My mind was still foggy as I wandered up the steps. Walking into an empty grocery store at 4 a.m. is a strange feeling. It’s large, quiet and dark. I often wished I could bring my roller skates and glide across the freshly polished floors.
The night crew would let me in, one of the four or five men working in the storage rooms. But I wouldn’t join them, I had to isolate myself in my own back corner of the bakery.
Isolate. As many people were doing at this time. It’s the summer of 2020, of the COVID-19 pandemic. Provinces attempted to slow the rise in cases with physical distancing mandates and shutting down hundreds of businesses. Thousands of people were out of work or not going to school.
But there must be something about bread that makes people happy. As depicted by empty ingredient shelves and sour-dough starters being displayed online, it’s apparent everyone appreciates a fine loaf of bread. But while people posted their loaves of bread online, I was baking. Hundreds of loaves a day.
The Atlantic Superstore in my small hometown of Kingston, N.S., about 150 kilometres west of Halifax, was busy even during the times of the pandemic. It was one of the two major retailers that were allowed to open in town at the time.
I would prepare hundreds of loaves of bread, croissants, danishes and pies to be moved around on broken-wheeled carts, into the oven to bake fresh for customers each and every morning.
Comparing the bakery to the size of the grocery store, it was small. But as far as bakeries go, this one is above average size.
I would tray and shape the loaves and pastries, and bake them in huge ovens. They could fit over 100 loaves of bread at a time. I then counted the products sold and prepared for the next day to do it all over again.
Ingredients were often on backorder. Seeds and flour shelves laid bare. These empty shelves served as a reminder of the time we were going through. The pandemic had shipments delayed, and an increase in isolated home bakers had yeast flying off the shelves.
As I worked away in my super-sized kitchen, the same process went on in homes across the country, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Maybe it’s the predictability of reading a recipe and knowing how it’s going to turn out. Seeing pictures of other people’s attempts lets you know if your process is on track. It’s hard to feel lost when everything is laid out for you.
It could be the delicious smell that fills the house, getting the crust just right so that it has a beautiful crunch, the toppings filling the gaps of the results of the perfect gluten network.
Whatever it is, the success felt after completing a nice loaf is unmatched. You get to see it through from its humble beginnings as a starter and enjoy it right through to the end, as a sandwich, a toast or whatever it may become.
I always said I liked baking to make other people happy. People always appreciate a baked good or seven. It’s fun to bribe people with a soft chewy cookie, or a fresh apple pie.
But the pandemic proved the ritual of baking can be for ourselves too.