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Bill McKibben

Our Daily Bread

The revival of French bread.

I am just theologian enough to know that "Give us this day our daily bread" carries metaphorical meaning. But it has a literal sense too, of course, and one that would have made sense to every citizen of a wheat-eating culture until very recently, when the idea of daily baking all but disappeared. This book gives an account of the painful 20th-century demise of perhaps the world's greatest baking tradition, that of the French, and then its sweet and unlikely second rising toward the century's end. Along the way, Steven Laurence Kaplan raises powerfully important questions about the proper scale for an economy—about how big is too big, and how small is impractical—that go well beyond both France and bread. Indeed, Kaplan's book spurs thought about what a postmodern economy might look like, and whether it might be possible for it to deliver satisfaction instead of simply piles of stuff.

The book doesn't raise these questions explicitly. Alas, it is either badly written or badly translated (or both). The writing is often a parody of academic cluelessness ("Encoded both as a material object and a symbolic object, bread constituted a complex multiple register on which social, biological, and spiritual destinies operated simultaneously"). More fundamentally, the book never manages to provide a straightforward chronology of the story Kaplan is trying to tell, and hence manages to provide both endless repetition and frustrating gaps. But since, as I say, the material is potentially of great interest, I will try to reassemble the tale as best I can.

In the beginning, bread was enormously important to the French. At the time of the Revolution, the average Frenchman may have eaten three pounds a day of the stuff. If it ran short, or the quality was bad, riots resulted; the very language reflected its ubiquity (think too of the English "bread-winner"). And of course there were all the associations linked with the Eucharist. "This is my body," Christ said, and in Kaplan's words "the model of the Eucharist undoubtedly reinforces the conviction that bread alone can perpetuate life in its deepest sense: that food only acquires providential force and status when it takes the form of bread."

Even today, says Kaplan, the French "have trouble imagining a real meal without bread." But they can apparently imagine a meal with a lot less of it—the average consumption is a sixth what it was in those older times. Much of the reason is that the French got richer, and as that happened "cereals were supplanted by foods long considered the prerogative of the well-to-do classes: fresh vegetables, fruit, cheese, fish, and especially meat." (Indeed, the French equivalent of "bread-winner" became "gagne-bifteck," or steak-earner, in the wake of World War II.) And this was a liberation in more than nutritional terms: as Kaplan documents extensively, the life of the urban baker up through the start of the 20th century was hard: hours of manual kneading in cramped cellars, the sweat from the forearms flavoring the dough.

As machinery replaced that monotony, however, another reason for the decline of bread appeared: it started tasting of less and less. Ever-bigger industrial bakers learned all sorts of tricks—chemical leavening agents, for instance, or the direct injection of yeast to replace sourdough. From an essentially living food, bread was becoming an industrial project, its makers obsessed with stressing the hygiene of their product even as consumers worried about its healthiness. It's a story that could be told about a wide variety of products in the Western world, their production rationalized at the expense of everything that made them special. In America and England, for instance, the best parallel is probably with beer: from thousands of breweries at the turn of the century, the few hundred that survived Prohibition were soon consolidated into a few dozen, who in place of dozens of styles of ale and lager brewed the same thin and fizzy golden swill.

But the reaction to bad beer began to set in, first in England, in the 1970s, when the Campaign for Real Ale launched the first widespread consumer reaction to modernist homogenization (a campaign that soon spread across the Atlantic, and produced the explosion in locally made craft beers here). Not long after, something of the same began to happen in France, with the re-emergence of artisanal bread makers fixated on quality. The best passages in this book are profiles of some of these Parisian baking stars—Kaplan has also written an eater's guide to the best bakeries of the capital, and in some of his descriptions you can almost taste the crackle of the crust, the chewy, nutty density of the crumb:

The baguette of the Boulanger de Monge … is a pure marvel. The crust, fine but crispy, is beautifully gilded and without defects. The crumb is equal to and in perfect harmony with the crust. Pearly in color, the crumb is denser than in most other good baguettes, with a texture that is at once silky and resistant, round and fluffy in the mouth… . The crust's aromas of toast and caramel go perfectly with whiff of country freshness emanating from the crumb. The taste lingers in the mouth, revealing several layers, with touches of crushed cereal, dried fruits, and winter vegetables with edible roots.

It's enough to make you toss your Pepperidge Farm loaf straight in the trash.

One of the more interesting parts of the story is the way that the French big box groceries—especially the dominant player, Carrefours—have tried to jump on this trend, hiring the best bakers to provide recipes and train workers at many stores in the artisanal techniques. There are now thousands of "bake-off terminals" in stores around France—and in groceries around the United States as well. Bread dough arrives frozen, and the staff heats it up in their ovens. The aroma hangs in the air, the bread is fresh in the wrapper. Kaplan writes that much of it tastes pretty good, but this is perhaps the spot where his aesthetic obsession cuts him off from more interesting investigations. Because the deepest questions about postmodern food have as much to do with community as they do with taste.

A local farmers market, for instance, is not only about providing fresher food than a supermarket can offer (and doing it with much less use of energy, an increasingly important factor in a world starting to fret that long-distance food plays a more-than-trivial role in causing climate change). It's also about rebuilding the local agricultural economy so that small farmers no longer have to sell their products as commodities at prices set by the most efficient, largest operations. And it's about rebuilding communities: one sociologist last year followed shoppers around farmers markets and supermarkets, and discovered that they had ten times as many conversations at the former. In a lonely society, that's an encouraging statistic.

Along these lines, Kaplan misses what may be the most interesting bread story in all of France. A few years ago, in the inland Normandy region known as La Perche, a refugee from one of the big industrial bakeries took over a small mill. He recruited local farmers to plant traditional varieties of wheat, and then recruited local bakers from around the region to follow a single recipe. Now, every day, more than a hundred stores bake the baguette du Perche, a delicious rope of bread that is rebuilding some of the frayed ecological and economic infrastructure of this corner of France. The central government has helped the process, mostly by granting the makers an A.O.C. certificate—the appellation d'origine controlee mark previously reserved for wines and cheeses. It means this bread can only be made in this place with these ingredients, and it has spurred a fierce local pride. For after all, we eat not only with our tongues but with our minds as well.

The same kind of experiments need badly to be undertaken in our own country. Rural areas in terminal decline might be nurtured back to health, and tasteless meals given new life. It needn't be haute cuisine—the Northwest's Burgerville chain has prospered using only local ingredients for its burgers, fries, and huckleberry shakes. But it does require conscious thought—about bread, and about life.

Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College. His most recent book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, was published in March by Times Books.

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