The pleasures of baking alone

I got the urge recently to bake bread. It’s been a while since I did this. I’d forgotten how easy it is to do and how nice it is to eat.

Years ago I was given an unglazed ‘bread pot’ as a gift. It came with a simple recipe (minimal work) and I used it a lot. It never failed. I got it out of the cupboard the other day,  mied up the dough using yeast I wasn’t even slightly sure was still alive, and once again the pot delivered. A delicious loaf of homemade bread and the house warm with that saliva-inducing scent that only comes from bread.

I bought some kibbled grains for the next go round and found a different recipe (pre-fermenting, two risings, more kneading) for a wholegrain loaf. It’s in the oven now – two  free-form loaves gently rising and baking in the oven. Already the house smells wonderful and we’re not even halfway through the baking time.

I love baking. It’s so satisfying: the miracle of boring and tasteless ingredients transforming through some combination of heat, liquid and phsyical mixing into deliciousness.

It’s also satisyfing because it’s so fundamental. Baking bread is saying to the world, I can look after myself. I’ve been feeling pretty wretched lately with a combination of stiffness and unusually bad fatigue, but bread conquers all.

I bake, therefore I will survive.

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Being neighbourly

I’ve just finished re-reading Anneli Rufus’ book, Party of One. In part it’s an exploration of the word “loner”, and particularly the media’s use of the word very freely in relation to disturbed killers.

She points out how often the perpetrator of a crime is headlined as “loner”, and how neighbours will always report that “he kept to herself”.

I took a look around at my neighbours. Not that I think any of them are deranged, but it occurred to me that what is said about the perpetrator by the neighbours after an event is utterly irrelevant because we’d all say the same thing about our neighbours and they’d say the same thing about us.

I live in a small dead-end street, and I live at the bottom of it so I see almost all the residents walking or driving past. And almost everyone goes past alone. This is not because they are all single but because they leave for work at different times.

Sometimes people will smile as they pass if they see me on my porch. If I were to report in a neighbourly way on these people, what would I say about them, and they about me? “She seemed ordinary, not unfriendly but kept to herself”. Indeed.

So either I live in a street filled with potential psychopaths, or that’s just how people in my part of the world normally behave.

Actually it occurs to me I may be living in the ideal neighbourhood for me. I have a semi retired architect who works next door but doesn’t live there. He’s been pretty unfriendly but recently we chatted a bit and yesterday he offered me a couple of spare plants. He’s there on his own during the day and I never see him with anyone else, clients or family. Across the road is a couple who I’ve spoken with a few times. Their family is well grown up and they have grandchildren although the grandkids don’t come to stay. There are a couple of singles further up the street who I don’t know but I see them walking past.

The reason this is ideal? I know by sight the people in the street, I know a couple enough to say hello to, but I’m not expected to be in and out of their homes. In an earthquake we’d know enough to know if someone was missing.

That’s neighbourly enough for me.

I’m alone, I’m not lonely

Every so often, an article appears on line about loneliness, and many refer to the UCLA Loneliness Scale (here from an NIH article). The survey questions are careful to distinguish between ‘lonely’ and ‘alone’ and don’t treat them as synonyms, although I’ve seen variants of the survey that do confuse the two.

Lonely is a feeling; alone is a state. They may co-occur but there is nothing automatic about their co-occurrence. How lonely you feel hasn’t got much to do with how alone you are.

Although most people understand the difference between the two conditions when it’s pointed out to them, they routinely conflate them in daily life. If I am alone, people assume this is an undesirable state and take measures to ‘relieve’ my aloneness. This is of course kind-hearted of them – they believe they are relieving my suffering – except it’s not what I want.

I am aware that the health consequences of loneliness are serious and alarming (in one article I read, the equivalent of a 15-cigarettes-a-day habit). What bothers me is the leap from “x% of people are lonely” to “people are social animals and no-one should be alone because it’s bad for them”. Therefore, anyone who is alone should be forcibly socialised for the good of their health.

