A Philosophy of Bread

I have baked bread every week for nearly 30 years. About the only times when I haven’t baked my weekly loaves of bread are when I have been on vacation or living in a country with great bakeries and no ovens in their rental apartments (I’m looking at you, Belgium!), so making bread has become part of the rhythm of my life. If you’ve read my other food posts, then you won’t be surprised that I don’t use a recipe. All you need to bake bread are yeast, water, flour, and a little oil and salt. If you know how much water to start with, you’ll always have about the right amount of bread. You can even do without the yeast, which I’ve tried now and then with a sourdough. Or you can get fancy, adding ingredients like milk or eggs.

The first method I used to bake bread was taught to me by my Danish friend, George, who had researched it and found what he thought of as the best. It involved making up the sponge and the dough late at night, and baking the bread in the morning. That was a great method that I used for many years. My thoughts on bread were also influenced by Ed Brown’s Tassajara Bread Book, where I learned a few of the other recipes I’ve tried, including a way to make your own sourdough starter.

Eventually, as I grew older and started a family, I changed my method. The overnight one involved getting up early in the morning an hour before you wanted to bake it in order to punch down the bread and let it start rising again. We decided fresh bread for breakfast wasn’t essential, but more uninterrupted sleep was, so I developed a method to make bread in the morning and have it ready for Sunday lunch. It takes about 4-5 hours from the time  you add yeast to the water to the time it comes out of the oven.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that bread is very flexible and very forgiving. Though I follow the same method every week, it rarely comes out identical. A lot depends on the kinds of flour you use, though I keep that fairly consistent. Sometimes I’ll ad buckwheat or rye, and we like to include some oatmeal when we have it on hand. Otherwise, I usually use about half white and half whole wheat. How the bread rises depends on the environment and how attentive I’m being. In the winter, I might warm the oven before putting in the dough. See my post on Twice Baked Bread for a time when this went really wrong, but the bread still survived! I’ve had plenty of mishaps and baked a few barely edible bricks, but by and large, the bread turns out wonderful every week, especially when it’s fresh from the oven.

What this has taught me in terms of a philosophy is to be flexible myself. Though I aim for perfection, I try not to define it too much in advance, and I try to be open to valuable surprises. If things don’t go the way I expect them to, I try to roll with the punches and find a new way. So if I’m baking bread and I’ve forgotten to punch it down when I should, I either extend the time I need before the bread comes out of the oven, or I skip the second rise and put it into loaves right away. Generally, that works relatively well, given that I often leave it in the sponge stage long enough to develop some really good gluten (no I haven’t jumped on the anti-gluten bandwagon—I’ve never had a problem with it, at least not with homemade bread). Other times, if I’m in a bit of a hurry, I might skip the sponge stage and make sure i give it two really good rises before making it into loaves. It might take a little longer rising in the loaf pans if I do.

I like the rhythm of making bread, mixing it up, kneading the dough, watching it rise, nursing it along or letting it do its own thing as needed or as my schedule will allow. And of course, I love the taste of fresh bread!  I rarely buy bread in the store and am disappointed when I do. I don’t mind bread-machine bread, but making it on my own is easy and such a part of normal life by now, that I hardly see the point in a machine. I could use our KitchenAid to do the mixing and initial needing, but so far I prefer to do it by hand. It’s what keeps you grounded to the food you eat, and that is what can turn any kind of cooking into a philosophy best written in the daily or weekly habits and the food you make.

Risotto with Baked Golden Beets

I figured it’s time to get back to posting about food now and then. This weekend at our farmer’s market, I was able to pick up a few golden beets, and made a delicious risotto (if I may say so). I won’t go into the Risotto part of the recipe other than to say I didn’t do anything special, just cooked the arborio rice with sautéed onion and vegetable broth until it was done.

For the risotto part, I chopped up the beet tops and some mushrooms, then sautéed them in olive oil until the mushrooms were browned and the beet tops just lightly wilted. I added a bit to tomato sauce to the risotto right before adding the sautéed greens, and mixed it all together with a liberal amount of Parmesan or Romano cheese.

What really made the meal good, though were the baked beets. It took about as long to bake them at 400 as it took to make the risotto. I quartered them, added olive oil and cut up part of rutabaga that I had left in the fridge, then mixed with the oil and a bit of salt until they were coated, and baked until they were tender. The juices of both root vegetables were trapped inside by the baked-on olive oils. Both the beets and the rutabaga were sweet, and more flavorful than if I made them on the stove. The combination with the risotto was excellent. The golden beets had a wonderful color — this would probably work with red beets, too, but the beet flavor might be stronger. So if you’re looking for something new to try with beets or a new ingredient to have with risotto, give this a try.

Grad Student Admissions!

