A recent study of the most popular search terms on Amazon during the Covid-19 pandemic showed that both “bread” and “flour” ranked high. “Bread” is to be expected: people look to purchase basic necessities without leaving the house. But “flour” is perhaps a little surprising. Are people searching for flour out of desperation because the bread is gone? No, the activity known as “stress baking” is the more likely culprit, or at least the sort of creative boredom that looks for wholesome activities to do at home.
I’m pleasantly surprised by both search terms because, observing current dietary trends from a safe distance, I see a definite inclination away from bread and baked goods. Some of the trendiest contemporary diets (e.g., paleo, keto) forbid most or all grains, and the past decade has seen many Americans “go gluten-free.” I fully acknowledge and respect those who have celiac disease or another medical condition that precludes the enjoyment of these foods, but many others seem to find a kind of moral superiority in eliminating grains or “carbs” from their diets, seeing them as universally unhealthy.
The debate over the actual bodily harms or benefits of gluten is ongoing, and I have no desire or ability to solve it here. Instead, I propose other reasons—more human reasons, more mystical reasons—why one should eat bread. Not excessively, not indiscriminately, but often and with relish (or butter).
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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My fellow Catholics will instantly think of the bread that becomes the Body of Christ on the altar at Mass. This is reason in itself to believe that bread is good: Jesus Christ chose it to be the species (alongside wine, the praises of which have been sung by better writers) under which He would be physically consumed. Let us pause to consider this: as God, He could have chosen any food that exists, or any that doesn’t. He might have created the entire universe differently in order to bring into being another substance suitable to becoming His Flesh, but He chose bread, calling it forth from potency into act. He did not even choose wheat, which grows up from God’s earth directly, but wheat bread, which requires our cooperation with the natural world—from the cultivation of the best wheats over countless centuries to mixing, kneading, and baking—to become itself.
Why bread, and why (in the Western Catholic Church) unleavened bread? I never understood leaven until I began to bake sourdough bread, and now a multitude of biblical analogies are laid open to my understanding. Leaven in ancient times was not a packet of Fleischmann’s Active Dry Yeast; it was what we now call a sourdough starter. It was essentially a moist sludge of flour and water that had fermented long enough to produce bubbles that would cause the entire dough to rise. You can grow a sourdough starter from scratch easily, or you can get a bit of a starter from someone who has already cultivated one so that you don’t have to begin from nothing. Feed your starter regularly, and you will soon have a hearty community of wild yeasts able to leaven many loaves. Each time you bake, you’ll use some starter, but you’ll reserve a bit of the fermented ooze and continue feeding it for next time. This is how humans have leavened bread for centuries. I have heard it said that there are women in the Holy Land today using yeast of this kind that has been passed down in an endless chain since the time of Jesus. Did St. Anne give Our Lady a bit of starter in a clay jar when she went to live with St. Joseph? Did Mary salvage some yeast from her last loaf for St. John and give it to a neighbor?
Baking bread, therefore, is inherently traditional, unless we choose to remove the tradition for the sake of speed and efficiency. What got me started on bread was the Netflix series Cooked based on Michael Pollan’s book of the same name. In the book, Pollan discusses the four classical elements and how each has helped humans to transform the things around them into palatable foodstuffs. In the section on air, he discusses bread and the seemingly miraculous way that air causes dough to expand. The elasticity of gluten, a combination of two proteins found in wheat and certain other grains, allows for pockets of carbon dioxide to form as the microscopic creatures busily consume the sugars in the flour and give off the gas. The beautiful result of this unromantic activity is a lofty, mouthwatering loaf, and, as Pollan points out, the air pockets are part of what gives bread its delightful, comforting flavor, as well as its texture. Gluten-free bread is a possibility, but it is difficult to make and, honestly, never quite the same.
Pollan notes, too, that commercial yeast—the Active Dry packets—is a new invention that cuts out the slowness and unpredictability of traditional fermentation. Every sourdough starter is a little different, and even my own loaves proofed and baked in the same house with the same materials tend to turn out a little differently every time. Like Pollan, I embrace the unpredictability and learn to use sight, smell, and taste to understand what my dough is doing. But that is no way to mass-produce long, white, pre-sliced loaves to be shipped in plastic bags around the country, so commercial yeast was invented to puff up dough quickly and consistently.
The main downside of modern yeast that Pollan notes is the loss of nutritional value from removing the fermentation process, which helps to break down the wheat and make it easier to digest. We lose some important religious symbolism, too. As a child, when I heard that the Hebrews fled Egypt with their dough in their bosoms and ate unleavened bread, I imagined that somehow they just couldn’t find a way to bring the powdery yeast (picture Fleischmann’s again) with them, and so they ate something like a pita pocket that evening instead of a sandwich loaf. Now, I understand that unleavened bread meant haste. With no time to allow the mixture of flour and water to bubble and rise, when baked, the limp batter would produce something truly penitential.
My starter recently developed a black mold that ran too deep to simply scrape off, so I had to throw it out and begin a new one. This reminded me that St. Paul refers to leaven in the Old Testament as a symbol of sin, pointing to the instruction to throw out all the old leaven and eat unleavened bread for seven days at Passover. This symbolism seems forced unless we recall that the leaven has been sitting in a corner of one’s kitchen for months, eating scoops of flour, bubbling weirdly, and perhaps smelling a bit odd and turning unpalatable colors if neglected for too many days. A fresh start—with a fresh starter—feels good once in a while and clean, like our souls after baptism, with nothing moldy or questionable to be seen. From this instruction to eat unleavened bread at Passover, stemming ultimately from that penitential meal eaten by the Hebrews as they left Egypt, we receive our tradition of consecrating only unleavened bread for the Holy Sacrifice.
On the other hand, Christ instructs His disciples to be a leaven in society—to be the quiet, patient, living thing that rises up, expands, and makes bountiful and beautiful the otherwise heavy, sludgy mass. When you are placed in the fire, expand even more with your love, and give your tormentors the odor of sanctity, the heavenly smell of baking bread when it has just reached the stage of cracking open at the top to let out some of the warm, wheaty steam. Be multiplied five thousand times, fill the hunger of your neighbor, sustain life.
Bread is good. How strange it is to have to say this, nearly as strange as having to argue that a man is a man, a woman is a woman, and babies deserve not to be killed. The world is mad, and a hatred of bread is but one more disturbing symptom. In this time when so many of us find ourselves at home and not fleeing in haste, let us break bread together and be well.
Image: Women Baking Bread by Carl Moon