The Horse Brass Pub is busy tonight. The cold and wind outside feels miles away when you are sitting at a small table over a hot meal and a pint of cold, dark, heavy beer. That is very much what I’m in the mood for.
My usual “writing table” is occupied, so I’ve found a similar two-top just to the right of the door and around the corner to better avoid drafts. Looking out the window at the darkening sky and swaying leaves, I know I’ve only go so long before I need to head home and eat dinner. I sit myself down, leaning my walking stick against the wall and out of the way, tuck my cloak under myself, and start to write.
I love the patience and craft involved in making what is functionally a poison enjoyable and desirable. I love the various ways it can be consumed, the kaleidoscopic pallet of flavors, colors, and styles that people have discovered over the millennia, and the fact that like any great creation it can be used and abused.
I love the conviviality that can spring up across barstools and beer halls. My wife has told me that I need to be careful where I go to sit down and write because I’m likely as not to lose time just getting into conversations with total stranger.
Not specific beverages or cocktails or places- the confluence of ALL of them with a particular feeling or mood. What times of the day, under what circumstances, do I find myself not saying “Ugh, I could use a drink” but “The right drink would make this perfect.”
Kick off your shoes, fill a glass, and vibe with me for a minute.
Like most of the internet, I’ve gotten a real kick out of the Tik Tok videos of Dylan Hollis. The vintage style aficionado and self-described amateur food historian has carved a space for himself on the internet with his bombastic personality and humor while testing out recipes spanning the 1800s to early 2000s.
The recipes he tries vary wildly in quality, and the recurrence of typically timely ingredients (especially lard and gelatin) regularly turn into comedic gold. More than once, Dylan strikes oil in his search for tasty recipes (“magic” peanut butter cookies and an eggnog recipe from the 1800s spring quickly to mind) and I sometimes use his videos as inspiration for things I can make at the pie shop.
Most often, I find myself intrigued by the recipes he picks and the trends they exhibit. WHY so much lard in everything made before the 60s? Why so much gelatin in mid-century America? Just HOW freaking high, lonely, horny, or all three must someone have been to create the “Candlelight Salad?”
The answer is, simply, that these recipes- like the books, movies, and music that were enjoyed then- are products of their time. Foodways are a part of culture and one can track the historyand trends of a period of time as easily in a cookbook as you could a textbook.
Fall is without a doubt my favorite season. Flip flops and shorts give way to jeans and boots, t-shirts becomes hoodie and scarves, and the world makes it clear that it’s getting close to time to wind down.
For everyone who’s not running a pie shop, that is.
As soon as summer ends, it’s the signal for my pie shop to shift into high gear. We’ve pulled out of farmer’s markets for the remainder of the year to focus everything on production. A frustrating and confusing decision for sure- fall is prime farmer’s market business- but in the context of a tight team, it makes more sense. The time between Halloween and New Years Eve is our Super Bowl. I have been trying to train my team and stock us up on supplies for the entire year, because we are about to make fully 30% of our income for the year in 8 weeks.
It’s “go time.” We’ll be ready, though. It’s what I’ve trained for, in the career I was born for. As pie after pie flies out the door into waiting hands, though, it’s easy to forget why I love being a baker. I’m no longer the adrenaline junkie I was when I started in this field, despite what my caffeine addiction might say about it.
Pie after pie after pie into one set of hands after another, it’s easy to forget that these customers are people- that our pie is going to be enjoyed by their families, and that it will make their various holiday dinners that much more enjoyable.
It’s important to do business well, but you can never forget why you chose to go into business or join an industy like this. For me, no matter how many pies I sell or books I write, I have one small and simple dream.
There’s lots of ways to be a “baker” or “pastry chef,” and the job itself can vary wildly. More time in the kitchen or less? Small operation, or a cog in a corporate machine? Fine dining or simple cafe? Year-round or seasonal? It takes a while to figure out what you like to do, and you can waste a lot of time chasing what you think you’re “supposed” to want or like doing.
So who would I be as “Matt the Baker,” and what would I do?
I would be Matt the Baker, and Matt the Baker would be me. I’d be a part of my community- The Baker. I’d make pies, cookies and pastries all day, everyday. I’d sell them and know each and everyone of my customers by name and face. I want to remember their birthdays and anniversaries, and make sure I have their favorite flavors on hand.
I want to have regulars. I want people who make my pie part of their routine, and I want to see their kids grow up eating my pie. I want to hire the ones that are curious, teach them to bake, and send them off to culinary school to learn to do more and better.
I have no interest in wholesale or catering. I want to pick and change my menu based on what is available near me and what my customers love. I don’t want any middleman between me that the people who eat my work. I know that will make my work more seasonal and give me less wiggle room- wholesale and events do offer a certain amount of financial security for all the effort that goes into making a retailer or organization happy- but it will never be worth the frustration and irritation to me.
My business will start. It will grow as far as I care for it to, and when- if- I’m ready to move on and not be Matt the Baker anymore, I will sell or leave it others and move on knowing I spent my life and time building something simple and beautiful, and needed for its time.
Plenty of people in this world will make a lot more money and be more “successful” without being able to say that.
I want to leave behind happy people, a lot of stories, and plenty of good memories. It may not happen as “Chef Matt”- but it will happen the closer I get and stay to just being “Matt the Baker.”
Portland is enjoying a smoky Indian Summer, and it’s a situation in which I truly wouldn’t mind being caught in the rain on my way home.
I’ve ducked out of the heat in the Side Street Bar- not-quite-dive off of Belmont. I’d intended to drop copies of my books off with a local secondhand bookstore. Apparently my knack for salesmanship doesn’t extended farther than pastry, so I figured by handing a few autographed copies over bookstores I could at least get a little marketing done for the cost of the books. This is Portland, after all- we love “local” everything, including authors.
Hiding from the sun isn’t my thing, even on a sweaty Sunday. As busy as the bake shop has been, I find myself “working for the weekend” and trying to get as much low-pressure living into 48 hours as possible. Sometimes that means going afield and exploring a new part of the city- sometimes it means going down the street to a pub where no one knows me, having a couple beers, and putting down a couple words.
Sometimes peace of mind looks like mountain-top retreats and hammocks on beaches, and sometimes it a couple cold pints in a bar playing classic blues on a hot day. It’s a matter of personality and perspective really.
I used to say that I got truly restless when I lost weight and suddenly had a lot more energy. I couldn’t just crash out on the couch all day- I HAD to go out. I had to see, to do, to walk, move and find. I also used to blame it on being a fan of Anthony Bourdain, but the time line doesn’t quite jive. Tony made me want to try, talk, travel, and tell stories- but I can’t blame him for my inability to just sit at home on a dull day anymore.
Where does the urge to go out and wander around come from? From the need to feel free, and the knowledge you can.