By Suzanne Pollak
Have you ever done something unexpected but necessary, causing gradual and imperceptible changes over time? They’re so subtle that, all of a sudden, you see yourself operating differently. It’s a breeze blowing through your brain to reveal another self, one with skills and energy that didn’t exist before. If this sounds familiar, maybe you discovered your superpower.
That’s how mine emerged—slowly, over time—when I became an illegal baker thirty-five years ago. I didn’t know there was such a thing as a superpower, except in relation to Superman himself. That I might have one was inconceivable to me. I baked because I needed money to pay for my four children’s haircuts and clothes, electricity too. Out of desperation came golden discoveries.
The 1980s was the era before the dawning of artisanal bakeries. Before I began, the only bread worth eating on Hilton Head was pastry from a tiny French shop. I went there every day at 11:00 a.m. to consume two croissants for extra energy so that I could nurse my ravenous twins—carbs for each of them. During its first year, my bakery only brought in $1,500, which barely covered any expenses, but I discovered the more meaningful result decades later.
In those early days, my bakery was tiny and hidden. My oven churned out handmade specialty breads: sourdough, rye, challah, English muffins, peppery almond biscotti. But these were illegal. In South Carolina (“Too small for a republic, but too large for an insane asylum,” according to James Louis Petigru in 1860), some things will never make sense. Using a home kitchen for a commercial enterprise happens to be criminal activity.
Operating under the radar and minding my own business, I used my hands to craft loaves from flour, water, and salt. The bread was rustic, porous, tangy, with a chewy bite and crust. In other words, not Wonder Bread, not Pepperidge Farm bread. This was another texture and taste entirely. A chunk dipped in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt was a different type of snack in the 1980s. Like little stealth bombers, the loaves flew into homes throughout the community. A hippieish former Montessori teacher hosted a weekly pop-up lunch restaurant in her kitchen, thirty years before pop-up meant what it means today. She served my bread, and word spread through the grapevine. One man told her, “I am in love with the woman who makes this bread. But who is she?” I barely knew myself!
The bread connected me to my community. The bread fed my family. The bread gave me an appreciation of those who labor by hand for long hours before the crack of dawn. I reveled in what bakers do: rising early, my hands gaining strength from kneading, my fingers forcing the dough to succumb until it gave up. I loved the toughness, the stickiness, and the transition as dough turned smooth, supple, and elastic, ready to bloom into what it is meant to be—the grain of life.
Dedicated, disciplined, instinctual bakers make bread that stops the eater in their tracks. The three-ingredient loaf has a powerful presence. All you have to do is take one look and one bite, and you will be completely focused for at least a few moments. That accomplishment is what makes a baker an artist. To me, contemporary art, even though the dictionary doesn’t say so, is effervescent, bringing joy and pleasure. It’s art worth celebrating.
Back to the tiny illegal bakery. Besides crumbs of income and developing new skills, I learned how to use my crumbs, cubes, slices, and loaves to communicate. The grain became a tool for connecting on a deeper level with my community. The first loaf went immediately into my stomach before it cooled down. The rest of the loaves sold, but I always stashed a few away to feed my family. From these loaves, I learned my tricks.
One was crumbling the bread and using those bits, crisped up, to sprinkle on soup, fish fillets, macaroni and cheese, or sautéed vegetables or as part of the filling for meatballs. Who imagined something so tiny could make taste buds rise to attention?
I cut large cubes and fried them in hot olive oil that reached one-third of the cube’s height, turning each side until golden brown and crunchy. The insides were still soft. Make a salad with these croutons, and people talk for years. They’re addictive—a reason to eat salads. The bread connected a baker to the consumer’s gut memory.
Thicker slices fried on both sides in hot olive oil, transferred to a paper towel so just a tiny bit of oil is drained, then covered with sliced, perfectly ripe avocado halves and sprinkled with flaky salt—well, that was magic—and decades before there was such a thing as avocado toast! The key is using an avocado during the exact hour of its ripeness. In the winter, I replaced avocados for something soul-satisfying, which is a pan full of sautéed mushrooms with a bit of heavy cream and fresh thyme, poured over crisp, thick slices of sourdough. They make a terrific base for oyster stew, too.
In the beginning, my poor children suffered. Their school lunches may have been delicious and nutritious, in my opinion, but were useless to trade for what they really wanted—the sugary snacks in their friends’ lunch boxes. No one wanted their sandwiches. My children were stuck, their hunger forcing them to eat what I made. Over time, we all changed. The change in them, even happening today, is that their tastes evolved. I credit my bakery.
These days, I construct bread puddings for people who usually turn their noses up (“Carbs? Yuck!”), just like my children did with school lunches. One forkful of the savory, puffy pudding converts them. They taste it and feel that, at least for the moment, everything is going to be OK. I prefer cutting bread pudding into slices instead of cubes because it resembles lasagna, one of the wonders of the world—at least my world. The savory sliced bread pudding and lasagna are cousins; they both answer the weighty question asked the world over every single day—What’s for dinner tonight?—in a most gratifying way.
Here’s a note from one of many converts I have taught through the Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits: “You boldly, positively, and unapologetically promote the need, values, deliciousness, comfort, and happiness-boosting/pandemic-isolation-busting/soul-satisfying properties of hand making and consuming carbs. You’re a much-needed champion, a renegade even, spreading the gospel of carbs—the flip side of those misguided folks who insist we eschew carbs.”
Those four adult children of mine—that tribe who could never trade one of their sandwiches—why, they eat better than me now! While I indulge in sugar pecan sticky buns on a weekend morning, cream scones for tea, and homemade chips with a cocktail later in the day, they stick with the healthy artisan breads. It wasn’t all for nothing, that hard work long ago!
The bread fed my soul, fed my friends, and, looking back, gave me a little legacy that I am proud of. We each have our own gifts. What surprising journey led you to your superpower?
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Suzanne Pollak, a mentor and lecturer in the fields of home, hearth, and hospitality, is the founder and dean of the Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits. She is the coauthor of Entertaining for Dummies, The Pat Conroy Cookbook, and The Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits: A Handbook of Etiquette with Recipes. Born into a diplomatic family, Pollak was raised in Africa, where her parents hosted multiple parties every week. Her South Carolina homes have been featured in the Wall Street Journal Mansion section and Town & Country magazine. Visit CharlestonAcademy.com or contact her at Suzanne@CharlestonAcademy.com to learn more.