Matthew Becue / Sun Contributor

February 21, 2020

Food Ethics | Confessions of An Ignorant Bread-Lover

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Maybe you’re familiar with the fact that Oprah Winfrey has a partnership with Weight Watchers. This would not have been something I’d have known about had it not been for a particularly strange, and thus memorable, commercial I saw at some point during the past couple of years. Oprah advertised what seemed to be a new conception of Weight Watchers,hinging on one important factor for her.

“I LOVE bread,” Oprah professed earnestly and seemingly out of the blue. To some, this could seem hilarious. Who cares about eating bread? Why would that be a motivating factor to subscribe to Weight Watchers’s new plan? She goes on to answer these questions by explaining that she ate bread every day on this new plan but still managed her bodyweight despite this carb intake.

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine relating to Oprah or a Weight Watchers commercial. I have the good fortune of not having to worry about managing my bread intake , so I didn’t really pay attention to that part. But I did relate to the aspect of LOVING bread, and to eating it pretty much every day when I can. I suppose, then, if I were in the shoes of someone who wanted to watch their bread intake, this could be a gamechanger.

Bizarrely enough, I think this commercial sticks with me for the reason that, besides the absurdity of having Oprah confess her love affair with bread, it also made me examine my own fondness for bread.

Despite knowing that I loved to eat it, I knew nothing else about bread. I didn’t know the history, the different types or the processes to make it. All I knew was that freshly-baked bread is one of the best aromas in the world and my ultimate comfort food. Beyond that, I had never really given it another thought.

If we stop and examine the place of bread throughout history, we find how ubiquitous it is in the daily lives of humans since grain was first domesticated thousands of years ago. Think of the phrase “bread and circuses,” which uses bread as a representative for food in general. Or look at the Lord’s Prayer in the Christian Bible, which features the famous line “give us our daily bread,” again demonstrating bread’s crucial nature in the ancient world.

In fact, this very topic has arisen, no pun intended, quite often  in the archaeology course I’m currently taking, “Drinking through the Ages: Intoxicating Beverages in Near Eastern and World History.” Yes, bread actually played a key role in this discussion of the early days of drinking, like in ancient Mesopotamia, when some types of beer were brewed using a form of bread. Did you know that the Sumerian word for “banquet” literally translates to “place of beer and bread?” These were arguably the most important drink and food items to ancient civilization. Beer, because it was nutritious and safe to drink as opposed to the unsanitary water of the time, and bread for some of the same reasons it’s such a staple today— it fills you up and is packed full of calories.

Recently, all these thoughts flowed through my mind when I really began investigating bread properly in “Religion, Food Systems and Ecology,” a course taught by Professor Jane-Marie Law. The goal of the course is to connect food systems and their ecological impacts with religious languages. Thinking about bread and its importance to religious systems has revealed to me an intense societal oversimplification of it in modern times. By oversimplification, I mean that our idea of bread is as a product found at the grocery store, which you buy and use to make sandwiches. We’re perfectly content to eat low-quality, mass-produced bread made by producers that completely cheat the farmer who grew the wheat.

Matthew Becue / Sun Contributor

The actual components for what it takes to make the most basic of breads are very simple: Flour, water, yeast and salt. This simple combination is something that may seem obvious, but still wasn’t something with which I was very familiar. You can also add many other ingredients to boost nutrition, like wheat germ, soy flour, amaranth and more. But for me, the real magic involved in bread making is the actual technique for turning the raw ingredients into something fluffy, warm and tasty. When it was time for us to try our hands at it in class, I quickly realized that my utter lack of experience and confidence severely hindered the ease with which I could produce viable dough. First it was too dry, then too wet and sticky and overall concerning for me. Would I ever be able to bake bread myself?

I took my dough home after class, anxious to taste the results of this lesson. After allowing it to rise a second time, I threw it in the oven. I watched it slowly turn golden brown, and before I knew it, I was holding my first loaf of handmade bread. It felt silly that it took me until age 21 to finally bake a loaf of bread from scratch, considering its significance to the human species. It’s almost as if I had finally grown up a tiny bit in my maturity surrounding food. Somewhat of a baby step, but it felt empowering, so I managed to successfully replicate the results a few more times. In learning all about bread and by making it myself, I had taken back a small amount of control of how and what I eat, starting at the most basic of foods.

The fact that I wasn’t very familiar with the history and cultural significance of bread, as well as how to make it, was an intensely frightening idea in hindsight. I don’t think I’m alone either. We, as a species, have become so alienated from our very sustenance that the most fundamental thing we eat isn’t widely understood by most of our society. If you need a metaphor for this awful fact, there it is. Shamefully, I guess I needed that wakeup call; it had to start somewhere.

 

Matthew Becue is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at mdb289@cornell.edu