I will always associate the smell of freshly baked bread with my dad. He would often come home from work, bread in hand and patches of flour dusted about his shirt. Call me biased, but I whole-wheat-heartedly believe his bread is really the best of the best–he didn’t just stop at plain old run of the mill varieties, he devised delicious concoctions like cheddar onion, olive and thyme, and asiago with roasted garlic and parmesan. Needless to say, with a master baker as a father, I developed a passion for carbs at a very early age, and I’ve never looked back.
Bread has been a huge part of my life. I’ve learned to shape dough, to watch as it rises, to wait impatiently as it bakes to just the right golden brown, and to eat it like a pro. It was always a special treat when my dad let me come in and bake with him, although I never really could have handled the true baker’s schedule; during the years when he was actually in the business of bread-selling he would go into bake, alone, at 10:30 pm…bake all night, then start the deliveries at about 8am (that’s usually when I would reluctantly roll out of bed to go on the delivery rounds). Admittedly, I never really understood how or why he would submit his body to such a grueling schedule, but I’ve realized over the years that he did it because he truly believes in the craftsmanship of baking.
Bread is a curious food. It’s certainly a staple of many American diets, and the quality and varieties available abound (I feel comfortable claiming that some are undeniably better/worse/not even really bread *cough*”Wonderbread”*cough*) but what I have learned to be the most fascinating is the stories it can tell. Most people don’t realize that all bread really is is salt, water, flour and yeast and that yeast–this most crucial ingredient–is in fact a living organism that needs feeding and nurturing and can carry a story in its existence.
The story of my dad’s bread starts in a small town in Wisconsin, where my grandfather grew up. His mother (my great grandmother) was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in the early 20th century. When my dad went to visit the birthplace of his father, he found grapes growing along the side of the schoolhouse. Like several other fruits, grapes produce a thin layer of yeast around their outside (that’s what makes them so much fun to shine up).
My dad gathered this yeast and used it in his first batch of sourdough starter. Every loaf of bread he’s made since sprang from this original batch, and therefore has a connection with his own roots.
It is interesting to ponder the ways in which the food that ends up in our mouths connects us to a broader meaning. Anna Tsing’s fascinating work with mushrooms has illuminated whole new ways in which people can be seen to relate to their surroundings. She argues that “human nature is an interspecies relationship” and that the interdependence that exists in this world is often overlooked in the name of human exceptionalism. We are unwilling to acknowledge that our dependency on plants, animals, minerals, etc. extends beyond a biological need that we can in fact conquer through control and domestication. The cyclical nature of dependency should be recognized: grapes need yeast to protect their nutrients, yeast needs grapes to thrive; man needs yeast to produce delicious and sustaining bread, yeast needs man to continue to thrive in an artificial yet mutually beneficial environment. In any of these situations individual actors (grape, yeast, man) could be seen to be taking advantage or exerting control over the other for selfish gain, yet it seems more productive to acknowledge the interdependence and learn from the unique symbioticism.
My dad’s bread connects me to grapes in Wisconsin, and to ancestors I never met. It gave me my first job (as a bread sales girl at my local Farmers Market) thus guiding me into the world of adult socialization and commerce. I’ve learned that in order to produce something that people will enjoy eating, you have to enjoy making it. Being connected to our food reminds us not just where it comes from, but what it took to get from there to here and how that journey is but a thread in a never ending web of interdependence.