Cooking Like Yourself

You might think it’s odd for a baker to go out and find other bakeries on their day off. I bake all the time, and surely I can make anything I want at home for a fraction of the price. Why should I go check out other bakeries in the city?

You might as well wonder why musicians go to other peoples concerts. Baking is my skillset and profession, and I definitely make a commodity, but it’s also a craft- and I like seeing how others practice it.

The same as there are different genres of music or literature, there are different cuisines. Within those genres, everyone has their own style. A way they practice their art that’s all their own, or a kind of art that they just vibe with and respond to.

There’s lots of ways to do this cooking thing, after all.

Animated GIF of The Stranger from The Big Lebowski sipping his drink and saying “I Like Your Style, Dude.”
I can’t tell you how long I’ve been waiting to make another Big Lebowski reference.
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Carpe Prodigialis

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.

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A Simple Dream is Still A Dream

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.

I want to be Matt the Baker.

Farmers markets took a lot of my time this summer, and the sales weren’t always the best- but they felt closer to my dream than anything I’ve done.

“Do what you love” is the best and worst advice you can ever give someone. Given a choice, few people would ever willingly spend eight hours a day doing something they despise, but figuring out how- or more often, what it is that you “love”- is a tall order. Even when you do, you have to figure out exactly how you’ll love to do it and what to do if that changes.

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.”

Stay Classy,

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Where Does the Wanderlust Come From?

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.

“Master, I go hunting.” – Ursula K. LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea
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“The World Has Enough of Us”- Why Not Everything You Love Needs To Be Monetized

I started making mead 9 years ago with a single jug, a beer fridge, and a jar of honey. It looked like a simple, fun, low-effort way to do science and get “free” booze out of it. It was a single gallon batch that I got ratio for from The Art of Fermentation. After about two weeks, I took a sip of my first mead- wildflower honey infused with some cinnamon sticks and a single split vanilla bean. It was cloyingly sweet but obviously had fermented slightly, so it was a win in my book.

The success of making a fizzy, slightly-alcoholic-but-drinkable beverage led to a years-long hobby. I’ve shared with friends, experimented, collected more books and (slightly) better equipment, and even won an award at the Oregon State Fair.

(To be clear, that award was a silver medal in a single subcategory. I came in second out of two entries in the “experimental” mead subgroup.)

A few weeks ago, I bottled my latest mead.

It was a version of one of my first metheglins (a.k.a. Mead with spices), but this time I wanted to Do It Properly. It wasn’t a “shake and pray” wild ferment. I’d made a 4 gallon batch using locally sourced honeys. I wrote down my sources, my water temperatures, the sources and amounts of the spices I used, and I used campden tablets and real cultured mead yeast to Make It Right. I didn’t know what “gravity” was for that first jug way back when. For this one, I factored time and temperature into recording the changes in gravity over five months.

The result was a spicy, warming mead that drank like a dry white wine. By any measure, it is my best mead yet- and I will never sell it to anyone. That’s because unlike baking and now writing, home brewing is something I want to keep mine.

“The Besamim Box”- A 12.7% ABV spice mead that drinks like a dry white wine. Made by me over five months, and absolutely NOT for sale.

The drive to Capitalize and Monetize everything we enjoy or may do well is thee double-edged sword of Damocles hanging over everyone’s head today. As soon as we realize we enjoy or have a knack for something, one of the first questions we are asked (or ask ourselves) is “how can I make money off of this?”

Why? Why is simply enjoying ourselves from the start not reason enough?

I remember the first time I realized I enjoyed making origami paper figures and that they made others happy. Within a day, I had set up a little table and chair on my nearly-empty sidewalk with a stack of square paper, trying to sell origami figures.

It wasn’t enough to just make me happy. Something told me I had to make it worthwhile- and that meant it had to make money. I dare anyone to tell me that my goofy 10 year old ass could have made a career out of selling origami figures on the sidewalk in Margate. At least the hobos selling wire-wrapped stones and pendants in Portland buy their own materials.

Baking and writing also make me happy, but I long ago decided I was willing to try making careers out of them. It’s either the best or worst thing you can do with a hobby you love. Often it’s both. I still love baking and creating in the kitchen, but when shit hits the fan and I need to stare down the barrel of a 60 hour week because all these pies need to be made, baking stops being a fun activity really damned quick.

It’s the same thing with writing. As much as I love writing, telling stories, and introducing people to worlds and ideas they may never have considered otherwise, when I’m not feeling it it is 1000% work.

For sources, look at roughly a third of this blog.

Meadmaking, though, is one hobby I insist on keeping a hobby. I may barter a bottle or two, but I will never sell it. I will never start a meadery (except as a joke. I’m on Untappd as “Le Chapeau Noir Meadery”) or go into the brewing business. No matter how good I might be or awards I might get.

Why? Because it’s mine.

We all need things at only have meaning to us that no one else cares about. The little things, activities, and moments that make us happy. We are absolutely inextricably connected and intertwined with each other, but we also need opportunities to explore and be ourselves. To understand ourselves a s a community of one.

For me, that means connecting with local beekeepers and honey vendors, finding new varieties, and bringing them mead made from their honey. It means giving bottles to friends as a gift, or just chilling down a bottle for my wife and I to enjoy on a summer night.

Mead is a thing I make that’s just for me to enjoy with those I love. No one and nothing else need interfere. There is no sin or failing in this- no “loss of potential” or waste simply because I’m not attaching a price tag to the result. The world has enough of us for so much of our waking lives- we can have some of ourselves TO ourselves.

What’s something you do that you refuse to monetize or share beyond yourself and choice others? Tell us about it in the comments!

Stay Classy,

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