From December of last year onward, I have thought about bread every day, without exception. It started about six months after I got married. I cried a lot those first few months, and though I would always tell my husband that I didn’t know why I was so upset, I can tell you now that I was afraid that I’d gotten married too young, before I’d gotten to know myself. I couldn’t list things that I liked to do on my own, anything that wasn’t secretly something I’d borrowed from my husband, something he’d introduced to me while we were dating or engaged.
I have it written down in my journal, where it all began. On the left page: “I am still trying to figure out who I am and what my passions are, but I am struggling to explore… I don’t know what I like. I don’t know how to express what I don’t know.” On the right page: “Remember that poem about Jesus being a vampire, due to his association with blood? Do the Eucharistic mirror: Bread”
And so, about six months after I got married, I stalked a girl on Twitter so I could ask her about a poem. Over a year ago I’d heard her read it at some poetry award ceremony, and though the poem stuck with me, all I could remember about her was that during a question and answer session afterwards, one of her friends had said that she often talks about a soda parlor on Twitter. So last Christmas I sought her out. Apparently, Twitter doesn’t approve of someone making an account (not even bothering to add a profile picture or bio), scrolling through the followers of a soda parlor and direct messaging an individual. I got flagged for suspicious activity, but after I messaged her, she sent me the poem. She had compared Jesus to a vampire, made Him a run-away obsessed with the drinking of His blood like wine. And I wanted to write about bread. That’s where it all started. I wanted to write a poem like she did, but about bread instead of wine. More tame, I thought. Less sacrilegious. Jesus is bread just as much as He is wine.
By some miracle, then, my mind began a diet of bread. After the sacrament had been passed around at church, I immediately closed my ears, ignoring sermons to focus on googling bread things on my phone, letting my mind drift between the etymologies behind “crust” and “loaf” and “crumb.” I read about transubstantiation and cannibalism. I read recipes and tried to find art. I wrote some poetic lines, and thought about writing more. I watched the episodes from the Great British Bake Offwhere they only made bread. I made bread. I tried the religious ones like challah and matzoh, but also baked soft pretzels and naan. In an art class I painted a loaf of bread and it was really challenging, but I learned that the smell of oil paint and the smell of yeast are equally pungent.
I fell in love with yeast. It’s a gross word and kind of a gross thing, but it is inherently creative. Those tiny tan pellets I had always used and watched my mom use are yeast, but delivered in a form that is comparatively new, in the history of humans making the oldest form of crafted food. Yeast is bacteria– little live organisms we invite into the loaf, either by measured tablespoons of baker’s yeast, or by just letting them settle in from the air. They eat the flour and sugar and burp out the bubbles that, when baked, make that fluffy pattern, called the crumb. But before we as a culture started demonizing gluten, we demonized the yeast within bread. Around the time of the industrial revolution, Louis Pasteur discovered germs, and panic broke out surrounding bread. Since nobody wanted these germs in their food, bakers and mothers turned to baking soda and baking powder to chemically produce those bubbles needed, and bread was leavened by chemicals instead of by life itself.
Bakers now are turning back to naturally leavened dough, using the bacteria in the air as humans have done from the beginning of humanity. And I tried it too. I built a sourdough starter, based more off of my own feel for something I knew nothing about than on any recipe or instructions that I had read. In a glass jar I mixed flour and water (and just a tiny bit of yeast to kick start it), and each day would continue to add the two. A sourdough starter is very much like a pet– you feed it daily, you build a relationship based mostly on you just staring at it, and you name it something so that it hurts when it dies. My husband named it “Scoob,” and it lasted one week, after making two very small loaves. I can only guess which of my blind experiments killed it, but I am a little relieved I don’t have to worry about taking care of it every day. Scoob was time-consuming, and it’s easier to just use yeast pellets anyway.
