Food & Drink | June 29, 2020 11:57 am

Baking Bread and Writing Jokes With Comedian Tom Papa

Papa has found himself kneading to relax during the COVID-19 pandemic

Tom Papa
Tom Papa speaks at a Michael J. Fox Foundation event. (Jamie McCarthy/MJF2016/Getty)
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As Americans navigate the ongoing pandemic, tension over racial inequality and a depressed economy (in an election year, no less!), it’s no secret that our collective anxiety levels are very, very high.

Some of us are turning to strong drink. Others, sex. And then there are those of us who are attempting to relieve our stress with fermented dough filled with yeast and bacteria, i.e., breadmaking.

Carb-loving comedian Tom Papa, the author of You’re Doing Great!: And Other Reasons to Stay Alive, is one of a growing number of Americans who have found themselves kneading to relax during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Papa, a regular on NPR’s (now-canceled) Live From Here and Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, first got into baking bread about five years ago, when he was working on the Amazon show Red Oaks and heard from from one of the other writers about the strange science of sourdough starter. Intrigued by the idea of sourdough starter being a living organism that needs to be fed, Papa came home and told his family all about it. The following Christmas, his daughter gave him his first starter.

“I would say that was my best acting job, pretending that I was happy to get a bowl of goo for Christmas,” Papa tells InsideHook. “It ended up being the greatest gift ever, because I just started baking with it and learning. I was pretty much hooked immediately.”

The cover of Tom Papa’s “You’re Doing Great!” (St. Martin’s Publishing Group)

The 51-year-old still uses that San Francisco-style starter, which he says is strong and active, but also now bakes with a second starter that is a little earthier.

“It has a little more wheat tones to it,” he says. “The other one is a little more of a traditional San Francisco sourdough. It’s got strong flavors, but it’s one-note. I can’t believe I’m using note like we’re talking about wine, but it’s pretty accurate.”

In the five years he’s been baking, Papa has made a number of different versions of bread as well as played around with making sourdough pretzels, waffles and bagels.

“Those are the offshoots that I’m trying to get better at,” he says. “The one thing I really suck at is baguettes. They’re just tough in an oven at home. It needs a lot of steam and to be really hot. It’s a bit of a mess. There is that fine line, too, where you look at a croissant and you’re like, ‘You know what? I don’t have to make this one. I’m going to leave this to the people at the bakery.’”

Now that he’s stuck at home in Los Angeles thanks to the pandemic, Papa has found himself rising to the occasion, going through the three-day breadmaking process about twice a week.

“I always liked it when I was home because that was when I got to bake bread,” he says. “Now that I’m home a lot, I’m in that same rhythm of writing and baking the bread. I’m making more than we can eat, which is cool, because then it gives me an excuse to go do something. I’ll just bag up some bread and go out and bring it to some comedian somewhere. Duncan Trussell is a funny comedian. He has a nice grapefruit tree. So I dropped off bread and he gave me a bunch of big grapefruits.”

Though it isn’t a substitute for honing his act on the road, baking bread at home does bear some similarities do doing stand-up, according to Papa.

“It’s close to stand-up in that you’re always getting better at it,” he says. “You’re always working at it, but there’s a chance for failure at any second. No matter how many years you do it and how good you get, you can still have off days or off nights and that’s kind of humbling. It’s cool you don’t just get good at it and it’s over. It’s always a work in progress.”

Tom Papa’s sourdough bread. (Tom Papa)

Once Papa gets back on the road, he’s looking forward to continuing his habit of trying out new bakeries to find who is baking the best bread.

“When I’m on the road, I always just get a big loaf of it,” he says. “It’s kind of weird to be back in a hotel room with a giant loaf of bread for one person, but that’s how you can really tell. I don’t want diabetes, so I’m not taking home giant cream puffs and stuff. I stick to the bread. I’m pretty much just tearing it and eating it without anything. If it’s good bread, you really don’t need anything else. But if I’m at home, I’m toasting it and having butter melt into the bread. That was good when you were four years old for a reason.”

And for anyone who’s been trained to avoid carbs like the plague, Papa has some advice: don’t.

“We are a generation that’s been told bread is bad for us and it’s not true,” he says. “The bread they’re selling us is bad for us. Bread shouldn’t have 32 ingredients in it. It should be flour, water, salt, and yeast. That bread doesn’t make you fat. It doesn’t load you with sugar. It doesn’t have all these additives in it. It’s not going to give you stomach problems. You should be able to make great bread on your own. It is a good thing to do for yourself and your family. It’s rewarding. It’s one of the simple, good pleasures in life. If you get a hobby, you might as well get one that you can eat. All of this stuff about the process and how meditative it can be is true, but the real joy is coming into the kitchen, having it smell like bread and being able to slice it and eat it. That’s really what it’s all about.”

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