Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Bread and Souls in Manhattan Kansas

Just about the time Mother Earth began this new millenium, strange rumblings were moving through the international bread community.

Some of the more daring artisan bread bakers were following a trendy template that had been set by the folks who figured out a way to stretch the price point on coffee.

Let me explain.

In the 90's most people would stop into a raunt, cafe or coffee house, ask for a cup of Joe, and if it was pretty good stuff, you might have had to plunk down as much as 50 cents.

Then along came these crazy cats named Starbuck's who said.....

"Hey guy's, guess what? We are going to quadruple the price of your beverage, and you're going to feel even more en vogue for letting us take your money."

When one concept cashes in,it doesn't take long for other merchants to start considering if they too can squeeze those extra shekels from their clients pockets.

Funny thing is, when the bakers bought into this ideoligy, all they did was inverted the bread customs of the worlds social classes.

From the 1950's, up until the year 2000, most middle class to wealthy familys ate enriched breads, while the 3rd world nations and poorer people of the world ate "peasant breads", such as foccacias, ciabatta's and baguettes made from lean doughs.

Culinary puppet masters started marketing to beautiful people that they would become unhealthy and suffer status hit's if they didn't change their bread staples immediately.

And the downtrodden? Nobody spent a nickel to market to them. The now antiquated products were simply placed on the shelves of their outlets with the knoledge that if they were'nt willing to make the switch...they could just go w/o.

At this point....the floor dropped out on the bread industry, and all of us were in a free fall. all of us wondered where we would land.

Rich people were eating the bread of savages, and the destitute were indulging in the loaves which had typically been reserved for royaly.

The best thing to surface from this confusion was that both styles of bread were now being sold at a premium price.Bread profits had never been higher.

When trends come quick in the Food Show, the first thing a business has to decide is if the flourishing concept is a fad, or a trend that will continue gaining momentum over a prolonged period of time.

The owners of the bakery I was working at decided to send me on an expedition to find out some of these answers.

Much like the knights used to get shipped out to pursue the Holy Grail....

Klecko headed to Manhattan Kansas, in bakers terms, the Oz of all baking knowledge.

Manhattan plays host to the American Instatute of Baking which is strategically placed next to K-State.

Kansas State arguably has the best food science / cereal science programs in the world.

If you look at the resumes of all the General Mills employees, you'll find that a majority of them attended school there.

The distance between my house and this baking mecca is only 558 miles (898 km), so you'd think a guy would be able to catch a straight flight, but no, they had to route me into Wisconsin first.

I was pushed out of my 747 and made to wait a few hours in an airport in Milwaukee.

I don't know, I've guessing I've sat in at least 40-50 airports in my life, and almost everytime, they're all the same.

All these pit stops contain humans, buildings and food. Everybody is either in a hurry or looks as if the are being held captive against their will.

But the thing that is interesting about airports is that people are always coming and going. So typically the commuters appearance will be pretty diverse.

Not in Milwaukee though, every person in that airport did a perfect immatation of what my perception of Wisconsin resident.

This unerved me, and I wanted to flee.

When it was time to board my next plane, I was astonished to see this little puddle jumper taxi up to the tarmac.

I'd be lying if I said this plane didn't frighten me, I'm not kidding ya, as I looked at the rusty propellars, I made the sign of the cross and told the guy in front of me that even Buddy Holly refused to get on this rig.

Dude didn't laugh.

On the flight I read an information phamplet that helped me kill some time with usless Manhattan trivia.

For instance, the K-State Wild Cats Football program was once the worst Division 1 squad in the nation. Support was so poor that marketing tried everything from letting low level felons attend the games as part of their sentance, to hiring Willie Nelson to have a concert prior to the game so there would be a built in audience. Rroblem is, the concert goers left after Willie stopped singing.

The phamplet didn't forget A.I.B., in fact they informed me that when the school founders wanted to place this instatution in a centrally located place. The guy in charge had his wife point to the center of a United States silhouette and when they placed this carbon over a map, the dot on the tracing paper lined up with Manhattan Kansas.

So the puddle jumper sets down at a airstrip like the ones you see in the movies when the bad guys are running guns or drugs. A van picks me up, and my chauffer is a man in his late 70's.

As my new best friend fidgits with the radio dial to find a station that will give him reception that will meet his expectations.

I looked out my window and felt as if I were in a foreign film, even though I was plopped in the center of the wheat belt.

