A Glimpse of Otium: Bread and Pasta

Here you can see the crispy, wonderful smelling Franziskaner-loaf and rye whole-grain tin loaf all baked by Franziskaner bakery in Bozen (Italy)

I’m still in the phase of life where I’m working a full-time job. However, even now, from time to time I experience moments that call to mind my ideal life. Not coincidentally, these moments tend to occur in the interstices of life, during evenings or weekends when I’m not doing work related to my office job.

Yet, although these moments are infrequent and not yet a regular part of my days, they provide a glimpse of what living a life of otium could look like. By examining enough of these moments, I hope to tease out common themes, so I can seek pursuits that satisfy the same impulses or inspire me in similar ways.

Making Bread and Pasta

Bread and pasta are readily available, convenient and inexpensive to purchase from the grocery store. So why do I spend the time and effort to make bread and pasta at home, when I could be doing something else with my limited time?

Quality Over Convenience

Store-bought bread and pasta taste fine, but fresh-made bread and pasta are distinctly delicious and on another level entirely. The latter represents something about the ideal life that I’d like to live, something about pursuing quality over convenience and taking the time to do something right.

It’s been a revelation to eat fresh homemade bread that’s still warm from the oven and that has a crisp crust and chewy, almost creamy interior. Similarly, freshly-made pasta has a pleasing, elastic texture and flavor that’s lacking in dried, store-bought pasta. It’s hard to find that quality of food outside of upscale stores or restaurants, and the results are well worth the time and effort at home.

The difference between store-bought and home-made is partly a function of the ingredients. For instance, using higher-quality flours instead of flours that contain additives to increase shelf-life or preserve color results in a cleaner, more flavorful end product. If you are what you eat, there’s a psychological benefit in eating food made from pure ingredients as well.

Another factor is the time and care that it takes to let flavors develop naturally, instead of using shortcuts to speed the process, while sacrificing taste or texture or introducing artificial ingredients. When making bread, letting the yeast do its work in its own time is pleasing in a way that being rushed to draft a contract on demand is not.

Quality and convenience aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. In fact, making homemade pasta doesn’t take that much time and effort, especially if using an electric mixer. Also, the lack of convenience or doing something more slowly doesn’t necessarily guarantee quality results. But, in the case of making bread and pasta, it seems like what’s most readily available in stores is significantly inferior to what can be made at home.

Curiosity and Removing Abstraction

I’m curious about the world. I like to know how things work and how raw materials turn into a finished product. As I eat bread and pasta regularly, I wanted to know how they’re made, what the process looks like, how long it takes, what causes one product to be better tasting than another. I wanted to be more than a consumer of a product I purchased from a store.

So far, I’ve been pleased by how my attempts have turned out. It hasn’t ceased to amaze when yeast, flour and water turns into bread or, by changing the process, many of the same ingredients turn into pasta. When I see bread and pasta at the store now, it’s interesting to think about how they were made and how different recipes and processes produced such different varieties.

It’s also been a fun rabbit hole to learn about adjacent topics, like the variety of grains and flours and milling processes and the fermentation process (which also happens to be relevant to other things that I enjoy, such as beer and wine). Making bread and pasta isn’t a money saver, but it’s been an intellectually engaging activity, and not just a delicious one.

Creating Something Tangible

It’s very satisfying to be able to turn raw ingredients into a fresh loaf of bread or bunches of pasta that I can immediately enjoy with my senses and share with others.

In contrast, at work I’m typically dealing with abstract matters like reading or sending emails, drafting or negotiating contracts, or sitting in meetings. There’s generally not an immediate connection between my efforts at work and a tangible outcome, much less something that’s delicious to eat or smell.

Last Thoughts

When I think about my ideal life, part of what I want is to take more time and care to do the things that are already part of my current life. Making bread and pasta helps to scratch that itch, and I’m on the lookout for more ways. It might assume different forms, but I’ll know I’m on the right path if I’m creating and not just consuming, if I’m choosing quality over convenience, and if I’m engaging more with the real world, and not just an abstract version of it.

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