I like bread. Not in an obsessive sort of way – I don’t dream about bread, or spend all of my waking moments thinking about bread – but in a steadier, more quotidian sort of way. It’s just part of the rhythm of life. I eat bread nearly every day, sometimes two or even three times a day. In the morning, it is usually with butter and jam. At lunch, perhaps a few slices with a thick spreading of liver sausage and sliced tomato. At dinner, I am a big fan of “making the slipper” as the Italians say, where a heel of day old bread can be used to sop up the last few hints of sauce clinging to the plate. You know that you cooked well for someone if their slipper is out.
Bread is beautiful because it is simple and nourishing. We have been baking bread as a global community for at least ten thousand years according to archaeology, and maybe even longer than that. And there in its simplicity lies the greatest of pitfalls, because good bread is not easy. There are only four basic ingredients, as the title of last year’s hottest new bread baking book reminds us: flour, water, salt, yeast. So, when something goes wrong, there is nowhere to hide. If you use mediocre flour, if you ferment too quickly or overferment, if you don’t shape the loaf tightly enough, or bake with too much steam; there are countless things which separate excellent bread from disappointing bread. But, when you happen to eat a hearty healthy loaf which has had a good long ferment, and a nice rise in the oven; where the inner crumb is moist and toothsome, wrapped in a thin but sturdy crust of burnished bronze; well, then you’re really partaking of something wonderful. “La vérité sort la four” as Raymond Calvel famously said. Truth comes out of the oven, and you won’t experience the outcome of your actions as a baker until your loaves emerge from that blistering and uncompromising heat.
One of the many bizarre things about North American food (and I say this as a born-and-bred Canadian) is how difficult and expensive it can be to find and buy good bread. For something so simple, you’d think we’d have it down. Truth comes out of the oven, and ours is by-and-large a bland, sugary, preservative-laden truth (although there is change afoot). The state of our bread seems indicative of some much deeper issues we have as a culture. Everything we do is an expression of who we are and what we think is real, even if this often manifests itself in convoluted and seemingly unparsable ways.
Bread’s simplicity is interesting, in part, because it strikes me as such an apt metaphor for life. Simple ingredients, endless permutations, difficult to execute, etc. etc. Many have called bread the staff of life, and for good reason. If you poke around into the sub-culture of bakers and baking enthusiasts you’ll find a decent amount of philosophizing on the matter; some of it banal, some of it occasionally profound. My favourite perhaps is a short quote from (apparently, I couldn’t find a legitimate source) Dostoyevsky: “Mankind doesn’t need freedom, it needs bread.” I like it because I’m not sure what to make of it out of context, although I’ve got a hunch for what he’s driving at.
As Christians, we can go a step further and also say that bread is an apt metaphor for the life of the Church. Augustine and other fathers made this connection on more than a few occasions, and a section of the Didache – a sort of manual for early Christians – gives us the following instruction on a prayer to be offered during the Lord’s Supper:
Just as this broken bread which was scattered beyond the mountains and gathered together became one, thus may your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom.
It’s a wonderful picture of grain gathered, milled, mixed and baked, shining in all its beauty at the eucharistic table where its function is utterly transformed, nourishing body and soul. The prayer is also an eschatological acknowledgment that there are still loaves to be baked and offered at future tables, made from grains all over the earth, which will one day culminate in the marriage supper of the Lamb. But to move in this direction is to go in reverse – starting at the tail rather than the head – because the one loaf of the Church is only ever one in Christ, just as only in Christ, the Bread of Life, do we ever partake of true nourishment (Without trying to suggest any direct causality, perhaps the state of North American bread reflects the state of the North American Church?). Apart from this remarkable act of love, we have no bread to offer each other or the world, for man does not live by bread alone, but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God. Words worth remembering when we ask our Father for our daily bread. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.