Yesterday afternoon, I knocked off two items on my to-do list. I baked two loaves of sourdough bread, and I watched The Marriage of Maria Braun. I had never seen the movie, and I hadn’t attempted sourdough in decades.
The bread, while edible enough (especially as toast), came out on the heavy, insufficiently leavened side. I was using a King Arthur recipe that calls for two teaspoons of instant yeast as well as a cup of sourdough starter, and the dough certainly doubled in bulk during its first rising. I think I cut the second rising short, following the recipe, which set a time of thirty minutes, instead of paying more attention to the evidence. Adherence to the recipe at this stage was typical. I had completely disregarded the instructions for handling sourdough starter that has been refrigerated for an extended period.
Michael Pollan’s Cooked is one of a handful of books that I can’t locate at the moment, so I can’t review its long recipe for sourdough bread. Cooked was my inspiration for giving sourdough another try. Kathleen loves sourdough bread, and I have come to like it — to prefer it, really. I have finally outgrown the romance of the pullman loaf, which is an idea rather than a flavor. White bread may still be perfect for club sandwiches, but it is pretty boring otherwise — as everyone who writes about bread and baking has been saying for as long as I’ve been reading. I get it now. But sourdough is tricky. The care and feeding of a starter, as the paste of yeast-infused flour and water is called, always seemed to me to be a fuss. My last attempt was dogged by a crock that kept getting lost in the fridge, neglected and ultimately abandoned. (I hate to think for how long, in the latter state, it took up shelf space.) If I were going to give it another try, I’d have to make it work within the short-order rhythms of a galley kitchen.
Auspicious smiles have not shone upon this project. When the starter starter arrived from King Arthur, I carefully put the accompanying crock in the dishwasher to get it nice and clean, but I left the starter itself on the counter, for about a week. Maybe longer. Then I looked at the instructions. One afternoon, finally, I set out to follow them. It was a matter of stirring flour and water into the starter, letting it rise, throwing some of the results away, and repeating the process. The throwing-away has always been a sore point for me, and, indeed, if the bread that I made yesterday falls short of satisfaction, it may well be because I threw the starter that the instructions told me to discard (before feeding the rest of the starter again, letting it rise, and proceeding with the bread recipe) into the mixing bowl, not the garbage can.
The mixing-bowl part was simplicity itself. No proofing yeast, no melting butter. There was nothing more to it than flour, water, sugar, salt, and starter. Oh, and those teaspoons of instant yeast. It will be a while before I attempt to make sourdough without them.
Compared to the white-bread dough that I’m used to, yesterday’s dough seemed very heavy, as if it needed more water. I resisted the impulse to fiddle. I put the dough in the rising tub (a dandy plastic container that I bought from King Arthur a thousand years ago, along with the drum that holds 25 pounds of flour) and went off to read. The dishwasher had just been started, and it would run for about an hour and a half — the time for the first rising specified in the recipe. I was not diligent about showing up in precisely ninety minutes, but I didn’t let the dough sit for two hours, either. Somewhere in between, I kneaded the ball of dough in my hands, weighed it — 1300 grams exactly! how weird is that? — weighed out two loaves, shaped them, and placed them on an oiled tin. Then I let them rise for an hour.
This is when I turned on The Marriage of Maria Braun. Ordering it from the Video Room was interesting. The clerk corrected my pronunciation: “It’s Maria Brawn,” he insisted, having been misled by my rudimentary German. Rainer Fassbinder’s movie came out in 1979, and made a big noise here a year or so later, when Kathleen and I arrived from law school. At that time, I made one of those half-conscious branching decisions that not only kept me away from Maria Braun but from Fassbinder altogether. To this day, I have only seen one other of his films, the 1974 remake of Effie Briest.
To see why I was watching The Marriage of Maria Braun at this particular moment, have a look at the old Daily Blague for last Tuesday. Not that you’ll learn anything really. Ian Penman’s LRB blog entry about Fassbinder’s heavily ironic use of a sportscast from the final game of the 1954 World Cup, in which Germany defeated Hungary at Bern, was just the sort of detail to intrigue me. I had to see it for myself.
