The Question of Bread

“The question of bread for myself is a material question, but the question of bread for my neighbor is a spiritual question.”– Nikoli Berdyaev also Stick–to–itiveness is the quality that allows someone to continue trying to do something even though it’s hard or unpleasant.

When I consider the small marvel we call bread, I ask, “How is it so?” Is bread’s instantiation a quirky accident or Nature’s way of saying, “Hey, here you go, now eat this, and stop complaining!”

On the surface, the bread making process appears simple, yet belies a hidden complexity. Relentless curiosity bordering on obsession may come closest to portraying my life as a baker. “Obsession” may be too strong a word. Perhaps it’s the single-mindedness of the baker that characterizes the on-going relationship that develops with baking bread. It’s also the empirical inquisitiveness of the baker that sustains the process. It urges you to return again and again believing that the next bake just might possess the promise of perfection. Bottom line: call it “stick-to-itiveness.”

Let’s look more closely at when bread becomes bread. Is there some secret wish where the wheat plant leans over and says, “Hey, I want to become bread”? I suppose that would be too easy or maybe even a little creepy. How is it that this ancient grain we call wheat (a grass actually) has managed to co-evolve with our domestication? I believe that wheat, in particular, wants to become bread. Take a hand full of freshly milled whole wheat flour, add water, cover and let it sit out for a few days and if you’re lucky, voila! You may have rustled up a lively culture that ferments dough, and when baked, becomes bread. You see the beneficial bacteria and enzymes are already present in the grain. 

Here’s that baking tip: Engage all of your senses to evaluate the progress and outcomes when making bread. How does the dough look and feel? Is there a hollow sound when you tap the bottom of your loaf as it’s cooling? Is it heavy or light? Is it too dark or not dark enough? What do the aromas tell you about the fermentation that took place before baking? What kind of flavor has resulted from the fermentation? Where are they registering on your tongue? And finally, how does your bread compare with what you had in mind?

Nature creates abundance and encourages us to ask many questions. The trick is to ask the beautiful questions–questions that may be acted upon. So, “the question of bread for myself is (both) a material question” and a “spiritual one.” These questions give my work meaning and open up larger conversations–accompanied by feeling good about engaging with my community. In his book Good Work, E. F. Schumacher offers these basic tenants: “First, to provide necessary and useful goods and services. Second, to enable every one of us to use and thereby perfect our gifts like good stewards. Third, to do so in service to, and in cooperation with, others, so as to liberate ourselves from our inborn egocentricity.” 

Marc Jalbert is the former owner of the Gettysburg Baking Company. While continuing to bake for the Baking Company, he’s the founding director of Bakewell Farm, a 501c3 non-profit whose mission is to introduce “bread-centric” education as a means for building community while engaging in public service. Please visit us at: www.bakewellfarm.org