The Mind of the Bread Baker and the Seeds of Empire

The harnessing of yeast to leaven dough, like the harnessing of seed to grow crops, altered the relationship between human beings and their planet

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From the time my little son was eight months old, he and I have done the grocery shopping together. When Nathaniel was a toddler, discovering at every turn what the world was about, I used to joke that I took him to the supermarket because I wanted him to know where food really comes from. It's not just something that's there when you open the refrigerator, I'd say, you've got to go to the source, someplace like Safeway, where it sits on the shelves. He shouldn't take our getting our daily bread for granted, I'd declare solemnly.

Back then we lived inside the Washington beltway, but before our boy was 4 we left. I had found that my spirit was withering from living in a landscape where earth was just an occasional break from the pavement, just something allowed to exist in the interstices of the human grid. After a decade in a realm where the human element tyrannizes over everything, I yearned to have a place where the land around me was shaped less by my own kind than by the hand of living nature.

We moved out to the mountains of Virginia, and Nathaniel worked with me as we carved some terraces out of the hillside to grow our own herbs and vegetables. We carried chicken manure and horse manure down the slope to enrich the soil, we planted our seeds, we carefully monitored the moisture levels in the earth to make sure our plants had what they needed to thrive, and we kept some seeds from one year's harvest to plant the next. The idea of his knowing where our food came from was no longer just a joke.

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And my spirit revived, rising back upright like some limp plant that just needed watering. I felt connected with the generations before me who lived from the yield of the earth, connected with my roots in this amazing experiment of life on this special planet.

Then I took up the baking of bread. Why not? As a writer, I work at home and can easily take a few minutes to tend its various phases. And is there anything that tastes better than bread fresh from the oven?

During the years I've been baking bread, it has gradually dawned on me what a marvelous invention this stuff is. We think of it as the staff of life, something quite basic, but really, our ancestors lived on this earth for countless thousands of years before anyone even thought of bread. You've got to gather the grain, grind it, get it moist, and, then, there's the miracle of the leavening process. What kind of genius was it, I started to wonder, who first understood this process well enough to produce reliably the wonderful food of risen bread?

No doubt, the yeasts first entered the dough by accident, landing invisibly from the breeze, feeding on the moistened grain the way that molds will make an open tomato furry if you leave it sitting on a summer countertop. But what kind of mind did it take to comprehend the living process occurring between yeast and wheat, and to be able to replicate it daily to give his or her family the staff of life?

Not long ago, as I mixed my dough, I understood: The minds of those who conceived this process of turning grain into bread had themselves been cultivated by generations spent turning earth into crops. What I saw was this: The baker of bread is farming, and what he is growing is yeast.

Think of it. The farmer tills his or her soil; the baker grinds the wheat into flour, preparing a special kind of earth for a particular kind of crop. The farmer sows seed into his prepared soil; the baker adds yeast into the dough. Like the step from the primitive society's gathering of seeds for eating into agricultural society's growing of crops, the step into the baking of leavened bread also required people to grab hold of the forces of growth and reproduction. The seed that used to just fall onto the ground is now planted; the fungus that used to biodegrade the grain seed in the earth is now brought to the feast of the seed ground up for the dough.

Like the irrigator of crops, the grower of yeast must make sure that there is enough moisture in the soil that's been prepared. It's not a coincidence that leavened bread was invented about 5,000 years ago by farming people living by the Nile River, a desert area where irrigation and the control of water were vital to survival. The farmer needs warmth and sunlight for his crops to thrive; the baker puts his or her leavened dough in the warm sunlight, or by the warm stones of an oven, to rise. The farmer must be patient with the organic process of growth, waiting for the crops to mature before attempting to harvest. The baker must also bide his time, waiting at each stage for the dough to rise.

If, in his vision of the world, the baker of bread is a farmer, that also means that the baker is an engineer, engineering the growth of living stuff. The baker is one not only with the sower who drops seeds into furrows but also with the herder, who brought wild animals into a pen. We take all this for granted, but this breakthrough of mind brought about a revolution in life on earth.

I think about this revolution as I come in from the terrace with Nathaniel to remove my fresh-baked loaf from the oven. Nathaniel says he's starving, and well he might be after working the soil with me and dancing across the pumpkin vines on the slope. It is midsummer, and the vines have burst free of the terrace we built for them, spreading across the hillside so rapidly that we joke about their taking over the world. While I carve for him a steaming slice from the new, hard-crusted loaf, it comes to me that it was this breakthrough, this mind of the farmer and bread baker - with its new conception of the relationship between the human and the living world - that laid the foundation for human empire.

In the genius of the first bakers of bread, I realize, we find newly sprouted that vision of dominion that, cultivated and extended over five millennia, has brought us - for better and for worse - to where we are today, to that globe-encompassing system of manipulation and production that threatens to choke off the living systems that sustain us.

Nathaniel savors his food, and says, "Thanks, Dad, for the great bread!" "Hey kid," I reply, "I'm glad you love the bread. But don't thank me. I just work here." The bread baker, I figure, ought to bear in mind where our food really comes from.

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