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Todd R. Nelson of Penobscot is a baker, and a former school principal.
Open any cookbook to the index. Embedded in the potential menu for tonight’s dinner is the story of language, geography, family history, migrations, inventions, chemistry, farming, commerce, and botany. A recipe is more than the sum of its ingredients.
Take bread, the human family’s most common food. Everyone eats it, and the bread you eat says a lot about who you are. Bread, I’d like to think, is why people stopped hunting and gathering to cultivate grain. (It led to beer too.) It’s why we settled down. You must farm to have bread, and you need bread if you farm. It’s an Ur food of the two grand human parties, nomads and settlers. Fine dining had begun, though. Coming soon: the grilled cheese sandwich; the baguette; brioche.
Bread is a Rosetta stone of family, culture, commerce; settlement and dispersal; trading and hoarding; invention; simplicity; nourishment. Yes, it’s also food: memorable, satisfying, sensuous, fragrant, fundamental. Who doesn’t feel home is the place redolent of the fragrance of yeast proving, of dough rising, loaves baking, of crusty loaves coming out of the oven.
Bread tells stories. It narrates our geography, past and present locale. It resides in our cities and countries, some persisting only in the remembrance of a recipe’s name. Pissaladiere, challah, pain du nord africain au coriander, lama bi ajeen, pita, pannetone, lefse, barra brith, barm brack, bunuelos, pain de mie, kugelhopf, verterkake, bagels, bannock , broa, choreki, christopsomo, pizza caccia nanza. Every Scottish grandmother has a shortbread recipe. Rugelach is gestalt.
Is your family represented in this list? Bread came with your people from wherever your people came from, the compass round. Bread is like that. Though we may have arrived at baking in very different ways, at different times in the long memory of bread, every culture has its unique bread. “The staff of life,” the breadbasket of the world, the earliest loaf in the cradle of civilization — bread has accompanied us on our human pilgrimage. Day by day the manna fell. Bread is a democratic republic.
Be it leavened or unleavened, breaking bread leavens the whole lump of the potluck. In fact, I would say that the authentic leaven is the potluck — the seating, sharing, tolerance, of a meal among community or family members. And we are all community members. Our hands have kneaded, waited, and baked our bread; we have concocted the family secret casserole; pies, and cakes. Then we sit for the communal meal that makes us family or community and savor it.
I love the scene in the 1980s movie “Diva” that encapsulates bread’s essence — admittedly, to a French man. “The baguette!” explains Serge Gorodish to his bewildered acolyte. “The knife, not too thin, but not too thick … fresh, but not too fresh. It’s an artform. We, the French, are envied the world over, for this. Look. … My satori is this: Zen in the art of buttering bread. Watch. No knife, no bread, no butter! Only a gesture … a movement . . . space . . . the void.”
Chop wood, carry water, slice and butter bread. It’s the gesture of a conductor, soothing the string section or inciting the brass — no void though — conjuring and extracting music from the silence of rests in the score, interstices of notes awaiting a harmonic chord or arpeggio. I detect a secular communion like we get from the poets.
My satori (the state of intuitive illumination sought in Zen Buddhism) now proofs in a big bowl, intoxicating the whole house. It rises and bubbles, alchemy of yeast, water, flour and salt. Hunger abounds, as does nourishment. The timer says the first batch is ready to leave the oven. It has the right hollow thump. Now the loaves must cool and crackle, some call it whistling. Don’t cut it too soon, though the butter and knife and palate await. Come to the table. Waiting is part of the mystery and ritual of bread and community, hunger, love, and healing the heart. And that Zen gesture. Bon appetit.