I asked a great baker turned teacher of mine if I might interview him for my blog. I am simply fascinated with the work he is doing. I took a few classes with him in the last few months and he taught me a ton about the bread-baking basics; which were desperately needed. He is an artist, a sculptor, a baker, and a pretty wonderful teacher. I learned more from him in a two hour class than I have reading three books on sourdough bread.
I have high hopes to start conversations with people like him who are trying to change the world through baking bread, even though they themselves may not be aware of just how great their impact is and will be for people in the future. Humility goes a long way in my book.
His name is Michael O’Malley and to those of you in the baking community out here in Southern California, you may have already heard of him. He built a mobile bread oven, which he calls “MOMO,” short for Michael O’Malley’s Mobile Oven. To me it incorporates everything I want to pursue in baking bread: combining community with functionality, making fresh 4-ingredient bread accessible to every person, regardless of who they are or where they come from. His oven reminds me of something theatrical; like stage plays on wagons during the medieval times, traveling town to town just to make people smile. I can remember learning about it in my college dramaturgy classes. Back then, everyone in the town would gather to witness some comedy or tragedy brought forth for them. People looked forward to them as a way to be a bigger part of their community, to meet new people, to share an experience. MOMO has a similar function. But it certainly has a few more advantages: it’s hip, modern, sustainable, and it can feed a big hungry crowd with freshly baked bread. Can’t get much better than that, folks!
How did it all begin? This bread baking hobby/passion/obsession of your’s? And how did it stick?
My bread making began many years ago when I was living in Wiscasset, Maine. I was there living and making art at Watershed center for Ceramic Art. A cute little store in Wiscasset called Treats began carrying this bread from Waldoboro called Bodacious bread – later Borealis. It was an amazing bread and my favorite was a cardamom raisin, naturally leavened. I vowed to learn how to bake like this one day. And though many opportunities came along, I deferred taking the plunge…some things you just know are endless rabbit holes. Ten years later and on the other coast, in Pasadena, I got fed up with the horrible bread I was finding. This frustration combined with a trip to Barcelona to do research on Antoni Gaudi…A place on the ground level advertised wood fired pizza. I am sure I was famished but the pizza was gorgeous…it was about bread and a few fresh ingredients…That was it…I was all in.
So when I came back to Pasadena, I began building an oven in my back yard. Then I read as many books as I could and began by making a sour dough culture. I baked twice a day that first month and talked non stop about bread. Like watching someone in love, my friends were equally amused and annoyed by my affection for bread.
As an artist, I am always pursuing something I want to see. First an idea, then a drawing culminating in an object and of course the thing fails or pushes back at what you want … so you go again. Baking is the same way. And every once in a while you hit that sweet spot…but then you eat it so you are back to, once again. I love the process that baking is: a constant choreography of materials and time and temperature, and that this is a practice – then “judged” by the senses… the baked loaf for me is more akin to the residue of a process /performance – That ‘residue’ of course activates all your senses as this beautiful thing you share with your friends
What do you find is the most important ingredient or crucial step that a great bread baker should never miss (or go without)?
I don’t consider myself a great baker but a committed one with a fair amount of experience….With that caveat…I am not so sure one step or particular ingredient makes a great baker… Baking is a practice. While the results of which can be these truly liminal, life affirming moments … …there really is not an end point just more and more little rabbit holes of curiosity to run down…and while there are many moments along the way the very ephemerality of bread makes it more like live music…mastery may be real but its also fleeting…tomorrow new variables and the dough will also put out new questions or challenges.. Practice of being aware and conscious is really important, being open to all of the little “tells” that come through from the senses…noting them…and understanding how one thing pushes on another – how one variable makes a different game…
Any tips for a new bread baker?
Bake. Bake. Bake. And find out what you like. It’s the only way to learn. Baking is an embodied knowledge/practice. (This is why bakers are free with information and recipes…at best the recipe gets you half way there. Only by baking and getting all of that sensory experience lined up with a deep analytical/conceptual understanding of what is going on in the dough, the starter, the flour, the salt will you become a good baker.
