Today I’m thinking about the connections between art, bread, loneliness and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Sharing bread is the way through, out and around the desolation that fuels loneliness. I’m certain of it. Homemade sourdough is magical, as powerful as any therapy.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of the greatest actors of his generation, who died alone from a heroin overdose in an apartment in upstate New York not far from where he grew up, left behind a woman who loved him and three young children. He was famous, at the top of his game, and I believe terribly lonely.
He tried to kick his addictions multiple times and yet they dragged him back. If drug use is about masking and numbing emotions, which I believe it is, then Hoffman was clearly a candidate for it. The raw vulnerability he portrayed in every role he ever took on stage and screen came from somewhere deep inside, the source of his greatest triumphs as well as his lonely death at the age of 46.
A piece by Richard Deming posted online in The Paris Review titled So Fierce Is the World: On Loneliness and Philip Seymour Hoffman affected me deeply and this post is in response to that, a working out of his many densely packed ideas. Deming himself works at staying sober and he relates deeply to Hoffman through their shared addictions.
He writes, “The desolation of loneliness, like the connected problems of substance abuse and depression, comes from the feeling that the experience—when one is in it—will never end. That is why, sometimes, people choose to end it for themselves. If we are to keep going, push through, or slip around it, I believe we must reinvent loneliness in order to survive it.”
Loneliness is an emotion and like all emotions it is transient. We don’t have to react to it by lurching towards a bottle or a needle. The trouble is the society we live in tells us that there is something wrong with us for feeling this way, just as it does when grief lasts beyond a funeral or the date a court hands down a divorce decree or a job is gone forever and getting over the loss takes more then a day. So we stuff these feelings deep inside of ourselves rather than expressing them. We start to believe there is something wrong with us and that we must bury the feeling, mask it, deny it to escape it. Trouble is none of these tactics work. Such feelings require physical release, usually words, tears, rituals.
I remember years ago, when I worked at a large organization that prided itself on professionalism and the smartness of its employees, a woman on my team lost her husband to suicide. When she returned to work after a month off and broke down unexpectedly during a meeting, a senior sales manager told her she needed to get over it and move on. Let’s just say he was the one who lost everyone’s respect that day. But his reaction isn’t terribly unusual. We expect people to move on from terrible emotional experiences and get with the program quickly. Why? Because their pain makes us uncomfortable.
There is a difference between indulgence and empathy. It behooves all of us to know where that line lies and to err on the side of kindness more often than not. To deny a person’s humanity is on some level to deny one’s own. It is a way to deny the intimacy that we all need from our friends and family members. Social isolation is the worst feeling in the world for a human being to endure for the simple reason that we are all here for one reason: connection.
Deming references the work of social psychologists who’ve found that society is more likely to express sympathy for depression than loneliness because depression is understood to be a mental illness whereas loneliness is regarded as “emotional neediness” and not worthy of empathy or sympathy. It is indulgent, an excuse for weakness. This attitude is related to the cult of self-sufficiency. It’s a cult because this deep belief is based on a lie. The truth is we need each other.
Art doesn’t lie. Hoffman’s art as an actor brought forward the truth of his very existence and it helped those of us who were his audience. When we watched him on stage or screen we felt something. He made us feel and somehow we became less lonely ourselves. His performances as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman were particularly striking partly because he nailed the role despite being decades younger than the character.
Reflecting on the early days of developing Willy Loman as his tragic subject, Arthur Miller wrote this about Death of Salesman:
Loneliness has informed the essence of my identity from my earliest memories as a four-year-old ripped from my Hungarian village and taken to Canada, my “real” home. My parents, suffering themselves for various reasons, were emotionally distant people desperate to take care of themselves and me on their own. I grew up repeating their immigration story over and over again with every move we made, making it impossible to maintain strong emotional bonds with anyone including members of my own extended family.
These days I counter loneliness by engaging in the art of cooking. Food is meant to be shared and sharing it connects me with those around me.
Philip Seymour Hoffman lives on for us in films. He keeps giving and we keep on receiving the precious intimacy he projected. You and I may not have the opportunity to do that after we’re gone. So, make some bread and give a piece of yourself away to someone you care about.
