Pandemic tales: Bread machines and submarines
January 1, 2022 | View PDF
The pandemic has created a nation of baking maniacs. To wit:
According to Bookscan, 200,000 more bread cookbooks sold in the U.S. in 2020 than in 2019.
by April, and continuing through July 2020, retail shelves were cleared of yeast products within hours of stock replenishments, as reported by Food Business News.
Eater.com reports King Arthur sold a lot of flour in 2020, growing by over 50 percent compared to the previous year.
Research firm Stackline found that bread machine sales were up an astounding 652% in March 2020 compared to the same period in 2019
I was oblivious to this kitchen excitement because I don't bake much that you would want to eat. Just don't have the patience for it. But then, serendipity. Or perhaps, kismet. In any case a couple of months ago a friend asked me if I would like a bread machine that she no longer used. I thanked her and took the machine. I have been something of a pandemic hermit in need of the occasional entertaining diversion. Moreover, I was fascinated by the idea that I could just dump a bunch of stuff into it, push a button, and fresh bread would magically pop out. How cool is that? It's like having your own "replicator" from Starship Enterprise.
The machine turned out to be a 25-year-old Welbilt Model ABM6200 with the tag line "The bread machine with patented auto eject system." After a little poking around I discovered that Welbilt as a corporate conglomerate still exists, but apparently stopped making bread machines a few years ago. Its parent company, Manitowoc, manufactured submarines during World War II. Maybe that inspired the "auto eject system."
The machine itself is white plastic, short and squat, and replete with lots of buttons and blinking lights. I think it looks like a prop from the original Star Trek. A less charitable and mean-spirited friend said it looked like a "toddler's training toilet." It'll be a cold day in hell before he gets a home-baked loaf.
My first project was a loaf of "crusty rye bread" straight out of the included Welbilt recipe and instruction book. I had in mind the fabulous, fragrant seeded rye of my childhood that mom used to buy at the bakeries on the streets of Fairfax, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles. However, that wasn't what emerged from the Welbilt.
The recipe called for "Bread Flour, 2 cups." I didn't have "bread flour," but I did have all-purpose flour. "Close enough," I figured. It also called for "Rye Flour, 1-¼ cup." Didn't have that either, but I did have whole wheat flour, so I used that. I figured I could kind of compensate for the flour switcheroos by tossing in extra caraway seeds. I dumped it all in the machine and pressed the button.
Three and a half hours later a bell rang announcing that the baking was done. A few minutes after that a periscope-like tube slowly emerged from the body of the machine, pushing back the lid. Then the loaf slowly rose up from inside the machine, finally coming to a rest halfway out of the top. It had been "ejected" by Welbilt's patented system as if it were a slow-motion torpedo. I am guessing that when the military contracts ended, management put some of the redundant submarine engineers to work designing Welbilt bread machines.
On the plus side the loaf smelled good, like warm caraway seeds, and it had a nice color to it. On the other hand, the loaf had kind of collapsed on one end, so it was shaped more like a rounded wedge. It was very dense and tasted like whole wheat bread stuffed with caraway seeds – which I guess is an accurate description of what it actually was. I thought that, as a concept, it had lots of "potential."
Since then I have created a few more loaves of various types with the Welbilt. In between these bread experiments I have done some bread-baking research and watched scads of instructive YouTubes. It has been mildly entertaining and diverting, but I learned a lot. The most important lesson: bake small-loaf bread experiments. They take up less room in the freezer if they have lots of "potential."
You can buy a new highly-rated bread machine for under $100. It might be just the ticket for the occasional respite during stressful times. Note, however, that you won't find any more submarine-inspired bread machines on the market. You'll just have to make do.
Lawrence D. Weiss is a UAA Professor of Public Health, Emeritus, creator of the UAA Master of Public Health program, and author of several books and numerous articles.