What inspires you as far as baking is concerned? Or, in general, if you are so inclined…
Baking serves as a kind of literal metaphor for me… It’s the thing and not the thing…As a practice it always reveals the person and what they value: process, money, the loaf, community etc… As a narrative baking speaks to how we relate to the earth, resources, stewardship and each other. As an object it can be an incisive, sensory experience that critiques and proposes in the same gesture. Baking declares in this sensory and poetic way, “This is the kind of world I want to live in.” All of my work as an artist deals with that question, “Why does the built environment (and all its objects) look like that?” Can we make a built environment that speaks to our poetic, relational, 7th generation selves that want to see narratives of beauty and generosity and empathy and connection? If design had empathy at its core rather than make it fast, cheap and disposable, the world would look really different.
Is the nutritional component of baking with whole grains important to you at this stage in your baking?
Becoming more so. I think that the visual aesthetics of what a loaf looked like directed many of my earlier choices. When you start eating bread from grain that comes from a place and a context suddenly the visual aesthetics become one factor… And for many the available flour has had a limited range of qualities. When you start using grain that is whole grain –it is just a different thing.
A few years ago I realized that I did not know much about flour so I did what I seem to always do – I do something that pushes me to learn.. in this case I purchased a 1963 Allis Chalmers All Crop Harvester – aka AC-72.. This multi-grain/seed combine needed just a bit of work and after of few weeks of climbing over it; I also understood how it worked. A friend and organic vegetable farmer, Richard Giles of Lucky Dog Farm, who had said he wanted to get into grain knew I was serious when he saw the purchase of the combine. So we planted 10 acres in October of 2011 and the next summer had an amazing harvest.
So now I have grain and realize that I need to learn how to mill and use whole grain.
Who are your go-to bakers that have inspired you throughout the years?
Jeffery Hammelman early on for the conceptual framework and later Chad Robertson for the aesthetic impulse and dough development. I finally took a couple of workshops this past year after almost 10 years of baking with Craig Ponsford and Dave Miller. They both are amazing bakers and I learned a lot from them.
Tell me about MOMO and why you decided to build it? What do you hope to accomplish with it? Was it a personal goal or were you thinking more about the community at large? Is the social conscious component of “breaking bread” something that you wish to be a part of?
I see MOMO as a sculptural, relational, gesture that combines the nomadic, “missionary” zeal of a Johnny Appleseed with the once civic relevance of public, community ovens. It shifts between being a theatrical performance centered around baking bread and promoting new narratives of living, to a mobile kitchen/classroom, to a local community oven. Along the way the piece engages multiple audiences from art communities, bakers, to the under-served.
My intellectual interest in the terms and forces by which the built environment gets decided upon and built do not have a kind of pop culture cache or an immediate accessibility. Bread does. And it took many years to figure out how to frame this as part of my practice. One day I realized that the baking was doing what I wanted my practice as an artist to do. Be a beautiful object, that embodies this really specific poetic stance to the design directives and be something that while being shared could serve as a stage to talk about the world. Basically, I have come to view bread as a cipher of my artistic practice. It engages the real world. It has history and tradition. It disappears. It connects to both the personal and the local. It’s made by hand, has a low environmental impact and is always unique. It connects me to my community and always remains a practice.
I am of the feeling that we cannot escape being political or historical or social participants… we implicitly or explicitly endorse the way the things are. I like that MOMO has an ability to reach out to many different communities /audiences. It’s a thing that gathers meaning and narrative from the context that it engages – rather than coming as a self-contained plop on the audience. Bakers, artists, kids that do not know where food comes from or are not aware that this is their world…
Where do you see MOMO in 5 years? 10 years?
MOMO will morph. It is a piece and so will have a life. I will move on from this iteration…and likely it will become a fixed oven somewhere…MOMO has already inspired the next iteration which will be to build community ovens around the country so that people from really different contexts have experience and conversation with each other. Objects that bring people together and offer experience rather than confer status.
There you have it, folks. Incredibly interesting stuff, right? Take a look at his website for more info. Who knows, maybe MOMO will be coming to your town sometime in the near future!