The arts of politics and baking


In his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, author Robert Prisig wrote about how dealing with the small things of daily life  – like fixing his wayward motorcycle – could teach us about the world at large. A sort of microcosm-becomes-macrocosm perspective, with the vagarities of motorcycle repair to colour the learning. What we learn in one we can apply to the other. *

Baking bread, too, offers a meta-window into other arts and crafts, in particular (for me), politics. Bakers and thinkers have oft cited bread as a metaphor for life (listen to master baker Peter Reinhart’s comments on that topic here or watch his TED talk here).

As an opener, I love making bread. I find it relaxing, rewarding, stimulating and challenging. And sometimes incredibly frustrating and disappointing. Like life. It’s both a creative process and an experimental one. When I bake, I transcend the politics, the worries, the noise of daily life and concentrate on the act itself, a focus I only rarely apply to my daily activities.**

Here are some lessons I’ve learned from making bread I feel apply to politics. They’re not necessarily in the order of importance.

Lesson one: start simple.

You can make bread with four basic ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast. Everything after that is chrome. You can make some pretty spectacular breads by adding more, but if you can’t master the four, you can’t make anything. And you can make stellar breads with nothing more – if you understand how they work together.

In politics, you have to master the basics of procedure and process, of legislation, of policies, and of budgets. These are the superstructure on which you will build everything else. If you don’t have a firm grounding in these, you cannot build anything.

Lesson two: start small.

I have a terrific textbook (Jeffrey Hamelman: Bread – A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes) about baking with recipes for commercial bakeries and restaurants. These produce from half-a-dozen to dozens of loaves. But I’ve learned to make one loaf at a time, scaling back every recipe – even many of those online that are intended for one or two loaves. If I do it properly, I’ll have a small, single, good loaf to enjoy. But if I make a mistake or try something that doesn’t work out well, I’ll probably end up tossing most of it out. I don’t want to waste bread.

Many municipal projects are grandiose dreams. But often smaller, less ambitious or even phased projects over a longer term are better and more efficient. Things change, public needs change, tastes and demographics change – what might seem a great project today in a few years might seem outdated and inefficient. Better to be conservative now than end up with an expensive white elephant in a few years. And politicians should never waste taxpayers’ money.

Lesson three: get organized.

Every cook, every baker, every chef understands “mise en place” which Wikipedia tells us is,

…a French culinary phrase which means “putting in place” or “everything in its place.” It refers to the set up required before cooking, and is often used in professional kitchens to refer to organizing and arranging the ingredients … The practice also applies in home kitchens.

I have been a chaotic baker in the past, doing little to no preparation, grabbing things as I need them, usually littering the kitchen with trails of flour, leaving cupboard handles sticky with wet dough, making a mess of countertops, and all too often forgetting some ingredient until too late in the process. Not today. Today I bring everything out first, arrange it so I can reach it, having measuring cups and scales ready, ingredients all available, utensils laid out. The result isn’t always a better bread, but it’s certainly a more efficient, cleaner process. One much less likely to raise Susan’s ire over the mess I’ve made.

Politicians, too, need to prepare before meetings. They should be talking with residents and staff about upcoming items on the agenda, asking the questions that don’t need to be asked at the table. They should be using the time to read and research, to make notes and otherwise prepare themselves for the public session. In my time both covering local politics and serving on council – more than two decades – I’ve encountered many politicians who don’t prepare. They wait until the meeting to ask questions that were clearly answered in staff reports. They ask for deferrals to get more information when they should have done their homework before the meeting.

Lesson four: have patience.

Bread takes time. You cannot force a rising, you cannot force a levain, you cannot force the baking. As a living organism, dough works on its own schedule, reacting to the heat, the humidity, and the ingredients as it will. A sourdough starter similarly takes its own time. You learn to wait, you learn to be patient.

In politics, people often complain that bureaucracy moves at a glacial pace. But in many cases, that’s because the bureaucrats walk the narrow path proscribed by legislation, by health and safety rules, by planning laws and building codes. They take their time because they have to be sure everything is done safely, securely and correctly. You frequently cannot rush the process without putting the public at risk. So you learn to be patient.

Lesson five: don’t be afraid to be creative.

There are countless recipes for making bread, countless claims to be the solution to the “perfect” loaf. Recipes are guidelines, but not infallible – they are a good place to start, but also a springboard for creativity. Add an ingredient, change the percentages, play with over temperatures and baking times – the only way you will appreciate the art and understand how everything contributes to the final result is by being creative. Plus, rigidly following a recipe won’t always produce the best loaf.

Similarly, in politics we have standards and guidelines that can be rigidly followed or approached with flexibility. New ideas are always being floated in municipal governance, in management, in technology, process and design. The progressive communities are those whose politicians aren’t afraid to be creative and try them out. Those who read Municipal World know the rich variety of ideas out there.

Lesson six: water matters.

