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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 ...

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