I daydreamed about the first loaf of bread, that first leavening. Adam built an altar, and then next to it he built an oven. While perhaps God boomed instructions down from on high, and maybe He sent down Martha Stewart as an angel to show them how, I prefer to think of the first loaf as a beautiful accident. Adam and Eve let their children try to grind the flour with their weak arms, and then pushed and pulled the dough between them. At first they made pancake-flat bread that had no salt and one had to growl a little as they tore at it. But someone, and I hope it was Eve, left dough out on a warm rock one day and forgot about it, perhaps caught up in this new experience where she cried whenever she saw her babies and their fat cheeks. And the air did something different to the dough. Given the time, the life that had been on Eve’s skin and in her fingers as she had kneaded the dough began to grow and multiply. What a godlike power, to make something grow through touch. Did Eve feel that guilt again, for trying to be like God?
I think about Cain and Abel, staring in wonder as the dough rose, eyes wide as they tried to see the imperceptible, like trying to see the life within grass that makes it grow. Yeast is like the Holy Spirit: invisible, inflicting growth. So maybe Abel was the only one who was watching?
I made so much bread. I fought inside myself between the homemaking scent of dough in the oven, the pride I felt over a swirling, beautiful crumb, and the hate I had for my body, knowing bread was the enemy. Bread has the potential to be so nutritious, as the books I read told me, but I knew I wasn’t doing the right things to make a good loaf, a complicated and nutritious loaf. I used cheap flour and it takes less time to use yeast pellets and just call it good. But I knew I could get so much deeper, if I wanted.
I follow a couple of sourdough breadmakers on Instagram, and they all describe their work in these mathematical terms: “100% whole grain freshly milled blend of hard white spring/warthog/ spelt mixed at 72% and bassinaged up to 90% during autolyse/ fermentolyse… then completely ignored for a 6.5 hour RT bulk. Bench rest was rushed and shaping was punctuated by aberrations in the kids’ bedtime routine (including being headbutted by a six year old who is closer to my size than any other six year old you’ve ever seen, completely deflating one of the other loaves).” Look at that jargon, kneaded right into this mother’s life.
I love the auditory qualities of jargon, though I’m always hesitant to use jargon myself. One time, I helped collect sound as my husband filmed a short documentary of a Magic the Gathering event. I pointed a gun-shaped microphone at some men who kneaded their cards like they were casting spells (which I guess is the point), sliding and slipping their deck around like an animal puffing out his chest to intimidate his opponent. I’ve never played Magic, and so the way they talked was so interesting because it made no sense to me. It obviously had the potential to be understood, but I just let words slide across my ears, and made sure I was capturing all their sounds. I guess I bring this up because the biggest part of this whole bread thing is what it means to me from a religious perspective, and there is nothing I know that is more full of jargon or acronyms or recycled terminology than my church, my faith. I could make you, reader, play a guessing game at what I do believe, and avoid vernacular. I try my best to translate, though. I sometimes wish I were Catholic, or the etymology of “Catholic.” That I were universal, and universally understood.
Bread is almost universally associated with the hearth, the home, the mother. I think about my mom every time I think about bread. She used to bake all the time. She made loaves of whole wheat bread, and sometimes I helped. And by help, I mean that I would sink my hands deep in the bucket under the end of the counter that was full of kernels of wheat, and let them slip slowly from my fingers. After a few minutes of this, my hands would be soft from the chaff and tingling from touching hundreds or grains. The wheat then went into my mother’s grinder, which was a wooden box that made the lights in the whole house flicker when it roared to life. I would lift the lid and my mom would pour them into the broad funnel, where each kernel would jump about and then drop into the dark and dangerous hole in the center. My mom always warned me not to put my finger in there because, “The grinder doesn’t know the difference between a finger and some wheat.”
Ever since my dad stopped eating carbs and sugar (due to a totally serious fear of contracting a fungus that will take over his body and control his actions, like a zombie virus) my mom has stopped baking bread. It goes bad before she alone can finish it. I remember as a child I would only eat her earthy, brown wheat bread if it had just come out of the oven and was drowning in butter, only then. I hated bringing her crumbly sandwiches in my lunch, and I know it hurt her feelings. I know what it’s like to bake a pie and bring it to a hangout with your friends, and you’re the only one who has a slice. But baking is a sacrifice, which makes it a great metaphor for Christ.
