I once walked into a dermatologist’s office with a nasty, unnatural-colored inflammation around my fingertips. Right off, I thought it was leprosy.
The doctor looked at it in a cursory way, not too interested, and said, “You’re either a baker or a bartender, right?”
I thought, am I at the right address? Did I walk into some psychic scam artist’s den?
“Yeah, I’m a bartender, but I always wanted to be a baker. How did you know?”
“You generally only see these kinds of funguses in professions like these, where the hands are kept moist for hours at a time, either in ice or a sink, or, say, bread dough.”
I was treated successfully. It cleared up. But it made me wonder why I blurted out, “I always wanted to be a baker.” As I thought about it, I realized it was true. As a kid in a loud and brawling Italian household, it seemed that my Aunt Louise was consistently mellow. She baked, from morning until night, kneading and rolling and folding ravioli, filling cannolis and making fragrant loaves of golden bread the size of baseball bats that appeared from her ovens in an assembly-line parade of life affirmation.
Of course, had I confessed my secret ambition to this occupation to my brothers or cousins, I would have been pounded.
Everyone has had the experience of walking into a bakery, say, in the morning — but it doesn’t matter what time of day — and filling one’s nostrils with a smell comparable to few other things, like the sea, or a woman, an infant, rich earth after a rain, or certain fleshy blossoms.
This happened to me recently while seeking out the best bakeries in San Diego. It wasn’t until I entered Devany’s on Felspar in Pacific Beach that I was flooded with that Proustian, childhood sense of warmth, well-being, and, of course, hunger.
I bought some rolls, which were exquisite — not croissants or raspberry-macadamia, low-fat, high-fiber, gluten-free, non-lactose, Amaretto yuppie puffs. These were just rolls. Bread. Good for sandwiches or dinner. The same dough as their hamburger rolls. If my mother ever baked or cooked anything, I’d say they were just like Mom used to make.
I wanted to do it. Just try out. See if after a single shift — no pay, of course — if they would let me bake something. Maybe consider me as a possible employee; bakery material, as it were. Few things I could think of would be more noble: an ancient heritage, a tradition, an art.
I called Michelle, who does most of the cake decorations (complex and beautiful) and asked her if I might try my hand at the work of baking (not decorating) just to see if I had any aptitude. Michelle’s a cheerful woman and she did not hesitate. “Sure,” she said. “You probably want to work with the men in the back at night. Come on by Thursday morning about 1:30, and they’ll get you started. Ask for my dad, Mike.”
This was great, but 1:30 in the morning? That’s the middle of the goddamn night. Well, I had to ask myself, when do you suppose this stuff gets done?
Mike is a graceful, quiet man, 62 years old, who works at a steady rhythm pouring huge, 100-pound bags of flour into a Hobart mixer, which looks like some Victorian torture device. That is, it is a vat from which a descending screw or churning, evil-looking metal spiral moves slowly in a sure, steady spin that mixes the flour and water in large quantities. It seems fraught with a kind of menace I can’t quite put my finger on. Mike speaks in a low voice while he works.
“My dad started this bakery in 1938. He went off to the war and started it up again in 1946.”
“Here, in Pacific Beach?”
“Yes. We were on Ingraham, then Garnet Street. We moved to Pacific Plaza and then we moved here. I’ve been a baker my whole life. I started when I was ten.”
“What did you do in here at ten years old?”
“They had me washing pans and trays to start off, and then gradually I learned everything else.”
Mike performs every aspect of production and administration at Devany’s — everything except cake decoration, although he knows how to rotate and frost a wedding cake very well. He demonstrates, miming the actions on the rotating dish, and it reminds me of a careful and fastidious potter at a wheel creating art as well as craft.
To refer to the cake decoration of Mike’s daughter’s as art is not just promotional hyperbole. Her work was recently on display at the David Zapf Gallery on Kettner Boulevard. It’s the first time that gallery has included baked goods as visual art.
After demonstrating the simple cardboard, plastic, and aluminum-foil-covered decorating wheel, Mike is back at his energetic, deliberate pace, preparing dough for bread loaves, dinner rolls, hamburger buns. As he works, he introduces me to his “crew,” David Miller, Glenn (just Glenn), and Caleb Diaz. The three other nocturnal battersmiths work at a distance from each other, at their own stations: muffin preparation, for example; the rotating “reel oven”; and the Danish roller and cutting table. None of them is engaged in any conversation across the bakery, such as, “Hey! How about those Chargers?” or “How’s the wife and kids?” Each seems to be in a separate world rotating around the single star, Mike, for the combined purpose of production against the clock.
At 8:00 a.m., hungry, hurried business men and women, shop clerks, students, young mothers, surfers, elderly, longtime customers in the habit of making Devany’s a morning stop will all come through the front door with definite carbohydrate and/or fructose needs that must be met. At first, I think the chatterless work atmosphere is due to Mike’s — “the boss’s” — presence, but this is not the case. The quiet, the relative solitude and repetitive cycle of production are important to these men. The nature of their tasks and the lack of necessity for social interaction are two moving parts that drive them more than the wage involved.