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Boston bakers, more and less
In 1998, Microsoft Windows was a Boston baker. If bread is the product, does the process matter to the people who bake? Plus, observations about WFH from the 1990s. A recipe (with video), too.
Read time: about 12 minutes (not counting the seven-minute baking video!) This week: Bread is basic, and how we make it has changed. What does it mean to bake? A simple story revealing a facet of our complex relationships with technology. And a twenty-five year-old observation about working from home. Next week: I see students from the past.
It’s likely that I’ll return to baking in the future. There are some interesting stories.
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Richard Sennett revisits a bakery
In the late 1990s, when he was writing The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, Richard Sennett revisited a bakery in Boston. His first visit was twenty-five years earlier, back when he was working on The Hidden Injuries of Class with Jonathan Cobb. Then, the bakery was manned mostly by ethnic Greek bakers, and the work was hot and hard manual labor, and there was a craftsmanship to the baking, which required years of training and experience. “[T]he bakery was filled with noise; the smell of yeast mingled with human sweat in the hot rooms; the bakers’ hands were constantly plunged into flour and water; the men used their noses as well as their eyes to judge when the bread was done.”
Back in the 1970s, Sennett was particularly curious about class and status in society. “My interviewees a quarter century ago were not blind; they had a legible enough way of reckoning social class, though not the European way. Class involved a far more personal estimation of self and circumstance,” he wrote in The Corrosion of Character. Race, gender, and ethnicity provided the alphabet and syntax of the “legibility” that Sennett perceived. The workers used these categories to make “legible in a more personal language the conditions a European might read in terms of class. Race measured down; ethnicity measured up. The character of the workers was expressed at work in acting honorably, working cooperatively and fairly with other bakers because they belonged to the same community.”
In the bakery he visited in the 1970s, that community was Greek, and Sennett observed “that the ethnic solidarity of being Greek made possible their solidarity in this difficult labor — good worker meant good Greek.”
Now, turn to the late 1990s, when Sennett went back to the bakery. “I was amazed at how much had changed,” he wrote. For one, the Greek men were gone — all retired — and the employees were a mix of ethnicities, men and women, married and single, kids or no kids, a range of ages (though mostly young). The union of old had slipped, so the young workers were without a union contract. Where once was heat and sweat and noise became “startlingly cool,” with “soothing fluorescent lights,” and a strange silence. A “giant food conglomerate” had bought the bakery.
Click on the baguette icon to get baguettes
I’ve returned to this chapter of Sennett’s The Corruption of Character many times, and the contrast of his first visit and the second still fascinates me. The chapter is called “Illegible” — referring to the blurring and erosion of people’s identities as workers and, indeed, the whole notion of work itself. Sennett explores in particular the “flexible” arrangements of “New Capitalism,” but I’ve returned to the section because of the stark contrast of the old regime of ethnic Greek bakers and their work — hard, unromantic, tainted with racism though providing some measure of identity as a worker — and the workers under the new regime of the “giant food conglomerate.”
I’ve been interested in the way that technology has changed work — not only the tasks that add up to hours in the day but the meanings of work for people. (Remember, Sennett’s subtitle directs our attention to “the personal consequences of work.”) These people are bakers, both the Greek union members of the 1970s and the diverse group of the late 1990s. But the lines of connecting them are forced, even non-existent. Baker means very different things between these generations of workers.
A lot of that has to do with automation.
“Computerized baking has profoundly changed the balletic physical activities of the shop floor,” Sennett explained. “Now the bakers make no physical contact with the materials or the loaves of bread…. Their working screens are organized in the familiar Windows way; in one, icons for many different kinds of bread appear than had been prepared in the past — Russian, Italian, French loaves all possible by touching the screen.”
He summed up the workers’ experience: “As a result of working in this way, the bakers now no longer actually know how to bake bread.”
Technology and “labor process”
Indeed, clicking an icon is not making bread. The thing that struck me when I first read Sennett’s book was that the commonly held faith that technological innovation would lead to a generally higher level of technical skill was at least suspect and perhaps mere wishful thinking. Sennett’s bakery had mechanized the incremental steps, tasks, decision points — all of the earlier baking processes and activities that he had called, somewhat artistically, “balletic.” Instead of an increase in technical skills in the bakery, the reverse had taken place. “Bakers” may initiate a process by pushing buttons, but they had no idea what the machines were doing in response. “The bakers are vividly aware of the fact that they are performing simple, mindless tasks, doing less than they know how to do,” Sennett observed. “One of the Italians said to me, ‘I go home, I really bake bread, I’m a baker. Here, I punch the buttons.’ ”
The odd and lamentable situation of the bakers when Sennett revisited the bakery arose from a systematic analysis of individual tasks done by human bakers and building those tasks into the sensing and “actuations” of machines. And the processes were likely not unique to the Boston bakery, but may have been generalized matters teased out by consultants, managers, engineers, and computer programmers. By the close of the last century, baking was a machine operation — maybe even what we’d today call an “app.”
