Sunday, May 9, 2010

Making Bread

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far away, my summer job was in a commercial bakery, the kind that makes bread and cookies and fish-shaped crackers. For me it was only a summer job, and I was lucky to get it in a bad economy. Because I was a girl (they didn’t call us women), I got to work on the line.The college boys worked in maintenance, standing around the perimeter of the cavernous factory floor holding push brooms as props for their infrequent inspections. The girls on the line earned $4.35 an hour. The boys, I learned later, earned three or four times that.

Depending on the line, there might be six or eight stations, and girls rotated from one to the next on twenty minute intervals. Some study had determined that routine increased productivity. It certainly cut down on boredom.

I started on the line that produced commercial rolls that were shaped like the lower-case letter “e,” creatively called E-rolls. We girls worked around two sides of a long machine that mixed the ingredients, shaped it into cylinders that were propelled down a conveyer belt. The first girl on the line twirled the handle that sifted additional flour onto the belt, kept an eye on the extruder to make sure the cylinders were uniform, pulled off the irregular ones and the ones that didn’t get shaped, moved full trays of rolls from the end of the line to the proofing trays, and rolled the full cart into the proofing oven.

The next position was responsible for shaping every other cylinder into a perfect letter e. While the first day my rolls didn’t come anywhere close to approximating that shape, by the end of the summer, I could keep up with seasoned veterans.

As you might guess, the next seat on the line also shaped the cylinders, but that position was responsible for tidying any rolls that didn’t make quality control. The fourth girl on the line moved the rolls from the conveyer belt onto the trays before they were dumped unceremoniously to the floor. Then you moved to the other side of the machine. E-rolls were probably the hardest to make, but we also had to learn the tricks to form hotdog and hamburger rolls, parker house and butter rolls, and all the rest if we wanted to keep our job.

All the rolls were shaped before lunch. The girls who were lucky enough to have hours scheduled after lunch also rotated from one job to the next. The trays of rolls were fed into large conveyer-belt ovens, and when the oven discharged the hot trays, we grabbed them in gloved hands, smacked the trays so the rolls loosened, then flipped them onto the cooling belt. The rolls rode to the packing area where we picked up the rolls and moved them into the next belt that fed the rolls into plastic bags. Those bags were stacked onto large metal trays that eventually made their way into trucks where the rolls went off to be delivered to local restaurants. That is in an ideal world.

Our world was often less than ideal. The packing station was the most temperamental. A machine puffed air to open plastic bags, but if the air puff wasn’t strong enough, or if the bags didn’t release properly at their perforations, there was nowhere for the rolls to go, but there was also no way to stop them. We had to pull trays and stack the rolls onto them so the rolls didn’t tumble to the ground, a total loss.

Because I worked hard and learned pretty quickly, I worked at least 40-hours a week, earning enough to pay for my tuition at a state college for three years in a single summer. And it’s a good thing that I did, because I didn’t want to return. I had a constant cough from the flour in the air. My back ached from picking up the heavy trays. My arms were scarred from transferring the rolls from the trays to the cooling rack. I appreciated my college education because I knew what it cost me physically to earn it.

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