On Baking and Being Human

“Who baked off those scones? They’re dark.”

“That was me, sorry. I left them in there longer so they’d get some color.”

“Yeeaah, you gotta get those out sooner or they’ll go hard as soon as they cool.”

The opening rush had died down, and Pat and Laura were refilling the display case with the scones I’d baked earlier that morning. In my periphery, Pat came around the corner with a bag of slivered almonds and started slicing yesterday’s leftover croissants so they would be ready to be filled with crème d’amandes and topped with almonds. As soon as the sausage rolls came out, the croissants would be placed in the oven just long enough so that the crème was beginning to melt and the almonds were toasted. Yesterday’s rain had left us with a few unsold croissants, which Pat wasn’t about to let go to waste. I listened to her swap stories with Laura about the Italian butcher next door as I “mised out” for Cornish pasty dough. At the bakery, Pat had abbreviated the French baking term “mise en place” (to put in place) to “mise out,” or measure out ingredients for a recipe. She had a lot of these kinds of abbreviations for things, and I was steadily building my vocabulary.

“Laura, you watching those sausage rolls?” Pat passed behind me, grabbed the mitts from the counter, and slipped the tray with the croissants d’amandes into the oven before I was able to stammer out a “yes.” At the bakery, I was “Laura.” My first day on the job, I had corrected Pat’s pronunciation of my name, and she had responded, “Yeeaah, I’m not gonna remember that.” So I became the third person named Laura at the bakery, which apparently caused less confusion than calling me by my real name.

A few months prior to this, I’d had a conversation with someone from the college about my plans for the summer. Still pursuing an economics major at that point, I had explained to her that I was contemplating applying for an internship at the governor’s office, but that I also was considering seeking out a part-time job in my suburban hometown and taking a class at a community college. “Try to get the internship,” she said. “You’re too smart to spend your summer scooping ice cream.”

My initial reaction to those words had been one of indignation. The democratic spirit surged up in me in an effort to refute what seemed to me intellectual elitism. Who says smart people can’t work in ice cream shops? Why should I assume that I’m above servile arts labor just because I’ve had a liberal arts education? Didn’t she realize that this country was built on the backs of small-town grocers and druggists? It was an extreme reaction (I was reading too much G. K. Chesterton at the time), but it was in light of that conversation that I decided not to apply for the internship, out of sheer anti-elitist spite. Instead, I reached out to the owner of a local bakery in my Chicago suburb. After weeks of sending emails and leaving messages on the answering machine, I finally got a call from Pat. Her previous pastry chef had gone back to school and she was having a hard time filling the position. Nobody wanted the 3 a.m. shift. I leaped at the opportunity: I wanted it, I told her. She hired me.

All the idyllic notions I had about bakery work were knocked out of me after three days at Bakewell. It was grueling work. Every morning I got to the shop at 3 a.m. to perform my established routine: muffins and sticky toffee puddings in the oven by 4, apple tarts and eccles cakes in by 4:30, scones in by 5. After that, I had an hour and a half to get my tarts, brioche, cherries jubilee, and peach cobblers baked and in the front display as well as get started on our savory pastries. Pat was in charge of cinnamon rolls, croissants, pain au chocolat, cinnamon streusel cake, and whatever new recipe she was experimenting with that week. The half hour before we opened was always a scramble as we sprang from counter to oven to cooling rack to sink, slipping past each other to dust powdered sugar on some things and drizzle caramel on others. I am still amazed at the number and variety of pastries we were able to produce every morning, often while running on less than four hours of sleep (Pat routinely came in only having slept for an hour that night). Not only was it physically demanding, but for someone who had only ever baked small batches in domestic ovens, there was a big learning curve when it came to speed and skill. All of the sudden I was baking off three different kinds of French pastry and six different kinds of British pastry, along with a variety of scones and muffins, in a commercial oven, under the pressure of the clock and Pat’s demand for excellence.  

Despite the repetitious and profane nature of the work, I loved it. There were times—when things came out perfectly and on time—when it felt graceful, like some sort of dance performed to the rhythm of clanging sheet pans and beeping oven timer (though most times I was dropping trays of scones while adding to the tally of burn marks on my forearms). One of my proudest moments was on my second day, when Pat called out to me from the other side of the shop, “You’re doing good. You’re keeping up with everything.” From Pat, that was high praise. Working with my hands pushed me in ways that studying Homer and Shakespeare could not. Within the first couple of weeks on the job, I already felt that I had become more of a member of my community, for here I was serving our morning commuters their coffee and muffins before they caught the express train into the city. Manual labor was not as picturesque as I had imagined it to be when I had responded so indignantly to the woman from the college, but, in some ways, it felt more humane than my liberal arts study.

