BREAD Talk: Michael O’Malley and MOMO

almost done

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!

http://momalley.org/

Image

 

Image

 

Advertisements

It’s Like Shakespeare for the Breadmaker

Image

“A baker’s true skill lies in the way he or she manages fermentation.  This is the soul of bread making.”

Oh, how I read these words with such delight! Yes! Someone else feels the same way as I do.  They really get me.  What a magnificent feeling that is for a newly passionate baker.  I don’t know where I would be right now if it weren’t for my starter.  I feed it everyday, it’s like a little refrigerated pet, and it soothes my spirit to know that it is booming with nutrients and will make a pretty awesome loaf of bread everyday, if I want it to!

Any human being who writes words like that will grab my attention…Let’s just say, I am an instant fan.  It feels like Shakespeare to me. Shakespeare for the Breadmaker. And now I cannot put his book down. Whom is this person, you ask?  Well, it is no one other than Mr. Chad Robertson of Tartine bakery in San Francisco. Mmmmmm. If you haven’t been to this bakery and live within a hundred miles of the Bay Area, you are missing out. Get your tail on that BART and get some bread already! Don’t worry — if you are gluten free, they have some options for you that are super delicious too. And for those of you who don’t live closeby, his new book is a must-read for all of you out there who are uber passionate about fresh bread. His recipes are simple and thorough and his constant drive to create wholesome bread with just the four main ingredients is so refreshing and inspiring. The entire first chapter is devoted to his time in France when he was first starting out. Talk about taste nostalgia. It is a cookbook, but not in the formulaic sense. It feels more like a narrative and it helps teach you to dig into your intuition when it comes to making a better loaf of bread.  Amazing, if you ask me! I took a class a few weeks back taught by a great guy named Michael O’Malley and he told us all about Chad Robertson and how his book, Tartine Bread, is the hot new book on bread. I cannot put the thing down!

http://www.tartinebakery.com/

And speaking of the class, I must tell you about it…It was pretty much like a Sourdough Starter 101 class.  I heard about it from the wonderful folks over at Grist & Toll. I had a hunch it was going to be great. And it sure was!  Michael was thorough and charming, he was informative, he really helped me understand the importance of keeping a healthy starter and what it would do for my bread in the long-run.  Michael himself is a sculptor, who happens to also be passionate about making bread, so he build a mobile bread oven so that he could drive it to various parts of California and elsewhere in hopes to build enthusiasm for fresh bread in our community.  He refers to his oven as MOMO, or the Michael O’Malley Mobile Oven.  Pretty sweet.  You can read all about him and maybe make a loaf for yourself at one of his community days right here:

http://momalley.org/

Here’s a few tips that I learned in class that day that were spoken by Michael, but I think may have been inspired by Tartine Bread. Some of these things might be common sense for the more advanced baker, but a lot of it was news to me:

1. If you want to be a real bread maker, invest in a scale.  Cups aren’t gonna work anymore, folks.  Grams are much more consistent.  You have to start thinking more like a chemist, if you want to be a pro.

2. Feed that starter everyday, if you can.  If you miss a day, don’t be hard on yourself.  It will survive.  But nurture it, because after all it is a living thing.

3. In the words of Andrew Whitley, “real bread takes time,” but it also makes time too.  I used to say I never had the time to make my own bread, that I was too “busy.” In reality, making more bread has allotted for more things to get accomplished because I have become more patient and conscious of timing…that’s a beautiful thing.  You can do it! Trust me, there is always enough time! Try it for yourself and report back if you think I am crazytown or there is some truth in it!

4. The hotter the oven, the crispier the bread.  Seems like common sense, but wow! The MOMO oven is heated up to nearly 600 degrees, the bread is finished in under 20 minutes or so, and the crust is crispy and the inside moist.  Yum!

5. Mixers are not necessary.  Don’t be afraid to get in there and use your hands.  Less clean up, less oxidation (nutrients don’t fall away) and at the end of the day, there’s more love in it too.

6. If the starter floats in water, it’s healthy.  If it smells like acetone, trust yourself, it is acetone.  Try to revamp it, don’t give up immediately, but if it continues to have a searing smell like your sister’s nail polish remover, throw that stuff away and start fresh.

And the most important lesson in all of this, the Aesop’s Fable of sorts, well, at least for me is that it is of the upmost importance that you are doing what you love in life, folks.  Regardless of time, and money, and stress, or whatever.  Little did I know that having a sudden, crappy gluten allergy was going to lead me on a tailspin of happiness and self-discovery! I hope the same for you all, that you do what you love, no matter what it is that makes you smile!