Water towers, store front windows, car bumpers, t-shirts, everywhere you looked appeared the image of the K-State mascot. A menacing purple Wildcat.I found this visual romantic, but yet disturbing-LOL.

I'm not kidding ya. I'll bet if you closed your eyes, were spun in a circle, and then allowed to walk a mile or 2 in any direction, when you removed your blindfold, and if you stood perfectly still, you'd be able to count out over 100 purple cats.

I don't remember which hotel chain put me up, but I do remember that its occupants were split down the middle. Half of the guests were in town on baking related business, and the other half were Armed Force Chaplains that were in town for a convention.

A lot of the preachers were from the Biblebelt, and most of the time they hung out in the parking lot with the trunks of their Lincolns and Cadillac open. Their sub woofers were blasting out hymms like "How Great Thought Art" or "Holy-Holy-Holy".

On my first day of class, the first thing they made us do was go around the room and do formal introductions. One of the prerequites for attending the conference was that you had to have a working knowledge of English.

This was a good idea since over 1/2 the peeps in attendance were from different continents.

It was a long time ago, but I remember there were folks from the Ukraine, Nigeria, Canada, Brazil and some of the Arab Countries.

The guy who was going to moderate the festivities was from Germany,and when he noticed many of us were sitting at work stations by ourselves, he encouraged us to double up.

I was in the back row, and during the "Meet & Greet" there was this woman in the front row named Maria. She was from Mexico City and may have been 1 of the 10 prettiest women I have ever seen.

So of course Klecko wanted to sit with her, but there was an ocean of people between us. Surely one of the adventorous young men would beat me to the finish line.

To my surprise, these wusses shot into every direction other than hers.I think her drop dead looks intimidated my colleagues.

When Klecko realized the cupboard was bare, well... he practically skipped up to her side.

"Hola Whey." was my salutation. If you havent had the luxery of working in a bakery of Mexicans, allow me to translate....Hello Dummy!

Then made Maria laugh. When she smiled, I remember Klecko wondering how so many huge, perfectly white teeth could fit into shut a tiny mouth.

If you've ever been to a convention, you know the ritual that takes place at the end of the first day of business right?

Everybody stands around in a foyer outside the conference room. Most of these people have come by themselves. Statistics show that probably 95% of these people are followers and are praying that an alpha will surface and come up with a plan so the collective can stay together on the first night.

Klecko doesn't nessisarily like being in charge, but I'll tell you one thing for sure. He sure hates being alone.

So now this dweeb named Trevor, the guy from a small town in Michigan starts inflating his chest just a bit, so I jumped in and informed my peers....

"OK guys, I've done the work ahead of time, theres a really cool place around here and I've called ahead to let them know a group of us is coming, so if you want to tag are more than welcome to."

Now remember, this is pre cell phone world, and none of us had the convenience of checking in easily with our familys, but Maria insisted that she had to stop back at our hotel and make a few calls.

It was agreed upon. We would all go back for 1/2 hour, freshen up and hit the road. I really didn't have a clue as to were we would be going, but I sure didn't want to follow Trevor and possibily end up at a venue that was worse than solitude.

So when we walk into the lobby of our hotel. Preachers are swapping scriptures, bakers are converting formulas, and the concierge whips across the floor in a B-line towards Maria.

"Excuse me Mam, I hate to bother you, but your husband has called a half dozen times and would like you to get a hold of him, he has also made arrangments for one of our staff to assist you in your shopping excursion on Thursday. If you will just follow........"

Maria looked at me with abject embaressment and slinked off with the local.

So I brought my motley crew to a place called "The Last Chance". It was basically the first place we passed by that offered the possibilty of beer, chicken wings and wall mounted televisions.

As everybody started to settle in, I was feeling homesick, but started to feel a little better when I saw the Miami Dolphins playing a meaningless Monday Night Football pre season game on television.

The age range our our pack was 25-50ish,so our server welcomes us, and then out of the side of her mouth explains they got busted a couple weeks ago for serving minors so EVERYBODY has to produce an I.D.

When the server looked at the first persons they audibally announced the date of their birth and the year. Each person in succesion followed suit.

When it was Maria's turn she announced "July 8th 1968".

I was up next and answered with "July 8th 1963".

