As the sun crests over the treetops each morning, bakers arrive at my favorite grocery store, Hiller’s Market, to create something from nothing. It is the oldest of tasks, and the most basic. To bake bread is an element of independence that so many of us are just not familiar with, so accustomed are we to rushing through the aisles and purchasing items ready to eat this very minute.
I did not grow up in a house where bread was whisked from flour, water and yeast, then left to rise in the mid-day sun. I did not as a child have the experience of standing at my mother’s kitchen counter and pummeling an elastic-soft mound of dough. I have made it one of my most important missions of motherhood to spend time shaping loaves with my bare hands and introducing my children to the art of living by the work of our hands.
I have come to believe bread is the foundation of the family table – if only because in most parts of the world, it is the staple, the elemental expectation of a meal. In our country, we have loved and been tormented by bread – whether because we believed it to be the source of our fattening or a soft, smooth indulgence to be ingested over a low-lit table with people we cherish.
A hundred years ago, the Pillsbury Company issued A Book for a Cook with the following quote: “Good bread is the great need in poor homes, and oftentimes the best appreciated luxury in the homes of the very rich.”
It’s true. And so when I am still asleep and the artful bakers rise from their night-dusted homes to travel to bakeries, I am grateful. It is a seamless operation, this creating something from nothing. It is a simple pleasure to indulge in a fresh loaf of just-baked bread or a small pastry dripping with decadence. In these times, when we are sitting at the edges of our comfort and hoping for better times ahead, a small affordable indulgence is exactly what it takes to surmount one difficult moment.
Into the industrial mixer goes flour, water, yeast that has bubbled to frothing. Sometimes eggs, sometimes butter, sugar, nuts and spices, fruits and onions and seeds. When the implements have finished their repetitive pounding, it is time for human hands to turn the mass of elastic dough onto a flour-dusted counter and massage it into rising.
This task is not something that can be wholly automated; it requires tending by human eyes and guidance by time-worn fingers to reach perfection. It is a reminder that each of us is and will always be necessary to the day, even as we worry that automation will make our blood-born skills obsolete.
Bread dough rises on racks and in pans and eventually makes it into shapes and forms and into the standing oven for timed baking. This process occurs again and again to satisfy shopper requests for freshness. Bakery shelves hold the oven-nurtured flavor of something made by hand and with heart.
A fresh-made loaf of bread is a packaged promise of taste, aroma and texture, a gift to the senses, an attempt to satiate the soul, and the starting and ending point for many tables.
This kitchen staple juxtaposes the all-important opposites of crumb and crust. It is a food eaten with grace or animalistically torn by the hands. It is one of the world’s oldest prepared foods and perhaps one of the only commonalities between many world cultures. In slang, bread or dough refers to money, giving a universal connotation to this humble creation.
And it has religious significance, too. In churches, the sacrament of the daily bread represents a fusing of holy and mundane. When it says in The Lord’s Prayer, “Give us today our daily bread,” that means more than a bite to eat – it means the very necessities of life.In synagogues, bread launches holiday meals and also indicates travails, as when it becomes the focal point of the Passover holiday.
Bread has even been the focus of political campaigns – it was central to the Bolshevik platform – “Peace, Land and Bread”; the undercurrent of Indian everyday lives – “roti, kapda aur makan” (bread, cloth and house). Bread was the central topic to free trade debates in 19th century Britain and it played a starring role in the Magna Carta.
But it is a food and not even a decadent one! Bread – so basic, so inconsequential, so essential. It is basic chemistry, mere sustenance. It is art and it is endeavor, backbone and accessory.
When I bought my first serious heavy sharp kitchen cleaver, I felt like I could conquer the world. So, too, when I baked my first loaf of bread, I experienced a certain power over my destiny and my family’s salvation that I had not known prior.
The culinary expert M.F.K. Fisher once said, “The smell of good bread baking, like the sound of lightly flowing water, is indescribable in its evocation of innocence and delight.”
I see it in much the same way. We’re all contemplating back to basics these days because that’s where everything begins. It is the end of