Except I’m not lonely: I’m alone and I’ve chosen to be alone because I enjoy being alone. Humans may be social creatures, but that doesn’t mean we all have to socialise all the time. For me, the consequences of forced socialisation have as harmful an impact as the consequences of loneliness: stress, fatigue, and physical symptoms like upset stomach.

I like sitting in a cafe on my own, enjoying the break from conversation and people.  At a party, I’d rather stand around the fringes and watch people than be part of a circle of people talking and laughing.

So in the nicest possible way: please leave me alone. You’d be doing me a favour.

Cooking for one

Most people who like to cook will tell you that cooking for one is their least favourite type of cooking. I get that: if you’re a foodie and proud of your kitchen efforts, having no one to appreciate them must be dispiriting.

I am not a foodie by any stretch. I can and do cook, and not just for myself. But I’m not adventurous, and I avoid expensive ingredients especially anything out of season (why pay top dollar for flavourless produce?)

Lately I’ve been trying establish better food habits. I’ve started taking my lunch to work every day instead of buying it, saving probably $200 a month that is going to pay for door handles for my new house on the estate.

In order to establish this habit, I’m removing the impediments to doing it. Which in my case means having things ready to assemble in the morning so I don’t have to think or decide. I have the same thing every day for a week, which means cooking something on the weekend that I can use during the week. Last week it was falafel, made into small flat cakes that I put between slices of a chunky wholewheat loaf spread with hummus to glue it all together. This week, its fried tofu with roasted red peppers, beetroot hummus, and wholewheat ciabatta.

I’ve discovered I quite enjoy this food preparation as one of my new weekend activities. It’s really satisfying having a fridge full of food that’s been made by me for me, and knowing that during the week I don’t have to think about what’s for lunch.

Obviously this approach would drive some people crazy. I, however, am a creature of habit and I value not having to decide over variety. The nice thing about cooking for one is that the only person I have to satisfy is me.

The satisfaction of small things

Odd jobs are strange things. They’re always small, and they hang around for a long time because they are inconsequential. Nothing bad happens if you don’t do them, and the benefit of doing isn’t great enough to drive action. So they hang around, on the margins of consciousness.

Occasionally I get all David Allan (he of Getting Things Done fame) on myself and empty my mental list of odd jobs onto paper. This is both a relief and completely disheartening because the list is so long, and so full of trivial things that I should have taken care of.

I look at these incidental things and think, that’s a 1 minute job, why on earth haven’t I done that? But instead of just doing it, I either ruminate on what has led me to not do this job for so long (answer? Ruminating on why I haven’t done it) or I realise I’m missing some vital bit for the job and put it off until next time I am at the appropriate store.

Today I knocked off one of the jobs on my mental list of minor repairs needed around home: my letterbox. Ever since I moved in (and Facebook tells me it was 6 -six! – years ago), the letterbox has lacked a latch. I have at various times used a twig or a wodged-up bit of paper to wedge it shut but clearly this has been a low-rent solution.

So yesterday I decided I would do the job. I put the drill on the charger and by morning it was charged. It takes 5 hours according to the sticker on the charging unit. Next, I drive to the hardware store, a 5km round trip, to get a single nail. I suspect this reinforced every stereotype they hold of women and DIY (men would probably buy a box of nails even if they only needed one) but God love them, they gave it to me for free.

I returned home and got the right size drill bit, measured the relevant distance and drilled the requisite hole. This took maybe 10 seconds. I inserted the nail and the letterbox is now latched shut.

This is typical of odd jobs and explains why they never get done: it required a car journey and charging the drill for 5 hours to do a job that took 10 seconds to complete. And what is the benefit? My bills no longer fall out of the box and blow away. Which they didn’t do when the paper or twig wedged it shut either. So really, it’s just a more permanent solution if a completely inelegant one (a nail through the side of the box into the flap, which I simply pull out to open).

