Letters from Julia Child: An ode to moms and the early days of Texas French Bread
This Sunday is Mother's Day and while we don't usually reserve tables at brunch, we'll be taking a limited number of reservations and serving a few special new items on the menu. Shoot us a quick email to firstname.lastname@example.org if you're interested in booking a table and we'll do our best to accommodate you. We're crossing our fingers in hope that we get a pretty day and get to use our beautiful new outdoor garden space, but we need the rain so badly that we won't complain if we get more. If the garden is open, tables outside will be first come, first served as we never quite know what the weather is going to do.
Mother's Day always reminds me of the early days at Texas French Bread. My mom started TFB almost by accident. Bread making was a hobby for her, and in 1981, she made a batch of crusty French loaves for a Mardi Gras party hosted by Ron and Peggy Weiss who had recently opened Jeffrey's. They asked if she might make bread for the restaurant, and in no time, our house was converted into a full time bakery.
Soon our kitchen was home to a 20 quart Hobart mixer that sat on a stainless steel table next to a shiny new Wolf oven (which never actually got quite hot enough to justify its purchase). The old white stove that had come with the house, a trusty and reliable workhorse, was moved down a rickety set of stairs to our dank basement space. I have clear memories of carrying precariously stacked pans of rising bread down those stairs where their crust would get better color.
Through much of that first year, Mom would get up at 4 am, put coffee on (which, if memory serves, was already roasted by Jaimie Anderson back then), and start mixing dough. Soon after, one or two helpers - Katy (then) Chadwick or Terry (aptly named) Baker would stumble in, or my dad might be pressed into service. After the dough had spent time rising, one of us would dump the wet sticky mass onto the butcher block peninsula that dominated the center of the kitchen and begin weighing out loaves. Mom would scold us if we used too much flour - more flour would change the texture of the bread. Somehow hers would always magically assume a perfect, even shape. By 7 am, these freshly shaped loaves were laid snuggly in rows in the baguette formed pans with high ridges, which we stacked in a criss cross pattern several layers deep and covered with a kitchen towel to hold in moisture and keep the loaves' skin moist and supple.
That first year was a heady time. Mom put her creative energies to work on a daily basis, and she was completely engaged by this thing she loved with her whole heart. And miraculously, she experienced this incredible and entirely unanticipated wellspring of support from her community in response to her efforts. You can ask her, but I believe these to have been some of the happiest days of her life.
At one point Mom wrote to Julia Child to tell her how Julia's basic french bread recipe had led to this surprising small business opportunity. And in a wonderful validation of mom's work, Julia sent back supportive handwritten notes, even including some fairly specific technical advice about some of the breads mom felt weren't quite right.
The main thing I took from all this is a certainty that it was my mother's genuine and heartfelt love for the activity of baking itself that drove her success. There was no Facebook promotion, no Twitter feed, and there were no celebrity chefs. There was just the getting up at 4am and the carrying stacks of rising bread dough down the dark stairs to the basement where the good oven was. There was the scoring of freshly risen loaves and the spritzing with water before baking at 475 degrees. There was Terry Baker's laughter - he was a ballet dancer in his other life - when he grabbed the mixer and began improvising his famous "dance with the Hobart". And through it all, there was the smell of fresh bread throughout our house.
If I have a wish for everyone this Mother's Day, it's that we all take a moment and feel with our hearts rather than thinking with our gray matter about what it is we really love and enjoy doing. I think if we could all spend just a little more time in the flow, engaged in something we truly love, our world couldn't help but be richer for it. This is the most important lesson I learned from my mom.
bon appetit and happy Mother's Day,