I learned about things that I wanted to write but couldn’t find the best way to do so. Like how at Easter, we talk about how Jesus, the Bread of Life, is Risen, and I wanted to laugh at the pun. Or how when I was looking into the etymology (I know I’ve mentioned this a lot; it’s the history and origin of words, and is like a second religion to me) of bread words, I found that the word “Lord” comes from an old English “hlaford,” or loaf-guard. And though the term wasn’t applied to Jesus until the King James translation of the Bible, it’s a beautiful translation of the name of God, since He has said that He is the bread of life, and will feed us. The old English word for servant comes from this same relationship to bread, and means loaf-eater.
These more recent months I have been attracted to the concept of communities. It bled over from bread very easily, because bread is a community food. It’s designed to be broken and shared, and it brings those who eat it closer together. Makes sense why it’s used for the Eucharist, for communion.
The time I felt most alone in my whole life was during the first few months of this year, during church, sitting in a congregation of at least 250. We had tried, my husband and I. We’d brought cookies to neighbors, we sat next to couples and introduced ourselves. I’d even taken a page out of some psychology-based hacks off the internet, and literally asked my neighbor if I could borrow a cup of sugar, but she just texted, “Sorry, I’m not home right now.”
One Sunday someone got up and spoke about how they had just moved into the area (months after we had) and they were making so many friends and had gotten assignments in the church and were loving it. I stood up and left then, crying my way up the aisle. In middle school, when a girl cries, she is swarmed by half-friends, and one mom-friend will rub her back and whisper “give her space” to the other girls. What I mean is that crying in middle school at least gets you attention, but in this bizarre place, nothing happened. After that day I stopped going to that congregation. Nobody ever checked up on me or my husband. We disappeared and nobody noticed. I was a tree falling in a forest, trying to make as much noise as I could, because I did not want to fall.
I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I Googled what makes a community, and I read the definitions from social scientist to psychologist. I took notes. I thought about things like initiation, trying to guess what might be initiation for a church community. Looking back, I realize that I was already initiated, at least by the books. I had gotten baptized, hadn’t I? What more was I supposed to have completed? I’m still bitter. In my journal, right next to my list of the factors of a community, I have a quote from Montaigne: “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” I think I was entertaining the idea of an internal community. I have these separate elements within myself–body, mind, spirit, conscious and subconscious. Could I be my own friend? Or maybe I was thinking about bread again, and how Jesus, the perfect example, is symbolized in the communion, which I watched each person in that room eat every week I was there. I watched them partake, and then Jesus was in them. Each of those people were visibly and literally integrating Jesus into their lives and yet I was being lost, left out, despite doing the same. Shouldn’t we all have been gathered as one, as the Body of Christ?
I read a medieval riddle about bread, but it was basically an overt metaphor for male genitalia. It turns out bread is sexy. As a wedding present I received a great big red kitchen mixer but it sits in its box in my closet, never opened, because my kitchen is too small almost for the toaster we have. I can’t complain too much though, because I have come to develop a relationship with kneading. I could recommend yoga to any stranger, but I would recommend kneading dough to my friends. It’s a sensory and sensual experience. I take my rings off to keep them clean, and I scoop the dough from the bowl, trying to catch all the flour at the bottom. I drop the mass on my counter, careful to keep it within the either oiled or floured area. I think about how taffy is made. It’s pulling taffy, and it’s pushing bread. I sink my hands in and push the dough over and over, the scent of the yeast in the dough, and I think about how I don’t have enough patience for sourdough. I think about things like saturation and hydration–things I’ve learned are important for a good loaf, things that I have chosen to ignore. I drop my lump of dough into a greased pan and slip it into the heat of the oven. Baguettes, when they come out of the oven, start to sing. They pop and crackle as they start to cool and contract, and I like that.