But for all of that, I feel like I’ve Done Something this weekend, and when people at work ask what I did over the weekend I’m going to say proudly that I repaired my letterbox.

Lifelong eating habits

I come from a family where sitting down to eat together was simply the way things were done. We sat together at the dining table for breakfast every day: home made muesli or porridge, toast with marmalade or marmite (jam was a treat), and milk or coffee.

Lunch was of course at school or work during the week, so we carried lunch boxes packed with wholemeal bread sandwiches, usually cheese and lettuce, always a piece of fruit. We made and packed our own each morning. I don't recall morning or afternoon snacks at school except at primary school where it was usually a small box of raisins. We never had bottled drinks, juice or otherwise, and we only ever had fizzy drink like Fanta (never Coke on account of the caffeine) on birthdays. Schools had water fountains.

Dinner was home cooked and always eaten at the table. Always. I recall going out to a restaurant three times in my childhood. Meat was a small component of the plate (a single drumstick or wing each for us kids) and there was a minimum of three vegetables. Dessert was usually stewed fruit, occasionally a small scoop of ice cream with it. After-dinner coffee for my parents was accompanied by a single square each of dark chocolate for all of us. I learned to savour that square and to this day I can eat just one square without craving more.

Looking back on it, this seems remarkable when compared with current practice. Two things stand out: the home made nature of the food, and the small portions. I don't recall ever being hungry but I know that the quantity of food we ate was about half or less what a current serving is. No one in my family was overweight. I've been the same weight my entire adult life.

The lessons of childhood have stuck with me. I still have porridge for breakfast, or toast with marmalade. I sit at the dining table to eat it. Most nights I cook, and lately I've been very vegetarian in my recipe choices. I usually make enough for two so I can have leftovers the next night. Where I fall down is lunch, which I have got into the habit of buying at work. I would like to break this habit as it's expensive and I could use the money for my house ventures.

By and large, these lifelong habits have served me well. I'm not prone to orthorexia or adopting fad diets. I still love dark chocolate but stop at two squares.

A lifetime of eating en famille has, somewhat counterintuitively, set me up well for a life of eating alone. I recreate the plates I've been eating from all my life. Habits carry me through.

The importance of doing things

Like many (most) people, I look forward to my weekends. I don’t often have social plans, preferring to enjoy the solitude of home after a week of talking to people at work. 

There’s a downside to this though: not having plans can turn into lying on the couch watching reality tv. Especially when I’m feeling less than average. 

This weekend, however, was a good mix of time alone and time with people. On Saturday morning I did a blitz on the kitchen, cleaning the bench, sink, cooktop and microwave thoroughly and even getting half of the fridge cleaned properly (as in, emptied out and washed with hot soapy water, as distinct from the once-over-lightly wipe with a sponge and a spray of something). I managed to work up quite the sweat doing this. Makes me think our (great-) grandmothers were probably very fit and strong from the housework and cooking. If you don’t believe me, try making a cake and creaming the butter and sugar until fluffy by hand. 

Doing housework can be satisfying because it’s physical work and you can see the results of your efforts. I believe more and more that something that we’ve lost with our automated and outsourced lives is the satisfaction of practising physical skills. 

In the afternoon I took my ladder to a friend’s house to help her hang a blind from a height. Not the kind of job one should tackle alone because falling would be serious. Again, there’s great satisfaction in completing a job like that, seeing the blind that she’d made (double satisfaction for her) hang straight and to the perfect length, hearing the bite of the screws as they secured the batten. 

This morning, friends came over for coffee and I made muffins. I thought about going out to the bakery to buy something, but decided to bake instead because it felt like I was making an effort for them. I like baking, and there’s nothing so welcoming as the smell of fresh baking when you walk into someone’s house. 

So I end my weekend feeling surprisingly content, because I have done things. Not big, brag-worthy things, but practical, constructive things. Things that required a bit of skill and know-how, and that yielded results. It feels good.