Fattening the Birds
The fragrance of freshly milled wheat berries has a depth and liveliness unlike anything else, flowery, sweet, beery, faintly green and earthy. As the grain shatters beneath the grating stones and the new flour empties from the mill, an aromatic dust cloud wafts up speaking of a symbiotic relationship between human and grain that reaches back thousands of years. Peter Sanguedolce, who eats too much because he loves food too much, who eats too much to escape the sorrows that engulf him, who eats too much simply to eat too much, finds himself in Mending What Is Broken bewitched by the complicated, painstaking process of baking whole grain sourdough bread: nursing the starter into life, invigorating the preferment over several days, mixing flour and water and waiting through the autolyse period for the flour to hydrate, incorporating the flour and preferment and performing a series of stretches and folds to tease out the gluten. Then hours of bulk fermentation and shaping—Peter mimics the experts’ floury hands in the photographs in the numerous bread-baking texts he’s bought—and the long overnight snooze in the rattan baskets in the refrigerator to encourage the flavors to deepen and complexify, before the morning’s bake at five hundred degrees—all the while praying to Fornax, goddess of the oven, that his doughs will rise burnished and crusty and make proper loaves, that is, loaves in the shape of parsons’ hats.
Which they sometimes do, and sometimes perversely do not do.
And so there’s trouble. There’s always trouble. As Western Pennsylvania’s winter gales cushion Peter’s ramshackle Tudor home in silencing ermine stoles of snow, he broods over his sourdough cultures like a nervous parent at a child’s recital. It’s the temperature in his old kitchen, he hypothesizes. One minute it’s too cold in here, the next too hot. From Amazon he orders a proofing box, an expensive contraption that sits on the counter and furnishes a small heated parlor like a diorama he can peer into in which his finicky wild yeast and lactobacilli might be coddled at any temperature they desire. Good idea, poor design. The proofing box won’t maintain a dependable temperature, either. He returns to Savage’s Hardware and Sporting Goods, where the joke among the hardware boys is that Peter’s bread is running him about fifty bucks a loaf, to purchase a roll of aluminum insulation wrap. The quilted wrap creates a circular stockade around the proofing box some two feet in height and three in diameter, the whole affair resembling, he raises his eyebrows uneasily regarding it, a kitchen-sized nuclear reactor.
He’s suffered two failed marriages, lost his father’s clay sewer pipe business in an economic downturn, and is now threatened with the complete forfeiture of his shared custody rights to the ten-year-old daughter he cherishes. In the meantime, he bakes bread, let’s say he manufactures bread, way too much. But when you’re sublimating, how much is too much? He eats what he can, he eats more than he can, and, after dropping off surplus loaves at the rescue mission in town, he takes to fattening the birds in his backyard, the chattering sparrows and the cardinals that do not migrate and the mourning dove couple, who appear to have taken a cue from their feathered friends and no longer put up with the hassle of seasonal relocation. A Sunday morning in frigid January, as Peter waits out the tedious hours before he’s permitted to visit with his daughter in a supervised setting, he tears apart a loaf warm from the oven and heads outdoors. Spotting the large man maundering into his backyard in trench coat over pajamas, the bird nations and especially the silky, long-necked doves who lift in a whistle of wings from their perches, join him, burbling contentedly, for breakfast.
I have been baking whole grain sourdough bread for fifteen years. I seldom write from life, but will, on occasion, make loan of a personal item to a character, if the character shows that he or she can make good use of it. I’ve tasted Peter Sanguedolce’s bread. He does.
Thanks for sharing your food for thought, Robert!
Populating Robert McKean’s novels and stories are some five hundred characters, steelworkers and bankers, doctors and jewelers, teachers and librarians, lawyers and yardage clerks, salesmen and ballet instructors—all residents of Ganaego, a small mill town in Western Pennsylvania. His new novel, Mending What Is Broken, is being published in August by Livingston Press. McKean’s short story collection I'll Be Here for You: Diary of a Town was awarded first-prize in the Tartts First Fiction competition (Livingston Press). His novel The Catalog of Crooked Thoughts was awarded first-prize in the Methodist University Longleaf Press Novel Contest. The novel was also named a Finalist for the 2018 Eric Hoffer Award. Recipient of a Massachusetts Artist’s Grant for his fiction, McKean has had six stories nominated for Pushcart Prizes and one story for Best of the Net. He has published extensively in journals such as The Kenyon Review, The Chicago Review, Armchair/Shotgun, Kestrel, Crack the Spine, and Border Crossing. For additional information about McKean and his Ganaego Project, please see his author’s website: www.robmckean.com.