For the Sake of Convenience
I have been attending the same church in Vermont since 1955, the year our family bought twenty acres from Charlie Bentley's father, up behind the old Woodcock place. The church, built in 1877, stands on the edge of a cornfield by the Green River, and if I sit in the right pew, I can look out over the pasture where we still harvest corn with a team of mules hitched to a mechanical corn binder.
Inside the church, things haven't changed much either. Hymns are played on an Estey pump organ made in the 1880s, and the carpet covering the foot pedals is now threadbare. The chandelier is Victorian but simple-- gray metal scrollwork capped by large tulip globes. The pews themselves are original, made of oak that has turned dark over the years. It's a modest church-- practical and spare-- but it serves its purpose in the Yankee tradition of economy and function.
Since our town is without a restaurant or store, one of the church's functions is to serve as a meeting place. After the service, the congregation heads for the back room for coffee and gossip. Just a few weekends ago, I was working on my second biscuit when the town's last farmer came up and asked, "What do you hear about those electric bread machines?"
Now that was quite a question coming from a man whose toolbox contains a hammer, a pair of pliers, a grease gun, and a few yards of baling twine. He owns three vintage Farmall tractors (one of which he bought new in 1949); he knows how to keep them running and uses each for a specific purpose. One has the proper hydraulics for lifting up a baler, one has the proper floating hitch for getting equipment around a tight corner, and the third is the backup tractor-- useful when a tire goes flat in the middle of haying. Like a good cook, he prefers his equipment simple and well made-- he doesn't pay for extras. Yet, here he was, asking about a $250 piece of kitchen gadgetry that is supposed to replace the best tools any farmer can have: his hands.
Now, I've tried bread machines. I couldn't get a loaf with great crust and real texture, but I made a dozen loaves of pretty good sandwich bread. It was easy but still too complicated for the task at hand. I prefer things well made and simple, like our church. A few well-worn tools in experienced hands are preferable to another jig, another gadget, another extra. I don't need an electric steamer when I can throw a $7 steaming basket in any old pot; I don't bother getting out the food processor when I want to dice a single onion or chop a couple carrots. Yet, I use an electric knife sharpener (I never mastered the traditional whetstone method), I let my standing mixer knead all of my dough these days. I even cook my rice in an electric cooker, my most used and highest rated kitchen appliance. And I sometimes use a fancy electric ice cream machine, which has replaced the old White Mountain freezer we used when I was a kid. I sort of miss the noise, the rock salt, and the ice cubes, but it's a lot easier to plug in the newer model and walk away.
Like many people, I have romantic notions about food. I like to think that Vermont farmers make bread by hand and that they still cut corn with a team, not a tractor, but I can't help but notice the satellite dishes behind the barn. The old Yankee in me believes that life shouldn't be too easy-- real satisfaction comes only from accomplishing difficult tasks. But New Englanders are nothing if not practical, cobbling together whatever works best, regardless of whether it's new or old. Perhaps a bread machine isn't all that out of place-Ben Franklin would have been proud to invent it-and it's a gadget that fits right in with hand-cranked corn strippers, the early "Rube Goldberg" stationary hay balers, the horse-powered oat threshers, and my favorite, the dog-powered washing machine (power was supplied by a dog walking on a treadmill-- you could tell it was wash day because dogs were scarce).
So I put aside my romantic notions about Vermont and told that farmer to go out and buy a bread machine. I guess it will find a place in his kitchen among the banged-up aluminum pots, the jars of pickled tongue, and the sap buckets stacked in the corner. After all, I could hardly expect him to keep to the old ways when my kitchen has made more than a few nods to modern technology. But as we are softened and cosseted by the march of convenience, we diminish ourselves. And on the day that Vermont farmer passes into history, I will be poorer for it, having witnessed the end of an era, of a time when hard work, thrift, and self-reliance were the coin of the realm. I expect on that day to turn off the computer and head for the fields to do a hard day's work. And at night, I'll go to the kitchen to bake bread by hand, and share it with neighbors, a communion in remembrance of a man, a time, and a place that will have disappeared a little too conveniently for our own good.