Craft breweries often boast about how the quality of their local water contributes to their beers. It’s similar in bread. Water makes a difference, not just in quality but in quantity. A change in a few percentage points of hydration can make a big difference in the way the crumb develops. Too little and it’s dense, too much and it can’t hold itself up. Paying attention to water and hydration are crucial to becoming a good baker.

Paying attention to water is even more important for politicians today. Water is our most precious resource and should not be taken for granted. Water utilities face emerging challenges from micro-plastics, agricultural runoff, pharmaceuticals and more. Aging infrastructure threatens drinking water quality. Politicians should be knowledgeable about these issues and be prepared to discuss and help solve them.

Lesson seven: read and research.

I’ve never attempted to count bread recipes online, but in my own library, I have at least a thousand of them, for everything from basic four-ingredient loaves to complicated, multiple-ingredient ones. And on top of that are recipes for scones, muffins, rolls, pizza crusts, focaccia and more. Is any one of them the recipe for the “perfect” bread or scone or crust? Not likely. No author can take into account your local conditions, your local ingredients, your own water, oven or techniques.

But if you want to really understand and appreciate bread, you need to read a lot of them, make notes of the different ingredients, the varying percentages and baking times. Plus you need to read about flours, yeasts, hydration, salt, starters and more. There are discussions about everything from pH levels of the starter to the gluten content of wheat you should read – because when it comes down to it, the more you know, the more you understand about the chemistry, the biology and the physics, the better prepared you will be to be creative and flexible.

In politics, too, you have to read and research. Municipal politicians are expected to be educated and decide on a huge array of issues – infrastructure, finances, union negotiations, property sales and acquisitions, staff, IT, water safety, sidewalk maintenance, recreational programs, reserves, voting methods, strategic plans… and the only way to learn about these issues is by reading and studying. I’ve received council agendas that are 200-300 pages long, and councillors are expected to read and be able to discuss and vote on their contents only a few days later. The hours you spend reading about issues, or researching topics will only help you understand your own agenda contents.

Lesson eight: expect both success and failure.

Sometimes the loaf is superb, sometimes not. There are things in baking that you simply can’t foresee. The yeast doesn’t grow as quickly or as thoroughly as you planned. The heat in your oven wasn’t as well distributed, your flour was a bit too old, you forgot the salt, you measured too much salt, and so on. Even the best, tried-and-true recipe can fail because bakers are humans and humans are fallible. Sometimes it’s outside your control, sometimes it’s your fault, but mistakes happen. A failed loaf is only a momentary failure: we learn from it and move on. You don’t keep looking back, you don’t obsess over past loaves. Good bakers look to the future. 

In politics, human fallibility is always onstage. You make the best decision you can with the information available. Finding out years later something that might have made you chose differently shouldn’t be cause for anguish or angst. Learn and move on. Don’t waste time or public funds obsessing over the past. Good politicians look to the future.

Lesson nine: you can’t please everyone.

I like cornbread. Susan doesn’t. She likes currants in scones, I prefer cheese. I like chewy crumb, she likes it smoother. I like to bake with rye flours, she prefers when I use just wheat. I like to put seeds or nuts into the dough, she likes them on the top. Everyone’s taste is different. You cannot please everyone with a single loaf. Your goal should always be to bake the best at that time, not the one that everyone will like.

Politicians cannot please every resident and should not try to. That leads to dithering and deferred decisions; it can lead to unwieldy compromises that offend everyone. Sometimes you just have to make the decision that you think is best for the community, knowing that there are those who will despise you for it even while others praise you. A politician is not elected to be liked, but to be decisive.

Lesson ten: everything works together.

As Peter Reinhart points out in his TED talk, the ingredients alone don’t make bread. There’s no gluten, no rising, no flavour profile separately. Bread is what happens when they’re combined: Peter calls it a “transformational food.” A skilled baker knows how to mix his or her ingredients to create the desired loaf.

Similarly, in election campaigns candidates are often asked to outline their top one or more priorities. That’s good for campaign sound bites, but once in office, no such separation exists. Everything  is a priority because everything works together. Councillors have to juggle a thousand balls, not just one. Growth, for example, depends on the budget, the infrastructure, taxation, the green spaces, the level of fire safety and policing, the job pool, local healthcare, recreation and entertainment, support services – you can’t just pick one aspect and expect it will make growth happen, or make it stop. You have to work with all the ingredients.

* A book I first read in the 1970s, but which deserves a re-read. Reviewer R.C. Zaehner wrote about Pirsig and his book,

…Robert Pirsig, the Aristotelian physician who at this stage used his medical craft on maintaining the health of motorcycles was born, as passionately interested as Aristotle himself would have been, in their parts, the functions of each part and the relationship of each to all, and of each and all to their formal cause (their “entelechy” qua motorcycle) and their final cause (their ti en einai, their “what was it to be?”), in this case Mr Pirsig’s own motorcycle … Pirsig is an Aristotelian for whom “all understanding is in terms of underlying form”.

** Shaving is one of the other tasks to which I try to be entirely focused. Learning a new song or arranging a song on the guitar or ukulele is another.

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