‘Baking, by contrast, was solving the same problem over and over again’ —R. Sloan, ‘Sourdough’

It was a decidedly different kind of work.

At General Dexterity, I was contributing to an effort to make repetitive labor obsolete. After a trainer in the Task Acquisition Center taught an arm how to do something, all the arms did it perfectly, forever.

In other words, you solved a problem once, and then you moved on to more interesting things.

Baking, by contrast, was solving the same problem over and over again, because every time, the solution was consumed, I mean really: chewed and digested.

Thus, the problem was ongoing.

Thus, the problem was perhaps the point.

—Robin Sloan, Sourdough, page 69

This slim novel by Robin Sloan is all about how a young person working in coding finds meaning in baking, until the sourdough starter that she uses eats the East Bay. I’ve picked out this quote because it does encapsulate something that I’ve noticed about baking. According to the logic of fiction, however, Sloan swerves away from a novel of toil and personal industry toward a novel that, like a blackjack player, doubles down on other, more attractive themes.

Really, the weird thing about the book is how the narrator’s decision to become a professional baker comes without much consideration. Perhaps Robin Sloan did not want to write a book about how a young person who works in coding becomes a young woman working in food. I confess as someone who dabbles in baking, I have concluded that the hobby’s great benefit is how it helps me build stronger relationships, not how it can advance the plot in the novelization of my life. Certainly I would prefer to write a novel about a mysterious yeast that attempts to consume California than to write a novel about daily life in the Secret City, or a novel about how my friend Dan G comes over nearly every evening and when the fresh loaf comes out of the oven, slices off a piece and microwaves it for added warmth before eating it.

In this way, the novel Sourdough becomes another exhibit in my collection of Books That Have Nothing to Do With Real Life as I Live It.

The quote above does however contain some insight about how the routine of baking becomes its own reward. I keep pretty detailed notes on every loaf of bread and pizza crust I bake, and the shelf of bread diaries does document how my baking methods have changed over time. The conditions of the kitchen don’t change all that much, and the finished loaves pretty much satisfy my criteria for how bread should look, feel, taste and smell, so the thrill of the hobby is seeing how the small changes I make (fold bread three times after kneading instead of two, refrigerating to proof instead of proofing at room temperature) are reflected in the results I get.

It has also revealed to me just how much the experimental conditions actually change with the days, and how silly it is to assume that they stay the same and that the usual techniques I employ have a constant effect. I always have to adjust for the humidity and the ambient temperature, as well as for the amount of time that the loaf will spend fermenting; these variables change slightly but noticeably over time. The constancy of the practice thereby provides the reward in how the daily problem is solved with the tools and techniques to hand. What other hobby does that?

If changing your life was this simple, why was he ever concerned about the everyday stuff? Elmore Leonard, Rum Punch

Nothing to it. If changing your life was this simple, why was he ever concerned about the everyday stuff, writing fifteen thousand criminal offenders? He said to Jackie, ‘Okay,’ and was committed, more certain of his part in this than hers. Until she stood close to him in the kitchen and he lifted the skirt up over her thighs, looking at this girl in a summer dress, fun in her eyes, and knew they were in it together.

—Elmore Leonard, Rum Punch, chapter 20

“Fun in her eyes” has to be among the most Leonardish phrases out there. His books are populated largely with women with fun in their eyes. There’s a great bit in Djibouti about how the heroine is feeling, standing on the deck of a cargo ship in the Red Sea, as the plot she’s involved in ravels or unravels, I can’t remember which. She’s cool, curious, slightly excited; she appears in pretty much every Leonard book.

In Rum Punch, the bail bondsman, Max Cherry, gets these lines above, and maybe he’s actually the cool, curious one in this book; Jackie Burke, his love interest, takes more of an active role in the plot than is usual for a Leonard female protagonist.

I like the quote because it illustrates why Leonard’s oeuvre is so attractive to read; instead of a thriller, where the reader is pulled into the story by empathy for the protagonist’s troubles, in Leonard’s books the protagonist pulls the reader along by sharing just how interesting life has gotten. During the course of Rum Punch Max gets involved in heisting several hundred thousand dollars, a vault into the upper middle class that allows him to quit his day job and file divorce papers with his estranged spouse. Max is able to rise above the existential dread that you or I would feel while on such a voyage of self-reinvention, but that’s why it’s a book and not real life. As I’ve mentioned before, people who radically alter their circumstances in the course of 300 pages are a genre of people who you only meet in books.