This week, now that final exams are over and end-of-year meetings have been held, I’ve been able to turn my attention back to admitting students to our Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing. I’ve actually admitted one student, and I have two more forms ready to turn in today. There are several other applications that are nearly complete, waiting only on one or two pieces of information before I can finish the process. I knew it would probably be complicated, but never really guessed just how convoluted that could get. The sheer number of details that have to be tracked down can be a little overwhelming. Not that I’m complaining! But I want to explain that it takes more than reviewing the documents and making a decision.

Several of our students have come in with multiple transcripts from their undergraduate careers. That’s fine, but it means tracking them all down on their end (sometimes students forget about those first two classes taken at community college, for instance), and  on my end it means making sure they’ve all come in, since they come from different sources and get sent to different offices on campus. Most come either to me or to our graduate studies office, but some end up in undergraduate admissions and some seem to disappear into the ether, but I’ve managed to locate most of the ones I should have by now. One young woman had briefly gone to school that is no longer in business, so I had to help her figure out how to order her transcript, which she was able to do by contacting Mississippi’s Institutes of Higher Learning office.

Immunization forms and letters of recommendation are two other fun pieces of the puzzle, both in terms of tracking them down and in terms of reading and evaluating the letters of recommendation. Each application has a rubric, which needs to be updated for each new piece of information. Fortunately, I created the rubric, so it at least makes sense and measures things we actually care about in admitting students to the program. There are several criteria for the writing sample and letter of intent that I’ve already filled out before I invite an application, and then there are criteria to rate the transcript and letters of recommendation. The weighting, of course, is heaviest on the writing sample, and I have left room for comments, where I can remind myself of what I was thinking or add any notes about the student’s file for future reference.

Since I’ve been doing most of this while also giving final exams, calculating final grades, and tying up all the loose ends of a semester, while also trying to get a head start on next semester and communicating with the visiting writers who will be part of our faculty in the fall, I have to reinvent the wheel every time I come back to a person’s file. Fortunately, this week, I’ve been able to put forth a more concentrated effort and make better notes about what I’m still missing, so that when I return to those files, I won’t have to start over from scratch.

All of this makes me very relieved that next week we begin our planning for an automated admissions system. I’m sure that we’ll still have to assist some people with things like tracking down their transcripts or other details, but keeping up with what is here and what is still missing will be easier both for me and for the student.

But mostly, it is very exciting and gratifying that the program we’ve worked so hard to put into place is finally coming to fruition. The prospective students who have applies are for the most part a very impressive group. I’ve had to turn down a couple — or encourage them to wait and give them advice on how they can develop as a writer before they are ready to take this step on their career paths — but by and large I’ve been at the wealth of talent that is out there in our state and the surrounding region. We will have an exciting and dynamic group of students in our inaugural class, students who could vie for a place in any program in the country. There is room for a few more good applicants, but we already have enough of a critical mass to get this program off the ground in style.

Another thought on Grad School Funding: Ask Your Boss!

This past week, I spent at #AWP15, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ annual convention. There, I got lots of valuable information and had a great time running into writers I know from the Welty Symposium or from AWPs past. More on that in a later post, I hope! What I wanted to mention before I get to any of the fun stuff, was a bit of advice I gleaned about paying for grad school.

This came from a panel on Low-Residency MFA programs like our new one, where the directors were lamenting the fact that most low-res programs can’t offer the levels of financial aid that full residency programs offer. They don’t have as many scholarships, as a general rule, and the practicalities of having distance-learning students work as teaching assistants makes this less common (though we’re hoping to do this with at least one or two people next year).

One advantage that Low-Residency students have, though, is that they usually are employed! This means they can pay more towards their education right away, and it means that they have a resource most typical students don’t have: an employer!

Several low-residency directors noted that their students receive financial aid from their employers, and that these employers are not always in writing-related fields. One director told of a young woman who worked in a warehouse (if I remember correctly), and who got a scholarship simply because the company wanted to promote education. It’s one fringe benefit that many companies have, either out of altruism or because the company wants to keep employees who are driven to improve themselves, regardless of whether the skills have an immediate application to their current jobs.

As an aside, I had an interesting, somewhat related conversation with one of our alums yesterday. She gave up a career in teaching English (after deciding teaching 8th graders wasn’t her calling!) and went into business. Her skills as an English major were invaluable to her throughout a distinguished career in marketing and management. I’m reminded of this because a company might be able to use your skills developed in grad work in English, writing, or another field, in ways that aren’t immediately apparent. More bosses understand this than you might imagine (and some may have been in your shoes at one point in their lives).

So, when looking for financial aid, if you are employed and especially if you can stay with the company while you’re in school, don’t overlook the closest source of funding you may have: your boss! Ask politely whether there is a policy about continuing education for employees. The company may not fund your full degree (though it might), but it could make it a little easier for you with a partial scholarship. Be open with your employer about your plans and your needs in a low-residency program (or in a nearby full residency program, if that is your plan). At the very least, your boss may be able to work with you with flex-time or other options that can make it more manageable to juggle graduate school and a job.

