In the ruins of Ostia Antica, where Roman roads have disintegrated into a tangle of worn stones and earth, past market stalls where tall grasses jut from meticulously laid mosaic floors, one can find about three dozen stone basins in which bakers once placed bread dough to rise. This is one of several baking sites archaeologists have identified in the ancient seaside town, which suggests that bakeries were established in order to fulfill the imperial custom of providing free bread to citizens, most of whom lived in small apartments and lacked the ability to bake for themselves. Our circuses are quite different from those of the Ancient Romans, but our bread, perhaps not so much.
Bread is the closest thing civilization has to an eternal flame. While the origin of bread-baking is usually associated with the rise of agriculture, archaeologists studying Natufian hunter-gatherer sites in northeastern Jordan discovered the remains of 14,400-year-old flatbread made from wild cereals, predating agricultural societies by at least 4,000 years. And in 2010 scientists identified traces of starch on Paleolithic-era grinding tools, suggesting our ancestors made flour from wild plant grains as many as 30,000 years ago. When we bake a loaf of bread, we commune with the Natufian hunter-gatherers, Byzantine imperial bakers, the widow of Zarephath, and the Israelites who fled Egypt with their kneading bowls slung over their shoulders.
Leavened bread appeared as early as 4,000 b.c., perhaps in Egypt. Anyone who has cultivated a sourdough starter from wild yeast has been initiated into the ancient Greek vision of the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Make a sludge of flour and water and leave it open to the air. A variety of single-celled fungi known as yeast find their way inside, feast upon the hydrated flour, and produce carbon dioxide that makes the dough bubble. Warmth accelerates the process of fermentation. Local bacteria also contribute, and their acidic byproduct creates the familiar tang of sourdough. As yeast and bacteria multiply, a leaven is born. Bakers mix a portion of leaven with a batch of dough until the whole batch rises into a cathedral of air pockets burgeoned between glutinous strands. Because fungal and microbial colonies vary by ecosystem, so do breads: a Parisian pain au levain tastes different from a San Francisco sourdough. Yet the process remains the same across time and place. A sourdough boule baked fresh this morning has more in common with a loaf from Ostia Antica than with a bag of Wonder Bread made with commercial yeast.
Bread can be for feasting or fasting, indulgent or ascetic. It can be simple and functional: a hunk of pain de campagne for a meager soup, a slab of spongy Ethiopian injera which is as much utensil as food. Or it can be elaborate: a pumpkin-seed-studded fougasse, a Christmas stollen bejeweled with fruits, or—my favorite—an epi baguette scored to resemble a stalk of wheat. Baking bread can be refreshingly uncomplicated, requiring only salt, water, flour, and a keen eye, or it can demand rigor and precision, the correct temperature, humidity, and a meticulously cultivated levain. Still, it is a humble food, often yielding the limelight to a companion like olive oil or cheese. Bread: always the bridesmaid, never the bride (until, that is, it becomes the bridegroom, but more on that later). And yet we notice immediately when the bread is not good, for the food around it loses its luster. Even G. K. Chesterton’s essay celebrating cheese includes a hearty condemnation of the pub that served it to him on biscuits, violating the “sanctity of the ancient wedding between cheese and bread!”
Two experiences have shaped my love of bread: an eight-week internship at the bakery of the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis, and a two-year position behind the counter at Clear Flour Bakery in Boston.
The Abbey of Regina Laudis is a cloistered community in Connecticut, where Benedictine nuns chant the Mass and full Divine Office daily and maintain a 450-acre farm. As a summer intern, I had to bale hay, tend the gardens, and help in the abbey bakery several days a week. On bakery days, my alarm rang before 6 a.m., and I’d stumble from the guest house to meet Mother Dorcas Rosenlund. She dressed in an all-white habit, instead of the usual denim work habit, because of the bakery flour and the heat of the industrial-sized oven. She’d grin at my tired face and cup of coffee—she had probably been awake chanting Matins at 2 a.m.—and escort me through the garden gate into the cloister. At times like this, I felt like the Angel had lowered his fiery sword and snuck me in the back door of Eden.