I recently hosted a casual dinner for friends, one of whom is gluten intolerant, using three recipes, two of which I’ve linked and provided the recipe for the third below:
Make It Dough’s Chili Cheddar Bread (Not-GF) recipe below.
Semolina Chili-Cheddar Loaf
- 280 grams bread flour.
- 80 grams fine semolina flour.
- 282 grams warm water, 90℉ max.
- 75 grams active sourdough starter (fed and doubling in four hours).
- 60 grams cheddar cheese, thinly sliced with a vegetable peeler.
- 1 whole Fresno chilli, sliced, seeds removed if you prefer a milder taste.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine bread flour, semolina and water. Mix until all of the flour is moist and no dry flour remains. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp tea towel and allow dough to rest for 1 hour. This is called autolyzing the dough.
- After the dough has autolyzed for 1 hour, get a clean mixing bowl and combine the dough, starter and salt. Keep folding the mixture using a stiff spatula until it forms a cohesive dough ball. It's okay if it's a little dry and shaggy, but make sure all the flour is incorporated. Cover again and let sit for 30 minutes.
- Wet the countertop and turn the dough out of the bowl. Flatten it into a rectangle, gently. Spread the cheese and chili evenly over the top. With your hands, roll the dough into a log, seal the seam by pressing it together with your fingers, then fold in the two sides and return the dough to the bowl. Cover and rest for 30 minutes.
- Now the bulk fermentation stage begins. Perform a series of four to six stretch and folds at 30-minute intervals until the dough passes the windowpane test. You're finished stretching and folding when you can pull a bit of dough toward you and create a 1-inch semi-transparent window without tearing it.
- Always place your dough into your bowl seam side down. Later, when ready to proof transfer the dough to the banneton with the seam side up so that the top of your loaf is facing down into the bottom of the banneton. You will flip it before you bake the loaf.
- After your last fold, allow the dough to rest untouched in the covered bowl for 1½ to 3 hours. This timing will vary depending on the temperature of your kitchen. Cooler rooms require more time, warmer rooms allow the process to speed up. Your dough is ready when it's bubbly and has risen by 30-50%.
- After bulk fermentation, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, round it gently, cover and rest for another 30 minutes. At no time should you punch the dough or work it so hard that it tears.
- Prepare a banneton or proofing bowl. A banneton is a basket, often lined with a linen cloth in which bread is proofed. To prepare one, mist the lining with water, then sprinkle rice flour and dry corn meal into the bottom. This is designed to prevent the dough from sticking, making it easy to turn out into a baking vessel, whether that's a Dutch oven, a purpose designed bread baker or a sheet pan.
- Shape your dough in a boule (round) or batard (oval) and place it carefully into a prepared banneton or mixing bowl.
Proof the Dough
- Wrap the banneton in a plastic bag to prevent the dough from drying out and put it into the refrigerator over night. This is called a retard. Retarding in the fridge slows down the process of proofing the dough. It also means I can get a good night's sleep. It's my favorite method of proofing because it makes my life easy. I end up with perfect bread when I bake the next morning without any fuss.
- Before you go to bed, cut a piece of parchment paper with two handles on each end that is slightly larger than the opening of your banneton. Get a cutting board that is bigger than your loaf out. You will use this together with parchment paper to help flip the dough out of the banneton in the morning.
- Place your Dutch oven or bread baker into the oven to preheat. (I do this at 5a.m. and go back to bed.)
- Heat the oven to 500℉. Let the Dutch oven heat in the oven for 1 hour. Set a timer that will wake you if you go back to sleep.
- Remove the Dutch oven from the oven and take the lid off. Always use oven mitts! Keep those mitts within view. You'll need them in a minute.
- Take the loaf from the refrigerator and remove it from the plastic bag.
- Place the parchment paper over your cutting board and flip the dough out of the banneton onto the paper.
- Score the loaf with a bread lame or a sharp knife. Spritz the top and sides with water (optional).
- Gripping the handles that you created in your parchment, drop the loaf together with the parchment paper into the Dutch oven and put the lid on.
- Bake at 500℉ for 30 minutes. Remove the lid and reduce the heat to 450℉. Bake for 10-15 minutes longer to finish browning the crust.
- Turn the bread out onto a cooling rack. Cool until the loaf no longer feels warm on the inside, at least 2 hours. It will be difficult to slice while it's still warm. I leave it until lunch time.