Out of Commission (Featuring Russian Black Bread)
Francis’ eyebrows knitted as he gestured to the puckering jacket and the billowing pants.
“Hey, don’t worry about that! We have the finest tailors in town to fix those little issues! This is the only suit of its kind in the store and it fits you perfectly!”
It felt like the guy’s exclamation marks were stabbing me in the face.
Francis and I are getting married in October. We’ve been engaged since May and set the date in July. Our priorities have been keeping it a small, manageable wedding but there are hurdles everywhere. Weddings are big industry these days and I’m learning more about my own small business as I negotiate the treacherous nuptial consumer waters. Here we stood in the downtown Portland store where many friends had bought their groom suits and we were enduring my least favorite selling technique: the hard sell.
“This is the only suit like this in the store and because of that I’m going to knock 150 bucks off the price. Let me remind you, our suits are made with only the finest Italian fabrics. If you go anywhere else in the city, this suit will cost you triple what I’m going to charge you.”
Francis and I simultaneously nodded and tilted our heads, unconvinced. I had forgotten that we would be dealing with pushy merchants pressuring us to buy buy buy. I’m not much of a salesman myself. When prospective clients find me, I tell them what I’ve done and what I can do. I don’t bag on other chefs, I don’t make deals I can’t keep, I don’t build myself up—and when I DO, I lose the job. To me, insincerity conveys insecurity and ineptitude.
“Here’s what I can do for you guys – since you’re getting married in October– don’t tell anyone else I’m doing this, but I’ll throw in the shirt AND the tie for only $175! Then you’re walking out of here with the whole thing for a bargain price!!!”
I fought to keep my eyes from rolling.
The thing was, it wasn’t really about the money. I mean, we don’t have much money, but we expect to pay for nice things. The thing was that the suit was blah. Francis looked fine in the suit, but when he put it on I just didn’t feel anything. I felt like he could sell me insurance or do my taxes more easily than walk down the aisle and commit his heart to me for the rest of his life. It left me dry. It had no whimsy, no vah vah voom.
Then the salesman, who had heard our story when we first got there, said, “You wanna know the craziest thing? My woman and I went to high school together too. She was a freshman and I was a senior. We didn’t hook up in school but we found each other years later.”
Buh bye, dude. You can’t just steal our awesome TRUE story and spit it back to us as your own in order to sell a boring suit. I was kind of shocked to be completely honest. Do people really fall for this? It was like he had a textbook for lousy selling techniques and was checking each one off. I know working on commission is tough, but sometimes less is more. We might have considered trying another suit on if he hadn’t gone so far. I’m not mentioning the name of the store or the man who helped us because this isn’t Yelp and I’m not interested in ruining someone’s day or business, but it’s hard to forget that kind of manipulation.
Francis and I left the store and walked around Portland laughing and holding hands. There’s no one I’d rather do this with. Even tolerating the hard sell was kind of fun.
A few days later, we headed up north to the San Juan Islands to see Francis’ cousin Tom and his wife, Rita. Rita is from Russia and she was drawing me out about cheffing on our first morning there. She filled our coffee cups as I explained that I got into cooking through my passion for bread-baking.
“Have you ever made Russian Black Bread?”
I said, “I’ve made different kinds of pumpernickel, which also contain chocolate and molasses, but I don’t think I’ve made Russian Black Bread, no.”
Rita, who is an attorney in Seattle and seems to be a person who tolerates very little bullshit from the world, got a soft twinkle in her eyes. “When I was growing up in Moscow, my mother would write a small list of food we needed from the store. I would walk to our local dairy larder and hand the list over the metal counter to one of the large Russian women who worked there. They would remove huge blocks of cheese or butter from the cold cases and slice off exactly the amount that you needed. If my list said ½ pound, the woman would know precisely the spot to place her large knife in the butter to cut ½ pound; no measuring, no checking twice. She’d place it on the scale and it was perfect every time. They didn’t speak. There was no chit chat. They would wrap up the butter, then the cheese and milk, and then place a fresh loaf of Russian Black Bread on top. That bread was so soft and warm. I’ve never tasted anything like it outside of Russia. But those women! I’ll never forget how perfectly they measured with their eyes.”
Obviously, Russian dairy larder laborers don’t work on commission, nor were there many options of cheese or butter to promote, but I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect example of the opposite end of the retail spectrum. These women had no self-doubt whatsoever. I have days– rarely, but they do exist– where I am that confident in my ability. I focus my faith in my hands and my history; I’ve done this before, I know what I’m doing. Sometimes I’m even able to convey that faith to a potential client without any b.s. song and dance. Coincidentally, it’s those jobs that always work out the best for me.
Rita said she’s not much of a baker. I understand it’s not for everyone. It’s time-consuming and you often have to let yourself screw up a loaf or two before you learn how to bake well. I researched a few websites for Russian Black Bread and baked my way through to the one I liked the best.
Thank you Tom and Rita (and Sasha) for the magical vacation time in San Juan. It is glorious no matter how you slice it, but with your generous spirit, it was perfection.
Oh, and about that suit… we found the perfect one at a vintage store called Avalon in downtown Portland. I’m a vintage girl all the way, so it was an obvious place to check, but the service and attention we got there was second to none. Arthur, the curator and manager, pulled suit after suit for Francis to try on. He knew, far and away, more about men’s suits and how they fit than Mr. Hard Sell. We continued to laugh and play until he put one particular suit on. I knew immediately. There he was: the man of my dreams. Vah vah voom.
Russian Black Bread
Makes 2 large round loaves
- 2 tablespoons caraway seeds
- 1 tablespoon fennel seed
- 2 packages dry yeast
- 3 ½ cups all-purpose or bread flour
- 4 cups dark rye flour
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 2 cups wheat bran
- 1 tablespoon instant coffee
- 1 tablespoon onion powder
- 2 ½ cups water
- ¼ cup molasses
- ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
- 1 ounce unsweetened chocolate
- ¼ cup unsalted butter
- In a spice grinder or by hand, gently crush the caraway seeds and the fennel seeds.
- In large mixer bowl, mix the yeast, 1 cup white flour, 1 cup rye flour, salt, wheat bran, coffee power, onion powder, and the caraway/ fennel seeds.
- In a small saucepan, heat the water, the molasses, the vinegar, the chocolate, and the butter for a few minutes. The mixture should almost boil but you do not need to melt the chocolate. Take off the heat and let cool for at least 10 minutes so it doesn’t kill the yeast when added to the dry ingredients).
- Slowly mix the cooled wet ingredients into the dry ingredients with a wooden spoon or dough hook set on the slowest speed. Slowly add the remaining 2 ½ cups all purpose flour and 3 cups rye flour. Knead for 10- 15 minutes with a 3 minute break in the middle.
- Place dough in oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise for 1 hour.
- Punch the dough down and knead lightly. Cut the dough into two pieces and shape into balls on a cookie sheet or a cake pans. Flatten slightly.
- Let rise another 45 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Slash the dough with a serrated knife right before putting in the oven.
- Bake loaves for 1 hour.
- Let cool on wire rack before slicing.