And don’t think your employer has to be in a related field or that your job in the company has to be a high-end position in order for you to be eligible. It doesn’t hurt to ask! I would suggest having a plan to combine work and study, so that if there is any resistance to the idea, you can show how your educational goals will not get in the way of you doing your job. Most employers will be supportive, and some, maybe more than you think, will actively support your goals with some funding.

How to Afford Grad School

First, a disclaimer! As anyone who reads this blog can tell you, I am not a financial planner. My idea of debt management is not to go into debt. Seriously. My only major loan was on our house. I pay off my credit cards and have never had a car loan. I thank my parents for much of that, and the Andrew Mellon Foundation for the rest. My parents paid for my undergraduate education (and it wasn’t cheap), and a Mellon Fellowship paid for all but two years of my graduate school — a teaching assistantship and a Fulbright fellowship took care of the rest. So when it comes to funding graduate school if you don’t have a great fellowship, I’m no expert. That’s why I’ve been doing some research.

If you are going into a career with prospects of a lucrative profession upon graduation, then it makes sense to invest in your graduate education by taking out loans. If, on the other hand, you’re going into creative writing or one of the many other rewarding graduate tracks that should make you more marketable, but can’t promise a huge salary (not that those aren’t possible), then going into debt is a riskier proposition. Always remember that the longer you owe, the more you’ll pay, and interest generally begins to accrue while you’re in school, even before you’re required to pay off your loans. The less principal (money you can actually use) you have to take out, the less interest will pile up. So try to find ways to minimize the amount you need to borrow up front, and try to pay down the principal (pay more than the minimum payment) as soon as you can to cut the overall cost of your loans.

Many graduate students typically receive some form of financial assistance from their school. This can come in the form of a scholarship, but more likely will be in the form of an assistantship—either assisting with a graduate faculty member’s research or with teaching a class. Often a teaching assistant begins by leading discussions and doing some grading, but isn’t in charge of a full class. Then after a year or so, an assistant instructor may have complete responsibility for an undergraduate class. Don’t be fooled. This is work! It’s not easy money, but it is a job that is tied to your educational goals, and you learn as much by teaching as you will in your other classes.

If you are in a low-residency program, like the W’s new MFA in Creative Writing, then teaching opportunities may be limited. We’re a small university, after all, and we don’t have a ton of extra sections of classes to cover. Students in our program are not on campus, so there are even fewer sections that would be offered online, and it takes more expertise to teach online than it does to teach in the classroom, since you have to manage the online environment while you’re learning to teach your class. We are planning to offer some teaching assistantships, but those will be fairly limited for now. We ought to have some scholarships available as well, but again those will be limited. Often low-residency programs don’t offer a lot in financial aid, since the expectation is that their students will already be working and will do their degree on top of their regular job. So the first question before you apply may be whether you are ready, financially, to take that on. Here are some resources that might help you find the financial aid you need and make the decision whether you are financially ready to take on the expense of grad school.

If you’re applying to MUW’s Graduate programs, don’t forget to fill out an application for Graduate Scholarships and one for Graduate Assistantships, if you want to be considered for these opportunities. This needs to be done each semester that you are enrolled. These forms can be found on our program’s page on How to Apply.

Southern Literary Festival 2015

The campus of University of North Georgia in Dahlonega made an excellent venue for this year’s Southern Literary Festival, and our small group from Mississippi University for Women had an excellent time. It was our school’s Homecoming, so only three students were able to get away.

The Festival was very well run, and everything went off without a hitch, as far as I could tell. Highlights for our group were the Third Place awards for the literary contest, since MUW student, Tamara Rutledge from Reform, AL, won one of the awards. The other prize sessions were also excellent, and confirmed just how high the competition is in the contest — each of 20-some schools submits the top two entries in their campus contests to the main festival competition, so everyone involved in the contest at that point has gone through a rigorous selection process. We were also thrilled this year to have our student literary magazine, edited by Mark Burr and Kristi Ezernack with Sarah Barrett as designer, selected for second place.

Other highlights for me were the poetry sessions, especially Sandra Meek and Karen Head, who both gave excellent readings, and I also had a chance to hear featured writers Tony Grooms and Frances Mayes read from new and published work. I was especially interested to hear parts of two new manuscripts by Tony Grooms (author of Bombingham) and to hear Mayes accounts of her new memoir about growing up in Georgia and her discussion of moving to Italy and integrating into the village where she bought the house that is featured in Under the Tuscan Sun. Sandra Meek is a poet I’ve admired for quite some time, and Karen Head’s discussion of digital poetry was especially apropos as I am thinking of the Writing for New Media class. Many other good ideas came out of these sessions, and our students enjoyed masterclasses on fiction, writing for young adults, and playwriting.

