As it was, I had to learn how to cope, and wait for an alternate opportunity to present itself. Fortunately, I have something of knack for scheming. (My mother always called it “lying”, but that’s another story.) I did my time, working my way through the ranks, from night shift, to evening, eventually to a dayshift position in the transfusion service. And once I was part of the day shit, I got to go to the parties.
By parties, I mean pot-luck lunches where everyone brought their special something to the communal break room to celebrate birthdays or other holidays for those unfortunate enough to have been scheduled to work. I wanted to contribute, of course, wanted to get along in that purgatory, and could have easily settled on the usual suspects, the potato salad or deviled eggs or cocktail sausages, but that seemed rote, to me, churning along on automatic pilot. So I started signing the contribution lists taped to the door ever couple of weeks, “bread,” and then more specifically, once I got into a rhythm, “crescent rolls and honey butter.”
I didn’t think much of it, beyond a preference for fresh bread. I’d had a Scarlet O’Hara moment in the university A&P while I was matriculating where I vowed, “As God is my witness, I’ll never buy bread again!” It’s something of a long story, but I started baking all my own bread. I have to say that the one take-away from a bachelor’s degree in Medical Technology was that I could cookbook anything.
The ladies in the lab (did I mention that the career field is overwhelmingly populated by women, something else I might should’ve known, but didn’t), however, were aghast. “You baked those?” Yes. “By yourself?” Well, King Arthur helped. They started asking for crescent rolls for non-party occasions. Fine. And then, someone asked how much it would cost to get a whole batch, or two, or enough for their daughters wedding reception. Ergo, my scheme.
Word spread through the hospital, beyond the lab. Nurses would come down to the transfusion service to check out blood and ask, “Are you the baker?” Yes. “Can I buy some of your bread?” Depends…
See, I pretty quickly started billing myself as a “bread consultant,” versus just a “baker.” I wanted to distinguish myself from my other desperate scheming colleagues who crafted monogram Christmas ornaments or knitted doilies in the school colors of either Auburn or Alabama intending to likewise escape the hospital. But I also meant it. You shouldn’t just buy bread. You should receive bread customized for whatever the particular occasion might be.
“What kind of bread do you want?”
“What are you going to use it for?”
“I don’t know, a back yard barbecue, hotdogs, hamburgers.”
“Got just the thing.” I was making pretzel hotdog rolls a generation before Sonic. And I had a honey-onion-whole wheat hamburger roll recipe that was perfect (and as of today not yet stolen by Wendy’s, though they have started using brioche rolls, mistakenly; brioche doesn’t go with hamburgers; brioche, everybody knows, makes perfect French toast.)
I developed something of a reputation, one of a few, to be honest. And I figured that if I could bake and sell thirty-three parcels of bread a day – a dozen crescent rolls, a loaf of brioche or rye – I could quit my job. Eureka.
I had no shortage of customers, as word continued to spread that there was more than blood to be garnered at the transfusion service counter, and no shortage of ideas or suggestions, from cinnamon-raisin bread to cherry torts to pineapple coffee cake, sourdough English muffins or bagels, to honest-to-God authentic croissants and baguettes, which are so labor intensive I charged double for them.
The shortage lay in time to sleep. Once I got up to about fifteen batches a day, there wasn’t any. I had to make a choice. Either give up sleep or ditch the scheme. Believe it or not, I pondered those options far more than any truly rational person might. I mean, I ran the numbers: at fifteen, I was almost halfway home, and maybe I could cut back on my hours; I could move closer to the hospital and nap and/or work while the bread was rising. I won’t say that desperation is the mother of invention. It is something closer related to absurd ideas that would never otherwise be considered.
And then it hit me: capitalize on the absurdity instead of trying to monetize the baking. Of course. I could write about the scheme, get back to my so-called writing – which was also being neglected. So I did, I wrote “33 Loaves,” my first post-bad-science-fiction foray. The denouement is when the protagonist’s oven blows up in his face because he’d been too tired to regulate how much cognac he pours into a recipe he calls “cherries jubilee after dinner torts,” which is what actually happens to some of my ideas, maybe most of my ideas. (Don’t worry Mom, it’s only fiction. But who knew people paid for lies!)
That was over thirty years ago. My fifth book will be out soon – despite however many Brokeback moments I’ve had in the interim, “Why can’t I quit you?!” – and it still feels like a happy accident, something, I’ve decided is the only gauge against to measure avocation. I still bake, too, mostly for personal use, though fresh bread makes great Christmas gifts. And I’m still open to requests, of course, so if anyone is in need of a bread consultant, let me know. But I still blame Mick Jagger.