In the event, I heard it. I couldn’t stay in the room after Maria blew out the flame instead of shutting off the gas. I knew what was going to happen — I read a few other things about the movie, including a piece by Roger Ebert, before ordering the DVD — and I couldn’t bear to wait for it. I crept back in from time to time, reassuring myself that the catastrophe would be indirect, shown from the outside of Maria’s villa, as indeed it was. But the waiting was unbearable. There was that long scene with the bookkeeper and the woman reading Oswald’s will… Finally, boom.
I will probably never be a Fassbinder fan. His sense of timing is too unlike my own. The length of most scenes is not quite right, sometimes too short, more often too long. There are a lot of sudden moves that make me wonder if I’ve missed something. Worst of all, Fassbinder’s style is a very Seventies thing, inclined to self-indulgent tedium masquerading as “art.” This isn’t helped by the uneven production values.
The Marriage of Maria Braun is the story of a woman that is also intended as an allegory of postwar Germany. The “economic miracle,” or Wirtschaftswunder of the period is cynically symbolized by Maria’s opportunism. At the beginning, she is seen with her new Wehrmacht officer husband, struggling with a clerk to get him to sign their marriage certificate while shells are falling. Then the introductory credits roll. In the next scene, Maria is struggling, with winning good humor, to make ends meet in the Occupation. When she learns that her husband has been killed in the war, Maria resorts of prostitution, becoming a hostess at a club for GIs and the mistress of a black officer. In a cartoonish sequence, Maria learns that she is pregnant and jokes with the officer about how they will raise the child. While they playfully undress one another, a third man appears at an open doorway, unseen by the lovers for the longest time. He turns out to be Hermann, Maria’s supposedly dead husband. Maria bops the officer on the head with a bottle, apparently killing him, and Hermann takes the rap. While he languishes in prison, Maria pursues new opportunities. A nice one presents itself in the form of a textile-plant proprietor called Oswald. Now the movie settles down somewhat. Maria, not only Oswald’s lover but also his business associate, flourishes but darkens. She becomes cruel and impatient. When she finally gets everything she wants, she loses it in a moment of carelessness — if carelessness is what it really is. The cheerful young woman with an eye for the main chance has gone slightly mad.
The best way to watch The Marriage of Maria Braun is as a fashion pageant, in which a very beautiful woman parades a series of stylish outfits that trace the history of fashion over a ten-year period. This may sound facetious, but I believe that Fassbinder’s film works better as an allegory than as a realistic narrative, and that the natural beauty of Maria — played by the never-lovelier Hannah Schygullah — is meant to be pitted against the opulence of her costumes, her bright-red lipstick and nail polish, and her modishly coiffed blond hair. It is only at the end that we see Maria in something like the state of nature, her hair disarrayed, her face bare of make-up, and her attire, hitherto always perfectly composed, now shifting with hysteric uncertainty.
In other words, the rise and fall of consumer capitalism. We are pleased to see Maria’s rise in the world, but then appalled to count the cost. She thought that she could pull it off, but she wasn’t properly reckoning with her own human nature. Fassbinder does make you think about that.
The sourdough recipe instructed me to slash the loaves before putting them in the oven. I botched this. My gashes were almost slices, producing very funny-looking baked bread. My attempt to dust the loaves with flour miscarried as well; it was more of a dumping than a dusting, and I had to use a pastry brush to sweep most of the flour away, as if I were clearing a sidewalk of snow.
Kathleen thought that it tasted great — last night. I toasted and buttered two slices, and she ate both of them at dinner, which was very unusual because we don’t generally have bread at meals, largely because Kathleen doesn’t care for it. This morning, however, the two buttered and toasted slices that she had with her breakfast tea seemed “heavy.” I had put the second loaf in a plastic bag, for her to take into the office. I decided that it wasn’t really good enough for that.
I shall try again next week.
Bon weekend à tous!
Daily Blague news update: On Considering the Great American Novel.