Eating for enjoyment

Jess Vogt

In the last two columns I have discussed various food philosophies, including the meaning of food in society and our modern pattern of “eat and run.” In this article, I will focus on one particular type of food that is common to all humans – bread.
All cultures have some form of it. From pita to tortillas to naan, biscuits to French bread, whole wheat to Wonder Bread, every society in the world takes grain, grinds it to flour, mixes it with at least water and possibly salt, yeast or other things to make what is, for many, a staple food.
The variety of breads and foods to eat with them are some of the reasons it is so appealing to humans. As omnivores, we want a diverse diet with lots of choices, and bread – in sandwiches, dipped in soup or sauce, covered in jam or butter, filled with practically anything – certainly allows for diversity.
The air-filled Wonder Bread varieties consumed by many Americans do not even begin to capture the possibilities available. Nor do they taste like what bread was meant to taste like. Even the denser, whole-wheat varieties available on grocery store shelves still are commonly loaded with preservatives to keep them fresh during transport and increase shelf life, and sometimes taste as such.
Furthermore, the bagged, generic sliced bread bought regularly at America’s supermarkets has relegated bread from the prominent position warm, home-baked loaves had on many dinner tables of the past to the bologna-and-American cheese Wonder Bread concoctions that fill brown bag lunches today. Grocery store bakeries and places like Panera and Atlanta Bread Company have attempted to change this. Still, bread in America is a far cry from French bakers carrying around trays or baskets of warm, fresh bread.
For all these reasons and more, one of the first tasks I have begun on my quest to eat for enjoyment is to take up bread baking. Baking my own bread from scratch has proved much more delicious and preservative-free than store-bought varieties, not to mention just plain fun. When I finally, after hours of hand mixing, kneading, rising, and baking, took my first perfectly rounded loaf of whole wheat bread – beginner’s luck – out of the oven, I was so ecstatic that I ran to grab my camera to photo document, and had to have everyone in my house taste the bread immediately.
But there is something in bread-making beyond the gratification you get with the final product. There is a process to making bread; you begin with piles of powder (flour, salt, and possibly sugar), cups of liquid of varying viscosities (butter, milk, or water) and one magic ingredient (yeast) and after getting your hands, your pants and the floor completely covered in flour, wind up with this product that looks nothing like the ingredients with which you began. It’s energizing to know that I can start from scratch and make something delicious with little more than the energy of my own hands and the oven.
But bread-making, despite all the kneading and mixing and baking, ultimately does not rely on human power. Yeast – single-celled organisms from the fungi kingdom, whose invisible spores are in the air nearly everywhere – is the true engine behind bread-making. Yeast, when added to the dough, feeds on the sugars in the flour, resulting in the creation of carbon dioxide, which causes the dough to expand in volume, or rise. The time that elapses during rising allows the ingredients to ferment ever so slightly, cultivating the flavors and textures of what we know as bread.
As I anxiously check under the damp towel every 20 minutes or so as my bread is rising, it’s hard to believe all that is going on, and I can’t even see it. What’s more amazing is that humans, somewhere in the course of history, discovered that they could harness the power of yeast to make leavened – or raised – bread.
Bread making is relatively simple: You knead the ingredients, let the dough sit for anywhere from a few hours to a day or more, and pop it in the oven. The amount of labor required is actually relatively little. It’s unfortunate that more people do not take advantage of the relative ease of making homemade bread, which makes your kitchen smell wonderful, contains no preservatives, and tastes delectable. Mmmm, mmmm … I’m getting hungry just thinking about it!