The other day when I was researching something completely unrelated to this story, I came across a rather interesting fact that I wasn’t aware of. The Jewish word for bread, lechem, was once synonymous with food in general, because of its massive significance to the daily diet.
That same day I was doing some improv baking on my own - something I do a lot as a stress-reliever - and I started thinking about the wondrous thing that is the bread. You basically take a few dried-up ingredients, add some liquids, mix them together, and it turns into this warm, satisfying, filling and (for the most parts) nutritious delight! It’s amazing.
As in the case of my cooking, I don’t really use recipes for baking either. I know that recipes are of much bigger importance in professional bread- and pastry production, and should be followed to the letter, but for someone like me, I find it less constricted to just toss some stuff in a bowl and see what happens, trial-and-error style. Of course this method has a certain element of chance, but what doesn’t, really? And over time I’ve developed a sort of muscle-memory, so the result is always edible and quite delicious, but with a few taste- and texture variations. Which I appreciate.
I have a few go-to loaves that I make - much to my friend Anna’s joy and happiness. She once said that if all else were to fail, I should become a baker. Coming from her - who is a brilliant cook herself, and the proprietor of The Yellow Table - I was very honored!
On the baking-day in question, though, I decided to venture into the art of skillet baking, which is unfamiliar territory to me. Despite the fact that I love my oven, and unlike many New Yorkers actually use it for cooking, not storage, it has seen better days. The heat is uneven, the springs in the hinges are starting to grow tired despite my friend’s heroic attempt to fix them, so I thought a skillet could provide a fun alternative. At least when it comes to those breads of the flatter persuasion. In lieu of an actual cast iron skillet I used my $2.99 non-stick that I got from the local dollar store, and it turned out to work splendidly. Who needs fancy, anyway?
Baking takes patience. I do realize that the latest fad is the no-rise-no-knead, which I guess is great if time is not a luxury at hand, but personally I like the long process and the tending to the dough. I find that rise, punch down, repeat, provides a nice elasticity and allows for the flavors to set. Again, I’m not a pro baker, but I think it works.
The added bonus of all-day baking is the breaks. While the dough is rising you have these pockets of time to fill out, and - at least for me - that prompts efficiency. One hour of rising = clean the bathroom. 30 minutes of rising = drop off laundry. And so on…
The monotonous act of kneading is good for contemplation. I started thinking about the symbolisms that are tied to bread, and the impact bread has had on our societies and social developments. We use the term “breaking bread” when we share a meal with friends or strangers, and historically bread has played a significant and sacred part in major religious rituals. To Christians, bread is the symbol of the living presence of Jesus, and serves as a reminder of the need for divine and human nourishment. In Islam, the word bread is also referred to as “food”, and if a loaf is dropped on the floor it’s customary to either eat it if it’s clean or feed it to birds, since throwing away food is unethical. Different types of bread are prepared in celebration of religious holidays, such as the Jewish Challah or the Swedish Lussebulle. Findings even show that in prehistoric times, such as the stone age, people would process grains for consumption. And think about it: Bread is probably the one food that suggests the largest variety in preparation, ingredients, taste, and looks.
Lately bread has gotten a really bad reputation, and I’m having some trouble understanding why. Everywhere we turn it’s taking some major punches for being unhealthy, bad for digestion, the cause of this and that disease, even poisonous. If you don’t claim to be gluten intolerant, you’re not one of the cool kids. (I like to give myself the giggles by asking so-called gluten intolerants if they can explain to me what gluten actually is. Very few can).
I’m neither a doctor or a nutritional expert, and certainly not qualified to give any kind of dietary advise, but it seems to me that gluten, flour, or grains, are not actually the issue. Unless you suffer from Celiac disease, which affects 1% of the American population (it’s obviously terrible, and I feel for those who do), gluten is not the problem. I believe that the cause of sickness and discomfort lies in the additives and chemicals that are allowed in processed food in general. Honestly, store-bought bread actually tastes like a big pile of sugar laced with a nice cocktail of chemistry, seemingly having been produced in a lab, rather than a kitchen.
I’m not saying that we should just stuff our faces with white bread, just as long as it’s homemade. I’m certainly prone to sport a beach ball-sized stomach when having eaten too much of it, but the same goes for too much fruit, black licorice, or wine (is there such thing as too much wine)?
I also know that - given the fact that I work as a freelancer with time to spare, don’t have children who demand my attention, and have a knack for cooking in the first place - it’s easy for me to preach that we only eat home cooked food. But I think it’s a shame that bread in particular has become an undeserving enemy of public health, when there are much bigger sinners out there.