About the time when Sennett was making his first visits to the bakery back in the 1970s and then manned by ethnic Greeks, Harry Braverman published Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. The book reinvigorated study of “labor process” that until the book appeared had been sleepily handled by academic sociologists. I had to smile when I learned that in 2009 the Wall Street Journal put the book at the top of its list of “Five Best Books on Working.” Braverman was a Marxist through-and-through and so hardly the kind of author that gets recognition, much less praise, from Wall Street.
Braverman outlined the process that Sennett later saw unfold in the bakery. “[The tendency of the capitalist mode of production … is the incessant breakdown of labor processes into simplified operations taught to workers as tasks. This leads to the conversion of the greatest possible mass of labor into work of the most elemental form, labor from which all conceptual elements have been removed and along with them most of the skill, knowledge, and understanding of production processes.”
And what of technology? “The more science is incorporated into technology, the less science the worker possesses” Braverman continued, “and the more machinery that has been developed as an aid to labor, the more labor becomes a servant of machinery.”
Braverman argued that the problem wasn’t technology, per se, since he believed that merely using machines wouldn’t rob people of “skill, knowledge, and understanding.” He contended that the “capitalist system” was to blame, not use of technology in the workplace.
I’m not so sure.
Braverman reprinted a graph that depicted what James R. Bright described as the “Hump in Skill Requirements.” In the 1950s Bright, who was at the Harvard Business School and not a Marxist like Braverman, stratified different kinds and levels of tool-use and automation, creating seventeen levels of automation that could be applied to work. The lowest was “from Man” and amounted to the hand. Next up the ladder was, of course, the “hand tool.” Beyond that level, “mechanical (nonmanual)” devices ascended the levels until the top-most level, which was a machine that senses and that “modifies own action over a wide range of variation.” Such devices were present in manufacturing already in the 1950s, and they have become common today.
Here’s Bright’s “hump,” reprinted in Braverman’s book. Note the skill required for the seventeenth level.
The bakers that Sennett met when he revisited the Boston bakery must have been working machines at the seventeenth level.
A recipe and a video, so you don’t lose your baking skill
We’ve always made bread in our household, but bread-making became routine when the pandemic struck. It’s a good habit, and it stuck. We’ve made a few varieties of bread, but my favorite is potato bread.
Here’s the recipe:
Best Potato Bread, Ever
2 cups lukewarm water
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 tablespoon salt
a smidgeon of honey (maybe up to a tablespoon)
1/2 cup (one stick) of butter
a potato or two, enough to dig out about a cup of potato mashed up. A large baking potato should do the trick.
a little half-n-half, milk, or water to get the potato to a mashed consistency
6 cups of all-purpose flour, with another 1/2 cup or so to get the dough to the right consistency
a small splash of olive oil to grease the bowl you use for letting the dough rise.
some kosher salt or sesame or … nothing to sprinkle on top of the bread before baking
Ahem. Wash your hands.
Pour the lukewarm water into a mixing bowl, add the yeast, salt, and honey. Give it a good stir and let sit for a few minutes to “proof” the yeast. While the mix is sitting there proofing, melt the butter (pul-leaze, not margarine), and mix it into the proofed mix.
Making the potato part: Wash the potato, stab it all around with a fork to make holes in the skin, wrap it in some paper towel and toss it into the microwave for, oh, about 10-15 minutes. I find that 12 minutes is just about right in my microwave. When the potato is done, slice it in quarters lengthwise, put it on a plate, and scrape the potato “meat” from the skin. Set the skins aside to throw to the chickens, because they like them. Or, if you are still without chickens, compost the skins. Mash the potato on the plate and add a little bit of half-n-half (or milk or water). Continue mashing with a fork until the mashed potato is smooth.
Put the mashed potatoes into the mix, and give it a good stir.
Adding the flour: If you’re using a KitchenAid-type electric mixer, put all of the flour in at once. If you’re not using a fancy-pants mixer, add half of the flour to the mix in a large bowl, and stir that up. Then add the remaining flour a bit at a time (say, a cup at a time), stirring the amount in as you go. You may find it nice to knead the last bit of flour in.
It you’re using an electric mixer, use the dough hook and let ’er rip at low speed until the dough doesn’t stick to the side of the mixing bowl.
Knead the dough a couple of minutes if you’re using an electric mixer. If you’re not using an electric mixer, knead for 8-10 minutes. Your dough should make a nice ball and not stick to the counter. If it sticks, add some flour and knead.
Letting it rise: Splash some olive oil (not much!) and spread thinly and evenly inside a bowl. Lob the dough ball into the bowl and turn it over, so that the olive oil covers the top of the ball. Cover with a kitchen hand towel. Let it rise for, oh, about an hour, until it’s about doubled in size. Punch it down or knead it a couple times, and let it rise again.
After the second rise, put the dough on the counter, and split it into halves. Shape the halves into loaves. Place the loaves into greased bread pans, cover, and let the loaves rise about a third — maybe about 20-30 minutes. Don’t let the loaves rise up to the lip of the bread pans, or you will have enormous bread heads growing above the pans when you bake.