Adam Gopnik says, “Stovetop cooking is, at first approximation, peeling and chopping onions and then crying; baking is mixing yeast and water with flour and then waiting. The difference between being a baker and being a cook is whether you find waiting or crying more objectionable.” I waited, and let time bring levity to my pain. I’ve found a new congregation, one that has older ladies with European accents and babies who stumble around sucking on their own fingers. There are girls my age who don’t terrify me. We get together on Sundays and have tea together. Someone came over and gave me a loaf of bread, just to be nice, and I almost cried after the door shut.If someone asked me what I like to do, I could say a few things that are all for myself. I like reading, doing yoga, writing, and making new food in my crevice of a kitchen. I like watching black and white movies, and being a socialite at work and at church.
We’ve hit our first anniversary together, and I talk to my husband about the difference between transubstantiation and transelimination. I feel more at home in my body. But the biggest aspect of my life that changed as a result of this obsession is how I feel about God. My feelings started out as ambivalent and, I’ll admit, apathetic. But as I read about bread and its role as the staff of life, a chaotic fear settled into my mind as I realized that God is so distant, and so unlike me. I felt a desperate need to understand God, and a terrifying knowledge that it is impossible. When I was a child, I imagined God was a giant so large that I could curl up in his hand, like a mouse-sized cat. Now I just imagine a sort of amorphous entity who exists somewhere above my ceiling. A watch-clock god, a fly-on-the-wall god. He hovers above my headboard, He hides behind the chapel rafters.
Jesus, though. Jesus is the man. He’s the superhero, the best friend. He’s the holiest of holies and also the most accessible. But Jesus told us to pray to the Father and prayer is hard because it doesn’t do any good unless you say it out loud, and it’s really never any real good unless it’s in a group, where you know someone can hear you. Why can’t I just whisper to Jesus, instead of trying to form a telepathic link with the God of the Universe?
I thought about bread being re-formed. A loaf is made to be torn apart, to be split between people. Jesus was the same way. The Catholics believe that one piece of the eucharist is Christ wholly, and so I thought about how many pieces of bread, or wafers or crumbs are set apart as the body of Christ, and what would happen if each person, each member of the body of Christ, brought their pieces together and re-built His body, like building that temple in Babylon. So many people claim to have a splinter of the cross that Jesus was crucified on, that was found by Saint Helen and later divied up as gifts to bishops and cardinals who had pleased the Pope. If those were all brought together too, would the giant Jesus-golem fit on the giant recreated cross? Maybe that sounds more science-fiction than anything else, and maybe it doesn’t make any sense at all, but it does go to show how confused I was about God. I wrote and wrote trying to figure it out.
I had never allowed myself to explore my faith so freely before. I wrote things like:
Blood. A name. Bread like a stone
Blood has a tang like iron
Bread made from the dust of the earth, like us.
Dust to dust, unholy to holy to unholy
Mary was barren, and God said, “Well, I DID already say she was chosen.”
And Mary made bread and the bread saved souls.
I don’t talk to the Baker anymore.
It’s not easy to get bread without talking to the Baker, but he’s not what I’m here for.
I’m here for bread.
I read that last bit out loud to a few people, testing the weight of the words as potential lines for this vision of a poem, my end goal. My brother and his wife shook their heads and said, “I don’t get it. We love the baker. We want to be close to Him. I don’t think your metaphor works.”
Let me spell it out then: I believe in Jesus much much more than I believe in God. I can at least imagine a face for Christ. I can understand that He lived and can imagine Him as a child or as a teenager. But God is so weird and so perfect. Perfect isn’t a personality trait. And I don’t even know what God likes to eat. But Jesus? He talked about bread.
Bread of Life
1 Mary, human, the dust of life, or pure flour
1 God the Father, deity, living water. If you can’t get living water, regular is fine
1 bitter cup Yeast, or all the sins of the world
A bit of olive oil, to remind us that God loves gardens
A bit of salt, untrodden
Knead ingredients together, until the whole is leavened. Abuse the dough as you see fit. Bake for 3 days in an oven, or in a cave. Partake by sharing with friends and family. Don’t leave it in the breadbox, or you will have defeated the purpose. This bread is designed to be torn and broken apart. Do not slice.