Give Us Today

By David HaeselinDecember 29, 2016

Give Us Today
IN 1993, food historian Ed Wood traveled to Egypt looking to unearth the origins of bread. Hieroglyphic and archeological evidence inspired Wood to use flours made from ancient grains like emmer, and to bake in a unique vessel, the pointed conical mold known as the bedja. From the success of these experiments, Wood concluded that he had made the same type of bread that fed the builders of the pyramids. It is striking that the shape of these laborers’ staple foodstuff so closely imitated the structure they spent their lives building.

Scott Cutler Shershow’s Bread, the newest entry from Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series, maintains this connection between food and work, insisting that the meaning of bread not be separated from questions of labor. For Shershow, bread is everywhere because it is a miracle, and miraculous because it is everywhere. To know bread, he argues, one must work with it. Learning to bake teaches the baker just how much is beyond his control. First, yeast digests the sugars stored in the flour, producing carbon dioxide. Then, strands of the protein gluten emerge to catch these bubbles, giving the bread its shape. At this stage, variables such as time and temperature matter far more than the hands of the baker.

The miracle of bread’s rising, then, has to do with its ability to trap and contain that which develops inside. This goes for its chemistry as well as its semiotics. Shershow writes:

As a metaphor, bread has more meanings than one can count, meanings that both multiply and fade over its long history. Especially in the realms of ritual and religion, the myriad figural and metaphoric meanings of bread proliferate so readily and in so many directions as to make it a kind of master signifier, a figure of figurality.

Bread has grown so replete with meaning that it threatens to burst, or as a baker might say, overproof. One question Shershow’s slim book neglects to adequately address is why artisan bread now. Fancy bread is popular today, in part because the builders of today’s pyramids — creative-types who spend their days in coffices and the cloud — desire food with provenance. The time investment and training required to make artisan loaves, in turn, promise a sense of authenticity lacking in their work lives. In response, a spate of bread cookbooks has hit the market. In the contemporary creative economy, bread offers meaning itself.

I started baking bread during a moment of personal doubt. I had just passed my comprehensive exams for my graduate program and was told to start planning my dissertation. It was now my responsibility to contribute something meaningful to my desired profession. This meant confronting the all-too-real possibility that despite my best efforts, all my work might not pay off. In response, I took on another challenge, one that could distract me and, I hoped, keep me going. I decided to try and bake true artisan bread — crusty, shaped by hand, and naturally leavened with a wild sourdough culture. I had never baked in my life, but I hadn’t written an academic monograph either.

Like so many other times in my life, I got this new idea in my head by reading a book. Later I learned that this particular book was the driving force in the contemporary bread revival. Chad Robertson’s pioneering Tartine Bread (2010) adapts recipes from the landmark San Francisco bakery that he shares his with his wife and partner, Elisabeth M. Prueitt. Robertson’s master recipe for his “country loaf” spans 38 pages and requires as many as 24 hours of labor (albeit most of them indirect). But the success of Robertson’s books stems not simply from teaching people to bake amazing bread; Tartine Bread also sells a way of life.

It is not for nothing that Jarett Kobek singles out Tartine Bakery as the epitome of “twee” in his screed against the creative economy of San Francisco, I Hate the Internet (2016). With his typical deadpan vitriol, Kobek bitches, “Tartine’s renown was due to the high quality of its baked goods and the fact that it kept getting write-ups in a wide range of publications like Vogue and the New York Times […] [which cater] to the perceived whims of affluent, youthful demographics.” Full disclosure: I discovered Tartine Bread via a breathless article that appeared in Martha Stewart Living. As such, Kobek would probably classify me an affluent youth, which is partly right, despite the sobering fact that my cultural capital far exceeds my net worth. More importantly, though, many who share my structural position share my interest.

During my five years of avid baking, I’ve met a variety of creative types who have taken on the daunting challenge of making artisan bread: a Canadian grad student in English, an art school dropout barista, a drummer in a band, a freelance photographer, a studio art professor, and a published poet, to name a representative few. From these discussions, I can’t help but conclude that there is something about the nature of creative work that corresponds with the challenge of baking artisan bread at home. The precarious position that so much creative work requires makes any tangible success that much more rewarding. Whereas the work of software engineers purportedly solves problems, poiesis can make no such direct claim. Baking one’s own bread offers creative workers one way to fill that gap.

Much in the way that Shershow points to the religious appeal of bread in Bread, Robertson describes his creative process in primarily spiritual terms, as “searching for the loaf with an old soul.” After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America and interning with Richard Bourdon at the landmark Berkshire Mountain Bakery, Robertson moved to Northern California and spent years baking in the most earnest way possible — with a fire built from hand-cut wood and using stoneground flour, fermenting his loaves strictly with a sourdough culture. This preindustrial mythos helped make Robertson’s bread a sensation at the Point Reyes farmers’ market, which, in turn, funded his move to San Francisco and his eventual cult celebrity.