Preheat your oven to 400°F. (My oven is convention, and the thermostat adjusts by heating 25°F less than the temperature I dial in. In the video, you’ll see that my oven is 375°F for that reason. Don’t be fooled by the video if you’re using a regular oven! Make it 400°F!)
Before you stick the loaves in the oven, sprinkle some kosher salt or sesame seeds or whatever pleases you on top. We like the salt. Naked potato bread is nice, too.
Bake for 30 minutes, by which time the bread will have browned nicely. Take it out, and let cool on a rack.
It’s ready to enjoy!
A note about storing the loaves: Put a loaf in a bread bag that you should have on hand and washed out. It’s good to recycle these, you know, by putting them to work again. Stick that loaf in the freezer. We tend to leave the bread we’re eating uncovered, except for the cut part which we leave face down on the bread board to keep it from drying out. Why? Because if you store the bread in a bag, the salt tends to melt and the crust loses its crispness. We tend to eat a loaf in a couple of days, so it doesn’t dry out too much.
Excess bread, if any, goes to the chickens along with the potato skins. The leavings magically come back as eggs.
A final, perhaps philosophical note: This bread recipe is quite forgiving, and you don’t have to be too concerned about measuring and sticking to the ingredients. We’ve substituted flours, changed amounts (like using less salt or a bit more potato), added cheese, and the like. Turns out well, whatever. And if it doesn’t, you’ll learn from the failure, and it still might be delicious.
An addendum on “WFH”
When I was re-reading The Corrosion of Character for this post, I ran across some passages that relate to the current churn in the workplace about working from home, aka “WFH.” Today, that work arrangement is highly desirable, if hiring ads are to be trusted, and there’s some evidence that workers are foregoing raises in order to bargain for the WFH option. We may think of WFH as a fairly new phenomenon, but over twenty years ago, Sennett was suspicious of it. “If flextime is an employee’s reward, it also puts the employee in the institution’s intimate grip,” he observed.
Take the most flexible of flextimes, working from home. This award arouses great anxiety among employers; they fear losing control over their absent workers and suspect that those who stay at home will abuse their freedom. As a result, a host of controls have come into being to regulate the actual work processes of those who are absent from the office. People may be required to phone in to the office regularly, or intranet controls may be used to monitor the absent worker; email is often opened by supervisors. Few organizations which employ flextime propose to their workers, “Here is a task; do it any way you wish, so long as you can get it done,” on the Tagwerk model. A flextime worker controls the location of labor, but does not gain greater control over the labor process itself. By now, a number of studies suggest that the surveillance of labor is in fact often greater for those absent from the office than for those who are present (Sennett, 58-59).
Sennett’s use of the term “Tagwerk model” is archaic just twenty-five years after the book appeared, but the gist of the entire passage resonates with the circumstances that many find themselves wrestling with today.
Today in employment journalism, we hear fretting about “working from home,” and what that actually means for employees’ connections with colleagues and career plans as well as for employers who, as Sennett saw in 1998, are suspicious about what we call “remote work.” Unfortunately, working from home for employees in companies that are unsure about it (which is, after all, most companies) means sampling the bitter flavor of precarity in their working lives.
How about a comment, especially if you made the bread. I’d be interested in what people are thinking about technologies in the workplace and also on the challenges and opportunities of working from home.
Tags: bread, baking, artisanal bread, bread industry, business, skill, deskilling, upskilling, automation, manufacturing, recipe
Links, cited and not, some just interesting
Richard Sennett is one of the most productive and creative scholars around. My post refers to the fourth chapter of this book, “Illegible.” I highly recommend this book. Sennett, Richard. The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism. 1st ed. New York: Norton, 1998.
Though Sennett visited the Boston bakery while researching this book, he and Cobb don’t refer to the bakery. Sennett, Richard, and Jonathan Cobb. The Hidden Injuries of Class. New York: Knopf, 1973.
Another take on real estate, mechanization, and bakeries. Wiener is a talented writer. I may return to this article and a section of Studs Terkel’s Working in a later post. Wiener, Anna. “When Baking and Real Estate Collide.” The New Yorker, June 16, 2022. https://www.newyorker.com/news/letter-from-silicon-valley/when-baking-and-real-estate-collide.
Tweedie, Dale. “Making Sense of Insecurity: A Defence of Richard Sennett’s Sociology of Work.” Work, Employment and Society 27, no. 1 (February 1, 2013): 94–104. https://doi.org/10.1177/0950017012460327.
Not too bad for a Marxist. The Wall Street Journal singled this book out as the best of five best books on “working”: Braverman, Harry. Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. 25th anniversary ed. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998.
Good review of Braverman and beyond: Jonna, R. Jamil, and John Bellamy Foster. “Braverman and the Structure of the U.S. Working Class: Beyond the Degradation of Labor.” Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal 26, no. 3 (September 2014): 219–36. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10672-014-9243-4.
Robots are not to fear, automation neither. Maybe. Hu, Jane. “The Problem with Blaming Robots For Taking Our Jobs.” The New Yorker, May 18, 2022. https://www.newyorker.com/books/under-review/the-problem-with-blaming-robots-for-taking-our-jobs.