The best bread in the world is not in Paris. It' not in San Francisco, and it's not being made in some chic little bakery–art gallery in SoHo, either. The best bread in the world is waiting for you right at the front of Jones' Food Center, 812 Cottage Avenue, in downtown Vermillion, South Dakota.
Larry Smith is the baker. Larry Smith is also, in the eyes of many University of South Dakota students, the "bread god." Real Vermillionites don't go in for such hyperbole. They just line up at noon to buy Larry Smith's bread as soon as it comes out of the oven, and they have been known to offer to help bag the loaves to speed up the process. When I walk through downtown Vermillion by myself, it seems like a nice enough place; when I walk with Larry, people express such warmth and gratitude, it's as if I've found the sunny side of the street. After a few days in the bakery, I begin to think that the best bread in the world is not just a good thing, but a healing and ecstatic thing. Clearly, the blushing middle-aged cashier, who says "Baking sticky buns today?" and claps her hands when Larry says "Yes," knows something about joy. Likewise, the guy in the orange hunting vest and feed cap, who says, "Hey, Lar, baking?" And lights up when the answer is yes.
At 6 A.M. we walk into Jones'. Larry introduces me to a neighbor as a friend from back east, and her eyes grow wide with alarm. "You're not taking him back, are you? I don't know what we would do without Larry in this town." Larry shrugs and smiles and steers me to the kitchen. We have buns to make. And salted baguettes. And their rosemary-Parmesan variation. And Badlands ciabatta. Larry is already mixing the dough before I have found an apron and gotten out of the way of a fast-moving trolley full of early morning doughnuts (they're not bad but they're not Larry's, and like everyone else, I am waiting for the sticky buns). Leo, the assistant manager, is doing everything he can to get the lesser baked goods (all the prefrozen dough bits that turn into mediocre pastries and croissants) into the oven and to make room for Larry's arsenal. Monica, the cake lady, already piping HAPPY BIRTHDAY and placing little plastic circus clowns on an iced sheet cake, watches Larry carefully. She is admiring—and she is quietly taking notes.
Without any chef's attitude and without any chef's attire, Larry, tall and lanky, is in nondescript jeans, anonymous sneakers, and an old polo shirt that will soon be so floury that what's left of its original color disappears entirely. "Some people say, "Oh, we must use fresh springwater from the Alps and sea salt from France, but, you know, practically speaking, we don't have much of that in the Midwest. The only thing that's essential is good flour; King Arthur is my favorite, and if you can't get that, North Dakota Mill bread flour is good. Get it unbromated and unbleached. Bleached flour is good for cookies—bad for bread. Murmuring "Easy, easy" to the dough, he throws the wet ingredients on top of the dry ones, and after ten minutes in the mixer, it is a soft, pliant ball.
The importance of yeast and a willingness to make mistakes
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