It wasn't exactly the key to a hidden code, or some kind of miracle that needed to be studied by the Vatican, but none the less....when you meet somebody else that shares your birthday, and ecspecially when you broadcast them back to back unknowingly, there is an element of something there.Kleclo just doesn't know what it is though, or what level of swag needs to be attached to it.

So a couple seconds passed, everybody stares in my direction and instead of witnessing an awkward pause, Klecko risked becoming a lout and began the conversation.

OK guys, heres the deal. Everybody is excited and bored. None of us know each other that well, but within another 24 hours, we'll all pretty much know who we like, or who we hate. I'll bet tomorrow we'll break up into smaller groups, and the night after that...1/2 of you will just lay in your hotel rooms and watch TV, so lets take this oppurtunity to discuss our employeement and familys, are you in?"

Then I lifted a mug and everybody else chimed in. Typically I don't want to know about every person I meet, or ecspecially their personal life, but most of these cats were from different parts of the world. Places that I may never have the oppurtunity to visit."

I don't know if it was the beer specials or what, but the Last Chance was buzzing. If having the flu makes your perception on matters worse than they are. Hearing stories in an active bar make them 10 times better.

I'll bet it took us over 2 hours before this "Ice Breaking" topic was exhausted, each persons stories merited some kind of New York Times column.

However, Martha gave a much more generic account of her life,she didn't really address family and business hopes like the rest of us.

So, just as I had predicted, with each passing day the pack grew smaller and smaller. On Thursday evening, it appeared to me that nobody was going to go out, I remember I was going to head back to the Last Chance, and if nothing else....I'd play pinball with college students and locals.

In fact I probably would had already left, but the Royals were on TV VS the Yankee's, and whenever you are in an American League city, it is really quite a treat to watch a local broadcast of their home town squad.

Just when I was ready to place my hand on the doorknob, Royals first baseman Mike Sweeny stole home.I think it was off Mussina, but don't quote me on that part of it. That must of cost me another 10 minutes because each time on the replay, when they showed that lumbering goon glide over home plate I actually cheered out loud, even though I was alone.

I hate the Yankee's

But then....Boom-Boom-Boom, who comes to visit my room?

That's right, the ever effervesent Maria.

She told me that she was bored and lonely, and that she would be willing to buy me dinner if I would accompany her.

Ask Sue McGleno or any of the women of Klecko's Girlfriend Nation, and they'll tell you that Capitol Cities premiere baker has no problem letting women splurge on him.

But this was different, Maria was different. Throughout the week during the conference,she had on more than one occasion insinuated that her husband was a player in some kind of Mob or Cartel.

It didn't take a genius to figure out that Maria had probably never picked up a bar tab in her life. You could tell how she articulated, you could tell by how perfectly her clothes hung from her body.

So Klecko skirts the awkwardness by informing her that he would love to join her, but while she was in America, it would bring shame upon my household if she did not allow me to pay for the evening.

You could just see this sigh of relief come over her countenance.

At this point money just was'nt a factor in the equation. She was just thrilled that I knew her for who she was, accepted it and was willing to let her continue her role in the dignity that she was accustomed to.

So we went down to the Last Chance and sat out on the patio, it was an hourish before dark and the place was less busy than the last time we came.

The both of us tossed our ID's onto the table and when our server came, I ordered margaritas for the 2 of us, and before you know it my friend began to confide some of her business goals.

Her husband was going to finance a restaurant / bakery in one of the more metropolitan parts of Mexico City.

I've had literally 10 000 conversations like this before. Conversations where people share their million dollar ideas on how they are going to create something special, something unique.

I've always felt that was quite a boast when you figure over a billion feeding establishments have already opened over the the centurys.

Maria didn't dissapoint though.....

"In my country, most of the people do not eat as healthy as they should. I am going to not just create healthier dishes for them,I am going to explain to them why this way of eating is better."

If you've never been to Manhattan Kansas in late summer, not only is it hot outside, but the air is sticky as well. My shirt was drenched through, and the young-athletic server girlios were getting sticky as well.

However, my evenings date somehow remained dry and composed, as if weather didn't have the ability to dent her demeanor.

She continued sharing her vision.

"But in addidtion to health, I want to get to know the women who make my restaurant a daily or weekly occurrence.I want to build a relationship with them so I can help them with the one thing all woman want the most. Do you know what that is Pelon?"

I shook my head no.

"Woman are so afraid to exress their desire to be beautiful. I do not know why that is. Every woman has beauty inside of themselves. But they will never see it, if they don'y believe. I can teach them how to do this, and I will."