The bakery was simple, clean, and functional. Shelves of cookbooks lining one wall. A smooth wooden work surface for shaping loaves. A looming black oven with a peel tucked beside it, and cooling racks close at hand. A secondhand yellow industrial mixer in the corner. Mother Dorcas, who practiced pediatric gastroenterology before entering the abbey, was meticulous. She scheduled things so the dough would complete its first rise by the time we returned from terce and Mass. We made the same bread every day: Regina Laudis bread, a round wheat loaf scored with a simple cross. I was gradually initiated into the process. I first had to demonstrate that I knew what lukewarm water was. Soon I was operating the formidable mixer, hoping the ingredients would coincide with the temperature and humidity to produce the right consistency of dough.
There was no feeling quite so validating as when Mother Dorcas peeked into the bowl, eyes bright, and exclaimed, “What a good dough!” She declared it good, just as God saw that it was very good to breathe life into dust. Bread has a special kinship, too, with God’s reminder after Adam and Eve’s fall: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” In the same breath, he declares, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat bread.”
Sometimes special occasions called for special breads. On the anniversary of Mother Lucia’s profession, we made Lucia buns from an enriched dough of butter and cardamom, garnished with a single raisin. We produced hundreds of crescent rolls for the funeral dinner for Mother Stephen. At the end of the summer, I introduced Mother Dorcas to monkey bread, a pull-apart loaf bathed in butter, cinnamon, and sugar. “This is too rich,” she chided, but I caught her sneaking a bit during clean-up.
The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened,” Jesus says (Matt. 13:33). Rabanus Maurus, ninth-century Benedictine and author of the Veni Creator Spiritus, comments on this passage, “He says ‘Until the whole was leavened’ because that love implanted in our mind ought to grow until it changes the whole soul into its own perfection.” Rabanus, I’ll wager, knew a good loaf of bread when he saw one.
Several years later I moved to Boston to begin a master’s degree in theology. But I missed the gentle scent of a good dough and the sound of crust crackling atop a loaf just pulled from the oven. I found not only a bakery but a dream job at Clear Flour Bakery in Brookline, Massachusetts, purveyor of European breads and pastries, two-time finalist for a James Beard Award, and two-time winner of Boston Magazine’s famed “Boston’s Best Croissant.” Once a German exchange student walked into the store, saw the artisan loaves poised on antique bakery racks, and started crying.
A few days a week I’d set aside my studies, grateful to work with my hands after grappling with ideas. I’d don a white apron and cap and send customers home with loaves of German rye, rustic Italian rounds, and fruit tarts tucked away in neat white boxes. Beauty in presentation required precision, rigor, and discipline. As I chopped chocolate and zested lemons, the pastry chefs laminated croissant dough and churned out chocolate chunk cookies. The bakers slipped baguettes in and out of an enormous French oven with a wooden peel the length of a pickup truck. More than once a batch of loaves failed to make it to the shelf because it was overbaked or misshapen. Once in a peak moment of tragedy, several trays of gleaming, crumbly Apfelstreusel had to be discarded because they were left too long in the oven. It was cheery but exacting work. A quotation from Hesiod’s Works and Days was posted on the staircase: “Before the gates of excellence the high gods have placed sweat. Long is the road thereto and rough and steep at first, but when the heights are reached, then there is ease, though grievously hard in the winning.”
Employees could take home bread for free. As a graduate student, I took somewhat bold advantage of this. After closing up the bakery, I’d leave with a few loaves tucked away for study sessions, potlucks, and football watching. It felt good to be generous with friends in a way that was otherwise impossible. And yet, who does not give thus? “What do you have that you have not been given? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you had not been given it?” (1 Cor. 4:7).
To give even when we are empty, to loot the granaries of charity: This is what is required of a Christian’s daily work, our work epiousion. To sanctify the world from within, as leaven, we must know what prompts the leaven’s rise.
Bread, a humble substance, bespeaks our origin and destiny. It is a companion in prayer and work, in feast and fast. But all at once, bread alone is not enough, no longer enough, as the two disciples discovered on the way to Emmaus when the Lord vanished in the breaking of the bread. All at once, something familiar and instructive becomes, in Christ and because of Christ, entirely new, so that in recognizing bread we meet something that is bread no longer. “Take, eat, this is my body.”