My junior year at Rhode Island School of Design I decided I needed to get away from art school for a semester and explore biology and oceanography. The Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, MA is like a study abroad program where students spend six weeks studying at the campus on Cape Cod and six weeks in the open ocean aboard a student research vessel. My cruise track would leave from Miami with port calls in the Dominican Republic and Bermuda before heading back home to Cape Cod.
There were about thirty people on board, most of us students, each responsible for conducting our own research projects in addition to the routine research of the ship and learning how to navigate and handle the sails. All of that was quite overwhelming, but that was not the end of our duties. Each student also rotated in the position of assistant steward. This involved planning and preparing breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the entire crew. The ship was well stocked with fruits, vegetables, meats, and grains. It was not practical to store bread as it would be moldy or hard as a rock by the third day out. I was ready to accept that as one of the hardships that must be endured at sea. In the past sailors diet consisted of dried meat and hardtack, an unleavened biscuit that was typically infested with worms. I was happy to at least be doing better than that. To my surprise, the ship’s steward informed us that we would bake all of our bread fresh with each meal. I had never even considered such a thing being possible, especially in the situation we were in.
The ingredients needed for bread are few and easily stored on a ship: flour, water, salt, and yeast. The process is not difficult, but requires planning, adherence to a strict schedule, and the ability to react to changing conditions. It turns out that every activity at sea requires those things, so perhaps a ship’s galley is the perfect place to learn about baking bread. The mixing, kneading, shaping, and proofing fit right in with trimming the sails and swabbing the deck!
I can’t recall how that first loaf came out, but I can guarantee there were no leftovers. Nourishing a hungry crew was one of the most rewarding experiences of the journey. On my other turns in the galley I got even more creative, serving crepes for breakfast, aided by the rolling of the ship on giant storm swells, and English muffins which everyone was pleased to tell me had equaled “store-bought quality.”
I remember each evening on deck looking to the sky watching stars appear one-by-one. Those more experienced than myself would call out the names and we would raise the sextant and take star lines to find out position on the globe. It struck me that I had spent my entire life under those same stars, how could I not know them as well as the streets in my hometown? I vowed to pay attention when I got back to shore and become familiar with the cycles of the stars and the rhythm of nature. Of course, that was many years ago, and although the desire is still burning just as strongly in me, days, weeks, and months pass between the times I take a moment to look up and study the heavens only to realize how unfamiliar it remains. It is much easier to rely on the map in my phone than to make use of the the GPS that has been available above my head since the beginning of time!
This is the same challenge that my discovery of bread baking presents. The ingredients have been there waiting the whole time. It is easy to get distracted and miss the opportunity by simply eating up what ever lame excuse for bread is placed before us, but a single bite to learn that hand-made bread warm from the oven is a revelation. The most exciting aspect of bread baking is that there is still so much to discover. Each loaf connects the baker with all of those who have come before taking part in a 6000 year experiment to find new methods and technologies to release the flavors and nutrients locked inside kernels of grain.
So that is where my journey began. I have much to learn, but I am happy to nourish hungry shipmates along the way!