EXCERPT: Life, Death & Bialys by Dylan Schaffer

Thursday, October 5th, 2006

By piper

I could tell you that Dylan Schaffer — lawyer, novelist, and all around interesting guy — has written Life, Death & Bialys: A Father/Son Baking Story, a cool new memoir about parents and children, cancer and forgiveness, flour and yeast, but Schaffer’s YouTube music video says it so much better.
Life, Death & Bialys: A Father/Son Baking Story

And when you’re totally hooked on the odd duality of familial angst and breadmaking, c’mon back to read an excerpt of each. As Publishers Weekly says, “Schaffer’s dark humor holds the two stories together.” Or maybe it’s just all that GLOBby dough.

Life, Death & Bialys on Dad:

At six-thirty we sit at a table in L’Ecole, the fancy restaurant staffed by FCI students. We are waiting for my father’s oldest friend, Leon Arden, and his wife and daughter. The family lives in England, so Flip rarely sees them. Leon knows my dad is ill, but he doesn’t know this is likely the last time they’ll meet.

Flip is visibly nervous before dinner, rattling his fingers on the table, bouncing his skinny legs, clutching the stem of his martini glass as if it were the only oar in a life raft. I rub his back. He takes a deep breath, puffs out his cheeks, and forces all the air from his lungs. I tell him it’s going to be all right. He nods.

My father is a loner. He lives far from his children. Though he has been married to my stepmother, Jane, for twenty-five years, they have never resided in the same house or the same state. And though he has friendly relations with many people, Flip says he has no real friends. Except for Leon.

Leon is a clever, witty, cheerful man around my dad’s age, with slicked-back gray hair, chunky glasses that magnify his eyeballs, and a squeaky laugh. He is charming, a practiced conversationalist and drinker. Within a short time we are soused and chatting too loudly for the buttoned down restaurant.

The waiter brings a basket filled with baguettes and bordelaise. Flip fingers a slice while he gives a long and, in critical respects, inaccurate address on artisanal bread making. Though we have been in the class for just one day, my father’s tone is that of an expert baker on the witness stand. His know-it-all attitude irritates me. But I don’t say so. Instead I make fun of the way he mispronounces lamé, the tool we use to score ready-to-bake loaves.

Leon shushes me. He must know that most of what Flip is saying is wrong, or at least that his professorial tone is ludicrous. But he listens raptly with an adoring look in his eyes and actually claps when my dad concludes. I have never seen someone love my father like this, an old friend, protective and loyal.

I envy it. Watching them bullshit and laugh and reminisce makes me yearn to let go of my anger. All right, so he wasn’t around when I was seven, eleven, sixteen. That’s history. I’m a grownup now. Why can’t I just love the guy, warts and all? I know he’s going to die soon; so why can’t I be more forgiving?

As we exit the restaurant my father holds Leon back for a few minutes. Leon’s wife and daughter and I wait outside, under an awning, out of a hard, warm rain. When they emerge, Leon looks stunned. His jollity is gone. They do not make a fuss saying good bye. They do it like they’ve always done, two buddies from way back, with a handshake and a slap on the shoulder. I hug Leon. I say I hope I’ll be able to visit them in England. I hold out an umbrella and clutch Flip’s arm while we slowly walk the few blocks back to our hotel.

Life, Death & Bialys
on bread:

An hour after baking class begins I’m extremely sorry I came to New York.

I have the same too-much-chocolate, faintly nauseated and uncomfortable in my own skin feeling I had during my one semester of calculus. At first I do my absolute best to keep up. But soon I feel like banging my forehead on the workbench. There’s no way I’m ever going to understand any of it. Deep down I know I’d be smart to strip off my paper chef’s hat, wish them all good luck, and depart.

A kind-looking, soft-spoken German man named Hans leads the class. We call him, simply, Chef. He is perhaps fifty, with forearms the size of adolescent oaks. He has a baker’s face and belly, round and a bit doughy. He has long eyelashes, a closely cropped graying mustache, a pinched nose that slopes into a small knob at the end, and a fading tattoo of a compass on his left arm from his days in the German navy.

Hans wheels over a white board. This morning, he says, we are going to learn some basic skills, and bake the core breads of the French artisanal baker: the baguette and the bordelaise. At his direction, we open our recipe books to page 43, which contains the heading: Baker’s Percentage. A Baker’s Percentage, he explains, is the method by which we determine how much of each ingredient we use to make each batch of dough.

I whisper in my dad’s ear, “People usually call that a recipe.â€

But as I turn forward in the book, a page, and then another, I am stunned by a thicket of math and grids and formulas in bold type with unfamiliar acronyms, like AQF=TAF x %F. When I return to the lecture, I am hopelessly, helplessly lost; so lost that I’m afraid to raise my hand, because I would have no idea what to say, other than, Heh? I look at Flip, who must seem to the other ten students to be following attentively. I know better. My father is even more innumerate than me. Also he’s about fifty percent deaf. So, I’m positive Flip isn’t hearing what he wouldn’t understand anyway.

When Hans concludes the Baker’s Percentage discussion he encourages us to try some of the impenetrable exercises in the book in our free time. Several wisecracks come to mind, but the grave looks on my classmates’ faces keeps me quiet.

Hans tells us to turn to the first bread recipe, straight dough baguette. According to the book, this recipe serves the following “OBJECTIVES: 1. To prepare straight dough and its derivatives. 2. To understand the concept of autolyse. 3. To demonstrate proper shaping skills of all members of the baguette category.â€

I’m momentarily comforted. It’s not that I have any idea what autolyse is. But at least this bit is expressed in words, not numbers or formulas. And the objectives seem to be relatively straightforward. We make the dough; we learn to shape it. I have done both of these things before, at home.

Hans ignores the objectives entirely and begins a lecture on a subject that is nowhere in the book and has to do, again, with numbers and formulas. This time it’s something called friction factor.

Temperature, in baking serious bread, is king. If the dough comes out of the mixer at the proper temperature—in most cases seventy-seven degrees—it’s destined to cooperate for the rest of its short life. But, Hans warns, when you dump eight kilos of flour and water and other ingredients into an industrial spiral mixer—which looks like your basic Kitchen Aide stand mixer on steroids—and crank it up for several minutes, you end up heating the dough far above its ideal temperature. The skilled baker manages this problem by determining the friction factor of the mixer, taking into account the temperature of the rising environment, and adjusting the entry-level temperature of the water accordingly.

I must confess that it was not until much later in the class that I heard, let alone understood, this definition of friction factor. Now, instead, I’m stuck on the quantities Hans scribbles on the white board: 5000 grams of flour; 3100 grams of water; 50 grams of yeast. Although my metric skills are not totally trustworthy, I’ve been representing drug dealers long enough to know that 5000 grams is the same as five kilos, and five kilos is a hell of a lot of cocaine, or flour, or whatever.

I raise my hand. “How many loaves of bread would that make?â€

Hans says it depends on the size of the loaf you’re shaping; but for a baguette, about thirty loaves per batch.

I eat a lot of bread. Sometimes I eat bread several times in a day. But still, thirty loaves seems a bit excessive. I could probably make do with, say, twelve, even if I were planning to give some away.

When I glance around the room, I don’t see anyone else looking perplexed. The answer seems to make perfect sense to them. I tap Flip on the shoulder.

I whisper, “Why would anyone want to make thirty loaves at once?â€

He pauses for a moment and then says, “Good question.â€

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