When you write something like that, and stare at it on your monitor,my friend comes across as a braggart, but you had to be in Manhattan that night. You had to look into her eyes to see that there was a need for her to help others.

You know Klecko, it doesn't happen very often, but I was quiet for a little bit. I was thinking about this vision, and I was hoping that it would become a reality.

Do you ever have one of those crossroads moments where you wonder if what has been presented to you is meant to be just what is was, or if maybe it was just a layer that was attached to another, deeper rooted topic.

Thats what I was thinking, and it was getting dark. I had made some earlier observations from the first night our pack went out and I felt as if they were connected, but should I just leave well enough alone?

Tick Tock goes the clock, the Margarita glass gets tilted one more time and Klecko just can't keep his mouth shut.

"OK Maria, we have 24 more hours together. The things you have told me are really interesting, I don't want to offend you because you are my friend, but may I ask you a question?"

Maria flashed those big white teeth at me again and assured me my questions would be welcomed.

Just like when I approached that puddle jumper, I was kinda nervous, crossed myself and delved in.

"The other night when everybody shared their story inside the bar. Everybody talked about their families, you never did.When me and the other people told stories of our children, your eyes went big. I could see that kids flipped a switch in you, but you never asked a single question about any of our children."

My friend stared at me void of expression. I continued.

"I realize this is none of my business, but I think there might have been some damage in your life that revolves around kids. I don't know, maybe you have 8, but I don't think so. I've heard a thousand people discuss plans for their upcoming restaurant, yours was the best ever because your focus is on the peoples soul....even more than the food."

Then I stopped, grabbed her hand with a non amorous grip and finished my thought.

"Had your birthday been July 7th, or July 9th, I'd be sitting back in my room watching baseball kid, but both of us are July 8th, and you were born exactly 5 years after me" now a grin comes back to Maria "But at the risk of going ESP all over you, just answer me one question, is your pursuit about kids, do you have conflict in that area?"

As these questions finished leaving my mouth. I swear to Caesar I couldn't tell if they sounded like the ranting of a mad man, or the prying of somebody who just had no social filter.

But Maria squeezed my had tight, and then tighter. Just about the time my fingers were about to break, tears began streaming out of her eyes.

Some of our patio guests kinda picked up on our drama now, but at this point, I guess you could say it was a little too late to worry about public perception.

I'll bet I can almost remember Maria's response pretty close to word for word.

"Pelon, before I married my husband. I was in love with a boy. He was from my village and I followed him everywhere. Eventually when we became old enough, he made love to me and a baby was produced. When I told the boy about this with excitement...he got mad and said it would bring shame on us since we were not married, and even worse, he could not afford to take care of himself, how could he provide for me and a child. He ended up taking me to get an abortion. I did not want to do this, but I did not have the courage to not do it. The place where this procedure took place had a man who wasn't a doctor do my operation. The result is that the baby was aborted, and I was almost killed, however I did get better, but the surgery wrecked my body and I will never have children. The boy ran away and I married a wealthy man who loves me and does not hold the past against me."

Now the crying that went to another level.

"The boy has returned now, and he wants me to divorce my husband and join him,and he said he wants to have many children with me now, but as I've said....I am not able."

So I asked if she even wanted to go back, the boy kinda sounded like an a** munch to me, but you know what.....she did.

Even though the tears were still multiplying, Maria began to smile while she told me one last thing.

"Before I came here, I asked in prayer for some aswers to my questions. Pelon....this incident happened 10 years ago. I have never mentioned it once to anybody. People have always looked at the outside of my body, but you looked inside and saw my problem.I don't know how you do this, and I don't care. I am just grateful for our friendship and your willingness to ask me questions."

I was feeling kinda akward. I don't know how people get placed, or if they get placed in one anothers lives. I'm just glad I stuck around to watch Mike Sweeny steal home base for those extra 10 minutes or this evening just wouldn't of transpired.

The conference turned out to be pretty cool, and I learned a lot of valuble info that helped me to increase my bread empire, but moneys leaves Kleckos hands before they even touch them.

but each year, on the morning of Klecko's birthday, it is not his life that he celebrates first. This honor belongs to a woman that is probably doing tremendous things south of the border.


  1. What a lovely story. You do the dialogue great.

  2. Thanks Mike.....dialogue and closing stories always are akward for me.