The other day, Eric stopped by the grocery store, as he does now and then, to pick up a necessary ingredient for Lulu’s dog food recipe. He was also inspired to purchase flour—because ours has mites, as you may remember—to make chocolate chip cookies. As any of you who follow the news stories of this pandemic know, next to toilet paper, flour has been missing from our grocery store shelves for weeks now. Needless to say, Eric returned home without any flour. As a consumer of mostly local news, he was amazed. Apparently, our morning media has not covered the run on flour—or, at least, not covered it while he was watching.
As the rest of us know, pandemic bread baking is a thing. A very real thing. Even I was inspired to bake bread in the early days of this historical moment.
Today under clear blue skies, as I was sitting on the lanai reading an essay by Paul Gruchow’s Grass Roots: The Universe of Home, my neighbor rode up on her bicycle. She was returning a book I’d loaned her, and she also pulled out of her bike’s panniers a softball-sized ‘ulu, breadfruit.
Friends who deliver books and breadfruit are keepers;-) We discussed recipes for breadfruit, including bread. Also, tortillas and gnocchi. I’m leaning toward gnocchi. Breadfruit—named because it evokes the homey aroma of bread—can also be used as flour.
It just so happened Gruchow’s essay I was reading when my friend pedaled up was titled, “The Transfiguration of Bread.” Gruchow grew up on a farm in northern Minnesota where his mother baked bread from wheat grown and ground on the farm, leavening from home-cultured yeast, and honey made by the farm’s bees. It was good bread. Delicious bread. It regularly won awards at county fairs.
But they, like so many others of us, eventually got wooed by Wonder Bread, and the scent of homemade bread stopped wafting through the Gruchow home.
Gruchow writes, “The Latin word from which our own word ‘culture’ derives has several meanings: to inhabit, to till, to worship.”
He continues, “When we gave up the baking of bread in our household, we abandoned more than a habit of living; in a subtle but real way, we turned our backs upon our culture; and to that extent our lives became less worshipful. The wholesome mystery of bread, the sacrament of it, I know now, was never in the ingredients but in the labor and in the laborers who transfigured them into bread.”
According to Gruchow’s logic, the act of baking bread is a way of re-connecting with ourselves; it’s a kind of worshipping with—or nod to—our community as human beings; and it’s a way of inhabiting that which makes us human.
Bread is known as the most widely consumed food in the world. Every culture, it seems, has a some kind of bread–bagels, baguettes, brioche, challah, lavash, naan, pitas, tortillas. It should come as no surprise, then, that many religions incorporate bread into their rituals. According to History.com, “Humans started baking bread at least 30,000 years ago.” Historians point to bread—and agriculture—as key to the formation of early societies. It’s not a short jump to say baking bread makes us human.
Bread also reminds us of our ingenuity as humans. Bread is a simple food—flour, yeast, water, salt. But it’s not the simplest. It is, however, a magical food. Simple ingredients combined and baked miraculously transform into something wholly different—and yummy. What an amazing human invention.
In times of fear and stress, we often turn to what comforts us, what’s familiar, and bread is often what’s within reach. But bread also unites. Across towns, across countries, across the world, it seems, bread is what’s reminding us we’re all human, and we’re all in this together. So, let’s take comfort in making bread, and some day soon, we’ll be able to break bread together.
Hawaii added no new COVID-19 cases today; our statewide tally remains at 643.