For me, one of the highlights is getting together with colleagues from around the regions. Discussions with Mike Smith and Don Allan Mitchell from Delta State, Beth Spence from Ole Miss, Nick Norwood from Columbus State, Jennifer Kates of Middle Tennessee State (next year’s host school) and her students, John Glass of UT Martin, and Carol Westcamp and Christian Gerard of University of Arkansas Ft. Smith (who will host in 2017 and put out the anthology of prize winners next year). I also got to talk with a few of the authors, and I’m probably leaving a few people out. And of course, I come home with a few new books and copies of the anthology.

And finally, hanging out with Tamara, Katy, and Rain, learning about the sessions they went to and talking informally about school, writing, etc. over dinner or between sessions was also fun. This year, they decided to take their own vehicle, which gave them a little more flexibility on what to do and may have allowed for a little more sight-seeing. This meant there wasn’t a 6-hour drive for extended conversation (or sleep for all who weren’t driving, which sometimes happens, esp. on the drive home). But we all made it through Atlanta traffic and were reminded of the advantages of living in a less urban area (a sentiment echoed by many of the other faculty I talked with).

There’s a lot of good energy with the Southern Literary Festival these days. Dana Carpenter (former Executive Director) and Beth Spencer (former c0-director and now executive director) have done a lot of great work to keep that energy going, and I’ll be doing a little more of that, now that I’ve been elected co-executive director (whereas previously I’ve been a member of the executive board, since MUW hosted in 2010). Delta State and UT Martin are both interested in hosting sometime in the near future, and MUW will likely take its turn again relatively soon as well. We’re always looking for more member schools, too.

ATT’s Strong-Arm Tactics

Today I was surprised to come home for lunch and find the following error message when I tried to browse online:

Important Message                      NRCM

Your Internet access, including any VoIP services that utilize your Internet connection, has been temporarily suspended.
Please call us as soon as possible!

We have sent you a number of notifications about an important network upgrade to AT&T U-verse High Speed Internet service for your area.

You need to contact us to have your access restored and set up an appointment to have the necessary equipment installed in your home for the upgrade.

Please call 1.877.377.1686 at the times listed below:
8am – 7pm Local Time Monday through Friday    8am – 5pm Local Time Saturday    Closed on Sunday

It is important that we hear from you so that your current high speed Internet service is not disconnected on the date provided
in your notifications.

As you might expect, I was shocked and pretty PO’d at these strong-arm tactics. Yes. we’d received what we considered junk mail solicitations to switch to U-verse from our current DSL. This would mean a disruption in our service, figuring out a new wireless configuration in our home, and possible added cost with no benefit other than possibly faster internet speeds. (Note to ATT, maybe if you actually provided the internet speeds we pay for on a consistent basis, we’d believe your promise of faster speeds with U-verse). Like most junk mail, we ignored them. After all, we pay our bills, so why would they suspend our service?

It’s pretty reprehensible that they did. Yes, we were warned, though we never took the warnings that seriously, and in fact we had good reason not to. We called the number, and were told we needed our account number from our bill. Since we use auto-pay, we don’t get a bill. We couldn’t even access a recent email with that information. So the initial call ended in frustration. We had no internet and no way of providing the information we needed to restore it. We had done nothing wrong, yet our service was interrupted (not cancelled, of course).

Fortunately, when my wife, whose name is on the account, called back, the person she talked to that time was able to use her name and social security number to update the account. This operator also revealed that DSL service, which I had been told would be discontinued in our area, probably wouldn’t be discontinued for another year or two. We certainly have enough time to make our decision of whether we want to switch to U-verse or find another option. ATT’s tactics of turning off our service just to get us to call when there apparently isn’t a rush to make a decision don’t make us very happy customers. We’ve had consistent phone and broadband service at this address with BellSouth and then ATT for over 15 years. That’s no way to treat loyal customers, if you ask me.

We have two main issues with switching to U-verse. One is that we use internet constantly for work and for personal communication, so we don’t want an interruption (and really didn’t appreciate losing an hour out of our day to sort this out today!), so IF we decide to change our configuration, we’ll want to do it at a time when we won’t be using it heavily and when we can test out and deal with any incompatibilities that will undoubtedly arise. The other issue is cost. Yes, they make it sound like it will be cheaper, and for the first year it will be. But after that the charges go up, and there’s a $7 a month charge for a wifi router that we don’t want or need. Though we do need a modem or gateway for broadband, we have a wireless router that we’re happy with, so why should we be forced to use one provided by ATT? Yet ATT seems intent on either driving us away or forcing us to use their U-verse service. It may be time to investigate alternatives.

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