But tradition means more than just authenticity for Robertson; it also means good health. He contends that naturally fermented breads (commonly known as sourdough, meaning any loaf fermented without the benefit of commercially derived yeast) offer the eater benefits of good digestion, and perhaps, even, an antidote to gluten intolerance. Robertson develops this argument in his Tartine Book No. 3, a book dedicated to ancient and whole grains. Heirloom grains like emmer (also known as farro, the same grain used by Ed Wood in his Egyptian experiments) offer the modern baker new ways to deliver increased nutrition, primarily in the form of additional protein and by making the bread easier to digest. Traditional techniques of mixing in porridges made from brown rice and steel-cut oats to the dough also deliver high quantities of whole grains without sacrificing the rising ability, as is the case with most whole wheat loaves, which often remain flat and dense due to the sharp bran’s tendency to pierce the gluten strands which develop during fermentation. With the techniques and recipes in these two books, Robertson provides the home baker the chance to bake bread that is more nutritious and beautiful than any other (excluding those loaves that come from cosmopolitan bakeshops like his own). Excavating traditional techniques encourages, the home baker, as he puts it, to “rejoin our nascent age of invention.” And this invitation to remake tradition in the form of tangible, edible products sounds quite appealing to the writer toiling away at his prose.

“Invention” is a perfect representative for Bay Area culture as a whole. Robertson, though, portrays it as more about process than product. He confirms that “the baker’s skill in managing fermentation, not the type of oven used, is what makes good bread.” Robertson here promises his disciple more than just delicious, wholesome bread; he promises meaningful labor.

And Robertson’s promise has inspired many kinds of disciples. His friend and protégé, Ken Forkish, stands as the only real competitor to Robertson’s celebrity. Forkish’s Portland bakery (the aptly named Ken’s Artisan Bakery) and his best-selling book (Flour Water Salt Yeast [2012]) have made him a food celebrity in his own right, even though Shershow does not cite his work in Bread. Forkish’s biography is more interesting than his method. He is quick to tell his reader that baking was the solution to a midlife crisis. Forkish describes his decision to leave his tech job at IBM because he “yearned for a craft.” The centrality of this motivation in the text of the cookbook suggests that with the help of this book, readers too can foster a noble hobby that adds meaning to their lives by fusing good work with good food. Forkish’s story illustrates that the appeal of craft transcends the division between artistic and technological work. Indeed, one might conclude that Forkish offers the engineer’s approach to bread-making while Robertson’s Tartine attempts to offers the poet’s.

Yet, for a book aimed at the amateur, Forkish goes into staggering detail about the financial and business concerns in starting a small bakery. He includes a multi-page spread discussing logistics: the square footage of his space, the necessary volume of ingredients, and discussions of where he sources his salt and wheat. He even goes as far as warning that he “lost nearly $70,000” in his first year of operating his bakery. Perhaps Forkish does this to soothe the anxiety of the home cook by reminding them that they only need worry about the craft and not the financials, but a cynical reader may sense that this serves to dissuade would-be competitors.

Forkish sums up his pragmatic approach in Flour Water Salt Yeast: becoming a baker takes “much more hard work than romance.” He likely feels compelled to note this is because professional bakers work notoriously long hours. As proof, he outlines his daily routine, beginning with his arrival at 3:30 a.m. each day. And, really, we should applaud Forkish for being so forthcoming: these clear-eyed descriptions of the toil of labor, rather than the whimsy of craft, give the reader a better sense of the real life and times of an artisan baker.

Despite the awful hours, though, there is something inescapably romantic about getting up early to tend an oven, especially if you are used to getting up early just to beat the traffic. What books like Tartine and Flour Water Salt Yeast offer the amateur baker, then, is the promise of standing outside the dull world of work — craft instead of customer service. Many of Kobek’s “affluent youth,” have unstructured time to dedicate to learning the technique. Baking produces its own reward. And you get to eat it, too.

While Shershow’s only mention of new artisan cookbooks comes in a footnote in Bread, elsewhere in his book, he offers the reader a complex and accurate depiction of their blind spots. He explains:

Unless I am also planning to set up as a farmer and a miller, I will always remain — precisely as a baker — multiply dependent on other people and a complexly organized society […] It has also made me conscious of being part of a certain “history” insofar as today’s so-called artisanal breads are the ultimate example of what famed Parisian baker Lionel Poilâne calls “retro-innovation”: the rediscovery and redeployment on a “quasi-industrial scale” of preindustrial techniques of production.

