Discovering world cultures in a loaf of bread

Author's culinary odyssey is far more than a tasting tour

"Cultures cling to bread. Bread sets the rhythm of so many lives, and certainly the rituals." So says journalist Susan Seligson, who possesses an insatiable appetite for traveling. In her opinion, the spirit of a place can be distilled to one tangible, edible object: its bread.

"The realization hit me when I was in Fès," the author explains from her home in North Truro, Mass. During a trip to Morocco five years ago, Ms. Seligson became captivated by the wood-fired bakeries and bustling bread traffic in the medina, the 9th-century Islamic quarter. Every morning, hundreds of families brought their homemade dough to community bakeries, where a single man baked the unmarked loaves and sent the bread back to each household. Just how did these bakers remember whose loaf is whose? she wondered. "No two are precisely alike," explained one of the bakers. Each loaf, with a distinctive color and feel, was as individual as a person's face.

Seligson realized that bread was a powerful force driving Moroccan daily life, just as it is in a number of other countries. For many people, she explains, bread is the foundation of every meal; the day begins with the preparation of dough, and baking sets the day's rhythms. This influence also extends into religious life: Jews bake bread on Friday in preparation for the Sabbath, Muslims lay bread on their loved ones' graves, and Christians believe bread symbolizes the body of Christ.

Seligson's fascination germinated into her first book, "Going With the Grain: A Wandering Bread Lover Takes a Bite Out of Life (Simon & Schuster, $24).

The essays in this book chart her culinary odyssey to examine how bread reflects the world's dizzying array of cultures, beliefs, and ways of life. Acknowledging that her journey is "unabashedly whimsical" and "haphazard," the author follows her nose wherever the whiff of freshly baked bread takes her: a Hasidic matzo bakery in Crown Heights, Brooklyn; a cooking school in Shanagarry, Ireland; the US Army's research kitchen in Natick, Mass.

Bread becomes a starting point for investigating foreign cultures, meeting strangers, and having adventures. And while some of the essays have a digressive quality, Seligson is a deliciously entertaining guide. Her palpable enthusiasm translates into stories spiced with rich detail and witty commentary, and she includes a bread recipe at the end of each chapter.

Seligson readily admits that she's "not a foodie." While she has occasionally written about food, she's not a professional food writer. When she started the project, she knew very little about the basics of bread, and so she immersed herself in books, digesting its history and learning a new vocabulary.

As a result, she brings a fresh perspective to her subject, braiding cultural commentary with her own brand of bread-based anthropology. In particular, she was continually surprised by the different methods used by bakers. In Saratoga Springs, N.Y., artisan bread baker Michael London uses only the freshest ingredients - biodynamically grown wheat; pure spring water; and naturally leavened, slow-rising starter - and he carefully bakes each loaf of pain au levain in a specially built, 60-ton bread oven. Other people, like 82-year-old Alabaman Eunice Merrill, take a more down-home approach, using Crisco, self-rising flour, and milk to turn out flaky country biscuits.

Yet these different approaches also share what's most appealing about bread: its simplicity. "All you need is flour, water, and leaven," Seligson observes. No wonder bread has become the staple of so many cultures, in its infinite varieties: from Irish soda bread to Indian roti, from French baguettes to Bedouin flat bread.

The one exception is in the US, where homemade bread has become an anomaly - a fact that saddens the author. "It seems that Americans became convinced after World War II that baking bread was mysterious, labor-intensive, an activity just for enthusiasts or hobbyists," she says.

This process began in 1921, when the Taggart Baking Co. of Indianapolis created Wonder Bread; for the first time in history, households began to buy bread at the supermarket. The author investigated the present-day state of packaged bread by touring a Wonder Bread bakery in Biddeford, Maine, where she marveled at the factory's state-of-the-art machinery. "It was just as exotic as a Bedouin tent," she says. And while she might be hard-pressed to choose any supermarket brand over the homemade variety today, she does remember how much she loved Wonder's pliable and uniform consistency as a child. "It's bread that easily lends itself to gleeful mutilation, bread the misnamed 'crust' of which is easily peeled and discarded by finicky toddlers," she writes."

Seligson's journey has taught her an important lesson: It's not that hard to throw together flour, water, and leaven. Bread baking can be "instinctive." Why get stressed out when baking's really about eating great-tasting food?

After all, biting into a slice of freshly baked bread remains one of life's most basic pleasures. As Seligson comments in her book, perhaps it all comes back to the Arabic way of thinking about bread. In that language, the word aysh, which means "bread," also means "life."

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