My meeting with Kathleen Weber was set for a Friday morning. I had a two and a half month old daughter, and was sleep deprived and anxious. Why was I even doing this? My first real outing a week earlier (without my daughter in tow) to the grocery store had been a disaster. I backed my car into a pole in the parking lot. Now, there was the added stress of driving an unfamiliar rental car. I felt like I had no business even leaving the house, let alone trying to have a legitimate meeting. I was convinced there was no way I could do this job now, but my husband encouraged me to meet her and hear what she had to say. He reminded me that I had made great bread before, but I think he just wanted me to get out of the house for a while.
The café (Della Fattoria Downtown) was busy, but I picked Kathleen out right away. She was saying hello to guests and peeking at plates as they went by. The communal buzz of the room was infectious. There was a hug to a friend’s granddaughter, who then climbed on our table with a crust of bread for a few minutes. But never once did I feel like Kathleen wasn’t paying attention to me or that she didn’t appreciate my coming to see her. Within minutes there was a genuine connection between us and I knew I was in for it. I went from thinking no way to OK, maybe I could do a little for her over a couple of months.
Somehow by the time our second meeting was on the calendar, I decided one way or another I was going to take on this project, and still be home full-time with our daughter. When I pulled in the driveway of the Weber ranch, an industrial fork-lift of some sort was backing up to one of the freight containers. A pack of dogs came to greet me, and then were off running and barking at each other and the chickens.
I stood for a few minutes at my car, not quite sure where I was supposed to go. There are a bunch of different buildings on the property, and multiple walkways. I went through an arch with gourds hanging from it and made my way down a small slope by a funky circa 1970’s fireplace. Kathleen’s daughter was carrying a stack of stuff including what looked to be a cord to a power tool, but she still had enough of a free hand to warmly greet me and point me in the right direction.
Up the porch steps I went. There were a couple of crates with fresh vegetables in them, an antique hutch holding plates and a few books, a restaurant-style sink, and a stack of egg cartons. There were two screen doors. The one to my left clearly went into the bakery as I watched for a couple of minutes from a few paces back. When I turned towards the door to my right, I could see Kathleen’s big smile, looking at me out of the window.
Walking through that porch door reminded me of my childhood. The smell of good things happening in the kitchen. It looked like we were on track to work on a few loaves of bread together. That day I pretty much watched, all the while there were interruptions, dogs barking, and countless swinging of the two porch doors. Kathleen’s husband Ed was definitely working out a mental list of what was needed in town when he came in the room. Sea salt and some concoction for the goats that he had heard about from a nearby woman, who I took to be the local goat expert. He gave a brief, but very sincere welcome to me. Kathleen’s son asked about the menu for a ranch dinner, talked about his son’s baseball practice, and reached out his hand to shake mine, practically in one breath.
I stayed for about six hours, the longest stretch to date being away from my daughter. Even though I knew she was in good hands with her father that was all I was ready for. Kathleen understood why I was semi-distracted, but didn’t mind. I think at that point she had more confidence in me than I did. I drove home with two 50-pound sacks of flour, a borrowed clay pot, and some proofing baskets. I was thinking, love, life, food, and family are in constant motion at the Weber ranch. And as I drove over the hill, it became increasingly apparent that the Weber family and their business grew out of the bond of family, and quite literally out of their home. What life throws at them, they field, throw back to each other, and then out into their community.
Over the next year, I worked primarily at home, but made trips to the ranch to pick up supplies and to learn from Kathleen. We traded pictures back and forth. On average, I baked four days a week. The combination of working and being a new mom with no family nearby was challenging, and was the ultimate exercise in time management.
Bleary eyed, I weighed out all of the ingredients before I went to bed. Once the baby slept through the night, I started mixing the dough a few minutes before I knew she would wake up. The sponge could sit, while I gave her a bottle. As she grew, I got it down so that I could put her on the floor with some toys, and make a fold or shape the dough before she crawled, and eventually walked over to me. We both ended up with flour on our clothes and there were usually handprints on our black dog. I let her touch the starters and the dough, and every time she laughed. Eventually, I was able to time it so that the breads were going in the oven when she went down for a nap.
But not all days went according to plan. In fact, most in the beginning were more wrong than right. My kitchen was chaotic. I was holding my daughter on one hip with one arm and moving the countertop high-chair to make room for the flour bins with the other. The sponge sat longer. There was definitely more than one over-proofed bowl of dough as I tried to console a teething girl. But I rolled with it. Sometimes I had to fold the dough a few minutes early to make it out the door to get to the pediatrician. My quick-handed baby knew just when to maneuver and squeeze the end of the bâtard I thought was really well shaped. Soon enough the stretch of a toddler arm could reach and pull the linen and the shaped loaves down to the floor. But at the end of the day we still had homemade bread, albeit misshapen or overdone. I learned by repetition and as much from my mistakes as from my successes. And, during this special year of being able to work from home with my daughter, I became a bread baker.