I found this difficult to explain to Hillsdale folk when school began the following fall. Upon going through the ritual “How was your summer?” conversation with another student, I eagerly mentioned that I had been working in a bake shop. “Hey,” she offered, “at least you’re making money.” She was surprised when I told her that I actually want to work as a baker after school. I began encountering this reaction whenever I told people my post-graduation plans. Many people struggled to comprehend how bakery work could follow up a classical education at Hillsdale, and even though I had testified countless times to the inherent goodness of a liberal arts education, I started feeling the need to justify it to my peers. What was the use of all this liberal arts study if I was headed towards a servile arts vocation?

I’ve wrestled with this question quite a bit in the year and a half since working at Bakewell. I believe the difficulty in seeing the virtues of servile labor is partly due to the fact that many of us don’t have an adequate understanding of the relationship between the liberal and servile arts. The latter is often brought up only in contrast with the former: unlike the liberal arts, the servile arts are those arts that are not ends in themselves, but are directed towards some end beyond themselves, or so the saying goes. The contractor builds a house not for its own sake, but for the sake of providing a source of shelter, whereas the poet writes poetry because it is good for its own sake. While this distinction often causes us to wholly divorce the two kinds of art from each other, it is not meant to. Along with studying the trivium and quadrivium, the students of the ancient and medieval schools performed manual labor and learned craftsmanship. In these schools, the pursuit of intellectual wisdom did not render the development of technical skill irrelevant. This is something the 20th century French philosopher Jacques Maritain emphasized in his educational philosophy: “The intelligence of a man is not only in his head, but in his fingers too.” Man has both a mind and a body, and he must put both of these things to use in order to flourish as a full human being.

Thus, culture springs from this union of body and mind. Manual labor, as Maritain wrote, “is the prime basis of artistic activity.” It is because some violin maker has labored over his craft that we get to hear the Schumann concerto come to life; it is because workmen have toiled in the sun that we will be able to worship at the chapel. Manual labor is fundamental to the development of culture. Matthew Crawford explains this in another way in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft, where he writes that, in Homer’s time, the word sophia (wisdom) meant “skill” (i.e. the technical skill of a carpenter). This association makes sense, for technical engagement with nature instills a knowledge and understanding of both particulars and universals—what could otherwise be called “wisdom.” “It is in the crafts,” Crawford concludes, “that nature first becomes a thematic object of study, and that study is grounded by a regard for human utility.”

Of course, no one is thinking about any of this at 4 a.m. when we’re running behind schedule and the tarts are coming out unevenly brown because the oven is being finicky. Kneading dough is neither a scholastic nor a contemplative act. But the more I’ve considered the seeming disparity between my love for both the liberal and servile arts, the more I’ve realized that the purpose of a liberal arts education is not to make every activity scholastic or contemplative. Rather, the liberal arts shape us so that we go out into the world with a greater understanding of the reality in which we are participating. In his Metaphysics, Aristotle distinguishes two kinds of servile labor: that which is performed mechanically, without reason, and that which is performed with reason. The latter kind of labor is that which has been enriched by the liberal arts; it is that which enables man to “know the causes of things,” and instills in him a sense of wonder. It is the labor of a human being who is fully participating in creation. The books I have read, the papers I have written, and the conversations I have had with professors on topics ranging from English mysticism to libertarianism to Mosaic law have made me more prepared to do just this: to participate in creation in all of its various disciplines.

Rather than finding that my liberal arts education has made me “too smart” for bakery work, I’ve found working with flour and yeast to be an opportunity to practice all that I have learned through that education. For while the study of the liberal arts gives us, in Josef Pieper’s words, the ability to “steep ourselves in the whole of Creation,” participation in the servile arts gives us an occasion to do so. A task that to some might merely be a part of the daily grind becomes a meaningful part of the process of making a good thing to those who have studied what it means to be human. Baking off six different kinds of muffins every morning is not intrinsically meaningful, but making something excellent in order to nourish and delight the members of your community—and ultimately to serve your Creator—is.

The servile arts, then, are not opponents of the liberal arts, but partners to them. The study of grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy, and philosophy prepares us for work in the fields of architecture, agriculture, tailoring, warfare and hunting, trade, cooking, and blacksmithing (or whatever their modern-day equivalents are) as creative men and women. After being formed by our study of the liberal arts, it becomes our turn to participate in creation: to put what we have learned into effect in the most menial areas of daily life. For while the liberal arts ennoble the servile arts, the servile arts ground the liberal arts in tangible things. There is no work that is beneath us so long as we perform that work as human beings intent on serving our Creator. In light of this, when people ask me if I want to open my own bakery someday, I often shrug. “Maybe. But I also might just … bake.” It will be enough for me to work with my hands and feed others, Soli Deo gloria.


Lara Forsythe is a senior studying English and French.

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