The Pleasures of Baking in an Age of Abstraction

I am a conflicted child of the Internet age. Though I try to limit my time online — I don’t have Facebook or a smartphone — it still holds an irresistible appeal for me. On Twitter, I often get lost in a maze of scrolling, tabbing, and linking. Afterward, when I emerge from wherever Twitter is, the room in front of me retains the artificial white of my Mac’s screen, as if the ghost of the digital world remained. Only when my eyes adjust do I notice I’ve been slouching and the slight pain in my back. I feel as if I’ve been absent from my body, and am only just now returning to it. 

Near the beginning of his book The Pleasures of Reading In An Age of DistractionAlan Jacobs recounts how he lost his ability to focus while reading books: the briskness and brevity of reading online had made it difficult for him to be absorbed in a book, something which he’d previously enjoyed without difficulty. The restoration of that pleasure came from an unlikely source: his Kindle. Jacobs found that pressing the ‘next page’ button on a Kindle gave him something to do while reading. With his Kindle in hand, he won back the joys he’d once known and his capacity for sustained attention. 

Distraction, though, is not the only pernicious consequence of time spent online: Abstraction is another. Often, after I close my computer and as I wait for my eyes to adjust, I wonder what unites the world and its backlit representation. What does my Twitter feed of arguments, thinkpieces, and news share with the silent room in front of me? Limited to the sense of sight, the world can seem an abstract entity. So too the self. Words and images cannot capture the idiosyncrasies and dynamism of personality, much less those aspects of identity manifested by the body. Yet our online profiles do represent us, albeit imperfectly, and this introduces a certain cognitive dissonance. Whenever I update my Twitter profile I feel caught between my avatar’s sparkling eyes and my own, squinting to make sure the photo is centered.  

About the same time I started using Twitter more often, I began baking bread. The early results varied in quality, but I enjoyed the process immediately. I loved the way the loaf’s aroma filled my apartment, the dappled crust when it was fresh from the oven, the warmth it gave my hands, and of course, the taste. It took a few months, though, before I knew to listen to my bread. At first, it is silent: shocked by the cool air on this side of the oven door. Then it erupts. The kitchen fills with the sound of the crust expanding and shifting, like continents sliding apart from one another. Now each time I bake I look forward to that moment. More than any other part of baking bread, it is listening to a fresh loaf that joins the pleasures of creating and receiving from creation. In that moment I am a worker and a witness: pleased by this thing my hands have made and surprised by what the world has contributed to it. 

It’s this that frustrates me about time spent online: I have nothing to show for it. As soon as I close my computer, anything I’ve written or read is inaccessible to my senses. And while I rationally know that it still exists, without the assurance of my senses I’m susceptible to the suspicion that it doesn’t. Worse, most of what I read online I don’t discuss with other people, isolating it still more in my memory. Baking, though, gives me something to show. Each loaf is a tangible assurance that I am a self whose actions exist independently of my mind. Bread, too, disappears but it is remembered with the mind and the body, often as the occasion of a meal shared with friends. 

I’ve recently begun preparing dough before going to work. Since I’m absent for most of the day, I can’t give the recommended number of folds, which help strengthen the dough, trapping the carbon dioxide produced by the yeast inside the dough and giving it elasticity. When I get home from work and shape the dough I can usually tell that it doesn’t have the cohesion it should. But baking surprises me. Whatever my missteps in the process, the loaves are always transformed in the oven — misshapen spheres of dough enter, golden domes emerge. Each time I’m grateful for the work the materials themselves do to make up for my incompetence. Pulling a beautiful loaf from the oven after failing to give it the attention it should require feels a lot like grace. 

Baking bread isn’t all pleasure, of course. I’ve burned the bottoms of the last two loaves I’ve baked. I didn’t mean to — I’d forgotten to flour the bottom of the Dutch ovens. The charred result was a reminder, though, that the world exists independent of my will. Iris Murdoch has a lovely passage along these lines. Learning Russian, she writes, “is a progressive revelation of something which exists independently of me. Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality. Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal.” Bread may be a reality you can swallow, but this hardly negates her point. Baking reveals a world with constraints — the ingredients, time, and temperature— that reward patient attention. Only by apprenticing myself to the materials can I collaborate with them in creation. 

What renders Twitter so engrossing — its frictionless navigation — is also what renders it surreal. Thanks to superfast connectivity, I can go where I please, when I please, without needing to consider time or space. It is a world without constraints. And yet my Twitter feed is mostly national politics, media brouhahas, and anecdotes of the lives of more people than I could ever know. It is a world at larger-than-human scale, impervious to the will of just one more user. This peculiar combination — ease of navigation and immensity of scale — is alienating. The world and my self seem like twin abstractions, immeasurably distant from one another. 

A finger inadvertently grazing the inside of the oven is enough to bring me back. There’s nothing abstract about a thumb throbbing from contact with metal heated to 475º F. The shock of pain and the resulting welt remind me just how close my self is to this world. And ever since we burned through our oven mitt a few months ago I’ve had plenty of reminders. 

I don’t plan on giving up Twitter any time soon: it’s directed me to places I never would have found otherwise, on and offline. But the time we spend online changes us in ways that are still becoming apparent, in these early days of the Internet. If reading can be a balm for our collective loss of attention, then perhaps baking can help heal the lives we live in abstraction. Often when I’m on the train I’ll be seated next to someone dragging their thumb down their phone’s screen, over and over, refreshing for notifications again and again. What they — and I — need is to be restored to the many pleasures of this world. And the best remedy may be something else to do with our hands, even if it occasions a blistered finger.