Tuesday, June 7, 2016

What Does American Bread Say About Our Culture?

In Bosnia, bread is something sacred. You don't throw it away; you don't put it on the floor or store it in low places; you don't buy it pre-sliced in a plastic bag that has traveled on a truck from a factory somewhere far away. You buy it fresh and warm, on every street corner, from a smiling face that has known you or your parents or your parents' parents since the beginning of time. It costs less than a dollar, so you don't feel guilty when you break through the crust and go straight to the spongy, steamy center of the loaf with your hand.

In Bosnia, bread screams unity, comfort, family, togetherness, love, and tradition. It's best made without exact measurements, fancy bread machines, or haste. It's what your mom makes on a Sunday afternoon when the kitchen is covered in flour and you know better than to bother her for those few hours. It's around that table where she kneads the dough that aunts and uncles and second and third and fourth cousins will congregate to pull apart steamy, spongy, fluffy, love-filled, carby goodness to be dipped in jams, sour creams, and olive oil/salt mixtures.

No matter where I go in the U.S. -- New York City, Washington, D.C., small-town bakeries, or the most elaborate artisan bread stands I can find -- I don't find that warm, steamy stuff of my childhood. And that leaves a little hole in my heart.

In America, we don't seem to find time for the catharsis of kneading squishy dough for just the right amount of time and feeling its coolness seep through our fingers, because we work too much and sleep too little already. We don't invite family over to gather around dough-stretching and tearing and sharing, because we have groceries to buy and emails to write. We don't spend the day peeking under cloths to check on rising dough, because we have meetings. We don't have me time, let alone bread time. Every grocery store within sight of our homes sells perfect little loaves for a few dollars that save us hours of mixing, kneading, waiting, watching, tearing, and sharing. You can pick up that reliable, efficient thing in a few minutes without thinking twice.

Perhaps it's better not to have to think twice about your bread. But to me, there's something missing there. I just don't believe that bread was meant to be flax-filled, low-calorie, protein-packed, or, god help us, gluten-free. It was never supposed to be scarfed down at a desk alone while reading through emails between meetings, and it was never supposed to last for weeks in a plastic bag.

In Bosnia, bread has a different kind of story, a different kind of truth. Maybe we're not a perfect country with an efficient government or a silicon valley, but we sure as hell know how to do bread, while America, strangely enough, does not. Even when you swing by your neighborhood bakery in Prijedor or Sarajevo instead of making your own, you give your support to the hard-working bakers whose stories, struggles, and triumphs you know well, you appreciate the art of a good loaf, and you slow down to talk to the people around you, to notice them. To me, America's bread story is a sign of efficiency and practicality that have gone a little too far, and not enough passion, self-care, or community. It's a sign of our forgetting those little details that inexplicably shape the human happiness.

Bread can be a beautiful thing that brings people together. Good bread means means taking the time to care about this thing that we put into our bodies, to think about how incredible and miraculous it is when it rises or how lovely the smell of a fresh loaf makes the home feel. Good bread is to care about and support local bakers and create communities around them. Good bread is taking the time out of our weeks to knead, wait, watch, tear, and share with our loved ones, and then, in turn, becoming happier, saner, and maybe even full.

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