I lost my Guardian Angel of Bread this month. That wasn’t his name, of course. Jimmy, an old-school Italian gentleman, was (it still seems strange to write that) the father of one of my best friends. I met Jimmy when I was in my twenties, a newly minted adult trying to figure life out. By becoming friends with his son and his wife, I was immediately swept into a wider circle that celebrated all of the most important things — good conversation, good wine, and good food.
Jimmy was a great cook. But it’s his bread I remember the most. On one of my first visits, he pulled four perfect, heavenly-scented golden loaves out of the oven. At that stage of my life, I was still a Wonder Bread girl.
“You baked that?” I asked in awe. In reply, he handed me a loaf and a stick of butter. Both disappeared quickly.
After that, I made sure to come around regularly. There was almost always an extra loaf just waiting for me. But Jimmy was a man who prized self-reliance. After a few months of this, he cut me off.
“It’s time for you to learn,” he said. I ignored him and hoped he’d forget. He didn’t. At last, breadless for several months, I reluctantly agreed, and that’s how I found myself spending a whole Saturday on a crash bread-making course. We started at the beginning, measuring water and yeast, letting it proof, mixing in the flour and salt. Jimmy eschewed recipes, which made following along difficult. He also wasn’t a fan of using a mixer, claiming that bread was all about the “touch.” Easy for him to say — he’d worked construction for years, and had the strength and stamina of someone much younger.
I, on the other hand, was quickly exhausted. Kneading was not my thing. He’d given me my own ball of dough to work with, and looking at its diminutive size and raggedy shape, he shook his head.
“My people come from potatoes!” I protested.
“Not the way you eat bread,” he answered.
I waited, holding my breath, for the bread to rise. Jimmy’s came out perfect, round and golden. My little loaf was flat, misshapen and dark brown — not in the good way, either. How could it be so different from his?
“Some people just don’t have the touch,” he said sadly.
He sent me home with one of his loaves that day — a pity loaf. He never asked me to bake with him again, but over the years he’d often get up as early as five in the morning to have bread ready for me when I visited.
For my part, I gave up on bread baking, aside from one year when my daughter was in third grade. We baked bread every Sunday for two months, and wound up with one acceptable loaf that she took into her classroom. Triumphant, I called it quits.
Until a few weeks ago. I’d been out with Jimmy’s son and daughter-in-law, and they’d told me again what we’d known since the summer: Jimmy was sick, and barring a miracle, unlikely to recover. But he was stable and likely to live at least a few more months. When our friend called home to check on him, he was the same old Jimmy. “Ta-da!” he answered the phone. “I’m still here. Surprised?”
That weekend, still thinking of Jimmy, I pulled out the old bread recipe I’d cobbled together from watching him. I made a loaf, and it turned out the way it always did: flat, misshapen, and slightly burned. As a joke, I posted a picture on Facebook. The reviews were not good.
“If Jimmy’s in any extra discomfort, tell him to blame me,” I texted my friend. “I tried to make bread today.”
I didn’t hear back for a few hours, unusual for him. And when the text came, it was from my friend’s wife. “Jimmy passed,” it read. “The world already feels less joyful.”
Under my Facebook post, a friend had shared what she called a fail-proof, no-knead bread recipe. I thanked her and ignored it. I had no heart for failing again, now that there was no way I’d ever learn to make Jimmy’s bread.
But a week or so after the funeral, she posted a picture of a loaf she’d just baked and asked me if I’d tried the recipe. It was easy, she promised, and delicious. Her photo showed a beautiful loaf, crisp and golden, just like Jimmy’s. I decided to give it a try.
The recipe was so simple, I couldn’t believe it. I mixed flour, yeast, and water — no proofing — and left it to rise overnight. I gave it the barest semblance of a knead, let it rest, then stuck it in the oven in a pre-heated bowl. In my head, I told Jimmy that I knew it couldn’t work — it was too easy. He didn’t answer.
A half an hour later, I took out a perfectly round, beautifully crisp and golden loaf. It looked delicious. I thumped it — it sounded like real bread. I sliced it, admiring all the little air pockets, spread it with butter, and passed it around. It disappeared in moments. My family then spent the rest of the evening looking for Whole Foods receipts, convinced, based on past experience, that there was no way I could have actually made it myself. And I thought of Jimmy and wished he could have seen it.
So what does this have to do with writing? Simply this: Sometimes even the people who love us the most, who have nothing but our best interests at heart, have a method that isn’t right for us. Sometimes we have to break away from the “recipe” of writing or publishing — the traditional path everyone takes, the hot genre, the stock narrator or story line — and find our own way. If it’s something we really want, there’s a way to get it done — even if that way isn’t the one the experts have laid out. It might not be easy, it might take us years, but eventually we will persevere. And when we do, we can raise a glass (or our published book) to those who showed us what didn’t work, but loved us anyhow.
Your turn — what writing recipe have you followed that didn’t work for you? What advice have you received, given with the best of intentions, that was wrong for what you were doing?
(Also, bonus — bread recipe here.  With thanks to Rebecca Burrell for sharing it.)
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