Let It Rise: Baking in a Prepackaged World

Feature photo by emmajane

When people ask for explanations about the muffin tattooed on the swell of my hip , I usually give one of two: the first is to say it’s something of a family crest; the second is to say that baking encompasses all the good in the world.

There is a saying in French: Être bon comme du bon pain. To be as good as good bread; unable to do wrong.

I come from a family of stress bakers. My mother, sister and I have baked our way through college midterms, stressful family visits, episodic depressions and financial difficulties. We even have tattoos to match our compulsions: my sister has a muffin that matches mine, and my mother has a baker’s hat and crossed spoons hidden below the rise of her belly.

Baking — as the pithy PSAs say — is my anti-drug. Rather, it’s my anti-depressant. It involves a level of commitment and concentration that can pull me out a dark mood quicker than chocolate or an episode of Doctor Who.

All of this is to provide some context for a self-made challenge I recently undertook: to bake all the bread that I consume. The original challenge stated that this would be for a month, four short weeks, which translated to, at most, 2 loaves a week. (I have roommates and wasn’t about to deny them a slice or three.)

It’s been a month. I haven’t stopped baking bread. Actually, I feel like I’ve barely gotten started.

Humanity, at this point in its complicated history, is almost entirely entangled with the lowly carbohydrate. The advent of agriculture, roughly ten thousand years ago, enabled Homo Sapiens to become the globe-trotting, iPhone-toting, disaster-causing hot mess of a species that we are. More than any other man-made invention, agriculture has shaped this planet.

Bread is not the staff of life, but it — along with other grains, such as rice, rye, corn, millet, amaranth and quinoa — is certainly the pillar of civilization. (My gluten-intolerant sister, who’s forced to get creative with other kinds of flour when baking, likes to say that she’s allergic to civilization.)

The anarchist and rabble-rouser Emma Goldman, in her book Living My Life, exhorted the working class to “demand work. If they don’t give you work, demand bread. If they deny you both, take bread. It is your sacred right.”

Bread, or the lack of it, has caused riots, most famously during the French Revolution. Bread riots also occurred in the Confederate States during the middle of the Civil War, in Petrograd in 1917 and in Egypt at the advent of the Arab Spring. In many of these riots, women formed the main parts of the mob. These are riots of necessity and desperation, but not without their political element. Bread riots often seem to spell doom for a government or regime, the harbingers of revolution.

The Bread and Puppet Theater, a radical political theater based out of Vermont, has been serving homemade rye bread with all of its shows for over 40 years. Its founder, Peter Schumann, wrote in a pamphlet of his decision to connect bread with puppet shows: “All art is faced with starving children and apocalyptic politics. All art is ashamed, angry and desolate because of its impotence in the face of reality… To put bread and puppets together in 1963 seemed like a correct first step in the fight for the immediate elimination of evil.”

Bread is a symbol of life, civilization, and harmony. It’s not frivolous, and it doesn’t mess around. It lends the weight of history and myth. Think of the story Last Supper: a doomed man handing out pieces of bread (of matzoh, really, which has a weighty symbolism unto itself), a communion and an exchange; a promise of sacrifice and safety. Even to an atheist like myself, the pathos is impossible to ignore.

In a world that is increasingly pre-packaged, baking bread from scratch feels satisfyingly subversive. I tend to listen to loud music while mixing the dough: punk is most preferable, but big band jazz, samba, and Queen are also acceptable. I rarely put on anything soft or relaxing; the act of baking is contemplative enough. I prefer to rock out while waiting for the dough to rise.

Patisserie chef and writer Rose Levy Berenbaum wrote in her introduction to her book The Bread Bible that, “Perhaps the most engaging aspect [of baking bread] is that yeast is a dormant live organism one is bringing to life and feeding so that it will grown and expand.” The act of baking leavened bread takes patience or forethought. My goal for the winter is to make my own sourdough starter, to nourish it through the next few months.

Among other things, baking bread has become a way of exorcising my own home-grown demons. The manifold upsets and minor tragedies of the day — late bus, rude customers, paper cuts, dead cat on the sidewalk, horrifying headlines, anxiety attacks, bad news from home — fall away. They’re all still there, of course, and have plenty of friends waiting in the wings, ready to join in, but things seem less overwhelming when there’s the smell of fresh bread perfuming your kitchen.