Shershow here notices the contradiction of “doing-it-himself” in a society that runs off the division of labor. However, I suspect that the average home cook derives some, if not much, of his personal delight from this retro-innovation, in getting back to the honest ways things were once done. Retro-innovation, in this sense, suggests a momentary return to a time when handcrafts could compete with industrial production. The wide appeal of “small batch,” “handcrafted,” and “indie” consumer goods illustrates this point. Bread cookbooks appeal to the Etsy and Farmers’ Market crowd, encouraging the reader to get his hands dirty and with far less overhead cost than many other hobbies. The necessary components of bread (all listed in Forkish’s title, mind you), can be easily obtained by pretty much anyone, even those living on a graduate teaching stipend. Flexible time is the most important ingredient in fine bread and it is something which many workers have no choice but to embrace.

As prudent as Forkish is discussing the business of baking, he also taps into the DIY ethic to market Flour Water Salt Yeast. Notably, the book features a pull quote from the patron saint of American self-sufficiency, Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Trust thyself; every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Personal and financial struggles be damned, Forkish seems to suggest; the sweat of your brow and cramps in your hands are all you need to succeed. From this perspective, one cannot forget that amateur bakers are reading these, not other fine baking books, because of these two bakers’ exceptional success as entrepreneurs. If Tartine and Ken’s Artisan Bakery had not generated substantial buzz, they would have never been covered by outlets like The New York Times or Martha Stewart Living and would likely never have secured book contracts for their owners. These books appeal to creative workers precisely because they accentuate the same imperatives as creative economies: (retro)innovation, self-reliance, loosely structured time, the honesty of handcraft, and the limitless frontier of individual creativity.

I am not the only one to notice the lifestyle romanticism inherent to these particular cookbooks. Zachary Golper, author of the most exciting bread book from 2015, Bien Cuit, admonishes the cult of retro-innovation in the bread world. Scoff as you might at the 38-page recipe in Tartine Bread, but Golper’s take is even more obsessive. His flagship bread is also a rustic sourdough round boule, but he names it after how long it takes: 50 hours. Immediately after presenting his fanatical take on fermentation, Golper skewers the rhetorical flourishes others use to portray the baker’s craft as honest and timeless, particularly the country loaf moniker. If eating this bread makes you feel “like a hearty peasant,” he warns, “bear in mind that you don’t need to spend a morning in the fields with a scythe in order to enjoy one any more than eating a ploughmen’s lunch requires you to till a field walking behind a horse-drawn plow.” Golper never names Robertson or Tartine in this criticism, but it’s refreshing to see that Golper calmly admit that he has developed his recipes to please gourmands, not yeomen.

The subtitle of Golper’s book is “The Art of Bread,” and it delivers on that promise. Bien Cuit is the most beautiful cookbook (bread or otherwise) I have ever seen, exceeding even Robertson and Forkish’s lovely volumes. Published by Regan Arts, Bien Cuit sports an exposed spine so that it can be laid completely flat, open to any page. The illustrations are numerous, with all of them rendered in vivid color. Each recipe features a whole loaf photo as well as a cross section to expose the bread’s interior, what geeks call the “crumb.” What’s more, the aesthetic concerns of the book overlap nicely with Golper’s theory of baking. Golper shares the language of the love affair used by Shershow; they both even describe the sensual delight of shaping raw, fleshy dough as “erotic.” For Golper, the artful baker aims to impress as much as to nourish, which supports the view that bread cookbooks appeal to creative workers because baking is, quite literally, creation.

If bread is a kind of art, this fact might explain why Shershow’s Bread treats its object much like a critical theorist does language, as a human invention that exceeds human control, and why the skillset offered by these cookbooks appeals to creative workers in the arts and high-tech industries alike. Shershow concludes:

Perhaps this is why bread, as object or idea, is so often experienced as somehow sacred or magical or miraculous: because we simply cannot help but taste in it, day by day by day, the explosive promise of the plural, the exhilarating undecidability of more.

Replace “bread” with “capital” and “taste” with “sense,” and this passage could have been just as easily written by David Harvey, or maybe Marx himself. The meaning of bread is still nascent, requiring human intervention, but not beholden to it. Bread means more than any one book can say, but it is often produced in response to less. More time to bake means less structured work time. On the American scene, this freedom often comes at the expense of all of those things that sustain us beyond bread alone — job security, reliable health care, pride in one’s work, a meaningful life.

Many like myself who were called to vocations that promised meaningful work are drawn to bread because it offers the chance to create free from the burdens of mastery and exchange. All creativity invites risk, but even an ugly loaf is still edible. While baking bread, the day is one’s own, even if the baker needs to check his work email while the oven preheats.


David Haeselin is a lecturer in the English Department of The University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

LARB Contributor

David Haeselin teaches in the English department at the University of North Dakota. His scholarship examines the connections between digital technologies — particularly the search engine — and narrative. His recent work appears at Hybrid Pedagogy and Public Books.


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