. And I cut away steaming slices straight from the oven and eat them — gloriously unadorned — coming back and coming back until the thing is half gone.

Ah, yes; I have made some wonderful loaves. I just glory in the beauty of homemade bread.

Today was one of those days. I made two perfect, delectable little loaves with lightly golden tops. And I realized that this was the third heavenly batch I’ve made in a row. And before that I had made at least four fantastic batches of baguettes, one after the other. And I had finally landed on a perfect recipe for rye bread that made mind-blowing veggie sandwiches every time.

In short, I realized that I was starting to become a pretty good baker. My time of total suckiness was coming to a close. I was beginning to master the art of bread-making.

As I was cutting up one of these lovely little loaves to store in the freezer (I’ve learned that slicing before freezing is essential), I thought about all those dreaded failures. I thought about all those sunken brown tops and hard crusts and burnt bun-bottoms. I’d had to make a lot of crummy loaves before I was finally able to consistently make good ones. And yet I realized that a year of frequent mistakes was a small sacrifice for a lifetime thereafter of frequent successes. It may have been an expensive year, but from now on I’ll be able to make healthy, economical, satisfying bread of my own.

All of a sudden, as I was standing there in my kitchen with the serrated knife in my hand, I heard a ding go off in my brain as I realized I had learned a life lesson: sometimes you gotta make a lot of horrible loaves before you can make a lot of good ones.

This is an obvious lesson which I have already heard a bajillion times, but one that I have never really felt or experience until now. I tend to assume that if I suck at something the first few times I try, it’s not worth doing — that it’s a waste of time and resources. But for some reason I was stubborn with the bread and am starting to actually get good at it.

Here’s my problem: I want to be good at things, but I often forget that being good at things usually takes a period of being sucky at them first. Or even just mediocre.

In mastering bread-making, I learned the secret of being good at stuff: taking a good long time to totally suck at it. There are no short-cuts, no free passes to awesomeness. Whether it’s cooking, painting, writing, parenting, driving, or washing laundry, you’ll have to screw up a couple of times or a couple dozen times.

I like to imagine that there was a kind of quota for suckiness I had to fill. Like, if I want to be a really awesome blogger, I have to fill my quota of sucky blog posts before I become really good at it. If I want to become a fabulous portrait artists, I have to paint a couple of crappy portraits where everyone looks like monkeys before I get to the really good ones.

When I admire another person’s talent and feel a twinge of envy, I just have to remember that there are probably plenty of failures stashed away in their closets or rotting in dumpsters, too. They didn’t get that good the first time they tried, either.

If I think about it this way, hopefully I’ll be able to take my failures more in stride from now on.

What kinds of things have you been lousy at in the past, which have enabled you to be awesome? Is there anything that you feel you suck at now, but are hoping to be good at in time?

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  1. I found your blog about a week ago and have decided I’m addicted to it! I love the way you say things and you bring up so many good, though provoking points!
    I can relate to this story a lot! I haven’t quite progressed to bread baking ninja status yet, but I have been doing trial and error on homemade bread (and other cooking things) for almost a year now and finally I am starting to feel like I am fairly decent at it. I’m just grateful I have a patient husband who is willing to put up with all my trial and error as I learn to be a good homemaker. By the way, do you happen to have a post where you share all your secret tips for making good bread? Trial and error is great, but I’m a fan of short cuts. :)

    • Thanks so much!

      Heh, sorry, Sandy: I don’t know of any shortcuts! The only tip I can offer is every time you try, write down EVERY LITTLE DETAIL about what you did. That way, when it actually works, you know how to exactly duplicate it. I discovered that even the way I scoop my flour makes a difference (for me, it’s best if I don’t quite fill my measuring cups, otherwise my dough is too dry). Hope that helps! :)

  2. I’m glad you reposted this piece, since I’m new to the blog since Project M, I hadn’t seen it before. And I love it. I’ve made my share of dense loaves (both literally and metaphorically). And discus pancakes, and frisbee roti. I was chatting today with someone about how I gave up at every sport I ever tried, as though looking for the one magical sport where I didn’t really have to move around. Same idea. We don’t live in a culture that invests in the long-term payoff, do we?

    I love that you apply it to how we compare ourselves with others too. I’m so guilty of comparison, and I never think of the real work that went into someone’s masterpiece.
    Laura recently posted..Lent II: RainMy Profile

  3. aww, i loved that embarrassingly old blog and i remember reading this post and literally hearing the ‘click’ as i ‘got it’. has it really been 3 years?! sheesh.
    alison recently posted..This is a testMy Profile

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