Doing Things the Slow Way

Leah Ollman - San Diego, California
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, September 23, 2011
Leah Ollman

As she began baking challah from her grandmother's recipe, Leah Ollman learned that bread-making can’t be rushed. She says her weekly ritual has become a time dense with consciousness, and an act of resistance against a culture of hurry-up convenience.

Age Group: 30 - 50
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I believe in the power of doing things the slow way, by hand.

Every Friday morning, I bake a loaf of bread. It started when my grandmother gave me her recipe for challah, the sweet, braided egg bread eaten on the Jewish Sabbath. I made it a few times, but the texture was always wrong, and it seemed like it took the entire day. I made it only when I felt I could spare the time.

After seven or eight or maybe 10 times, something shifted. The bread was getting better, more consistent, and I realized that making it when I had the time was fine, but making it when I didn’t have the time — when work deadlines were pressing — meant even more.

You can’t hurry bread. (Well, you can use quick-rise yeast, but I don’t.) Waiting for the dough to rise, I get my weekly reminder to slow down and savor the process.

Bread-baking takes alternate spells of physical immediacy and patient distance. Feeling the dough grow elastic beneath my palms connects me to something primal, almost sacred. Twisting the strands into a unified braid reminds me every time I do it of pulling together the disparate strands of myself into a tighter, more unified whole. What could be more symbolic?

The process takes time, certainly more than grabbing a packaged loaf off the bakery shelf, but it’s time dense with consciousness. Doing it the slow way allows gratitude to seep in. It replaces a quick errand with an act of mindful resistance against our culture of convenience.

I’ve augmented my grandmother’s recipe, added a little sugar and a little vanilla for richness. Knowing that these same ingredients passed through her hands connects me to her in a deep and silent way. And knowing that women all over the world — probably not so many anymore, but some — are also mixing, kneading and braiding their Friday loaves makes my connection to tradition palpable.

For years now it has been my ritual, every Friday. Sometimes it takes some juggling of the schedule to fit in the two risings, but the dough is pretty forgiving. It seems willing to work around me.

By the time my children get home from school, the challah is baked and cooling on a rack. They step into the house and the first thing they do is pause and take a deep breath of the warm, yeasty, honeyed air. My making challah helps them temper their pace, too, and recognize the power in doing some things the slow way, by hand.

Leah Ollman writes art criticism and features for The Los Angeles Times and Art in America magazine. She lives and bakes bread in San Diego. Her children are both in college, but come home occasionally for a whiff and a bite.