Writer Matt Kelly recently completed a three-month internship with Small World Food in Rochester, learning the art and science of making really great bread, sauerkraut and miso. As expected, he learned a few things in the process. But the things he learned aren’t what he expected. The below is the first in a series describing his experience at Small World.
Story and photos by Matt Kelly
“Have you made bread before?” asks Ruth Blackwell, one of the owners of Small World Food in Rochester.
Yes. Of course I have.
Which are famous last words.
What Ruth means is, “Have you made really great, kick-ass bread before?”
And what I should say is: Uhh… I don’t know.
Yes, I’ve made bread before. I even made it by hand. It turned out pretty good. Other people even enjoyed it. It tasted really good.
“Bread always tastes good,” Ruth says.
“Yup, bread always tastes good,” says Kelsey Smith, another owner, passing by.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a loaf taste bad,” says Nathan Carter, yet another owner of the cooperative business, after a thoughtful moment. “Which isn’t to say it was actually a good loaf of bread.”
It’s like bread always gives you a Participation Award. “Good job,” it says with a big, warm smile. “You showed up. Here’s a big, blue bow.” Which makes you think just showing up and a bit of mediocre performance is something really great and kick ass.
Then you start making bread with people who really know what they’re doing. And you quickly realize that all you were getting from bread before was a bunch of crappy little ribbons and a pat on the head: “Aw, you’re cute.”
But this is why you start making bread with people who really know what they’re doing.
Ruth watches me with a side-long glance as I shape bread, preparing it to proof. She’s shaping bread too, with machine-like rhythm and repetition; her hands always moving in the exact same way, loaf after loaf. It’s so automatic she doesn’t need to look. Ruth can watch me. Closely.
Yes, I’ve made bread before. But there’s a distinct way to form the bread to create a firm shape ready to balloon outward when the yeast rises for the final time in the oven. Dragging your hands along the metal surface of the table, passing the ball of dough back and forth between them with just enough friction to tighten and not tear the surface.
And there are two dozen loaves to make. For every one I shape, Ruth knocks out… I don’t know how many. They just keep appearing on the trays, perfectly formed, every time I look up. I keep trying to get the one in front of me acceptable.
“Here,” says Ruth, dusting her hands. “Let me show you.”
She steps in, the rhythm of her shaping never skipping a beat.
I watch closely and I promise you: I did everything she did. We each start shaping again. And somehow she and I end up with completely different loaves.
But this is why you start making bread with people who really know what they’re doing: no more ribbons.
A version of this piece originally ran here.
Matt Kelly recently completed a three-month internship with Small World Food in Rochester, learning the art and science of making really great bread, sauerkraut, and miso. Matt is a writer living in the Finger Lakes, slowly turning his home into a self-sufficient, food-independent, backwoods place of his own. He writes regularly at BoonieAdjacent.com.