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The Work of Human Hands

October 9, 2002

War is coming, we're still in recession, the public is still angry about 9-11 (hey, is all this connected?), so we must do something to rekindle a sense of joy in our own private lives. But what? What people on the home front have always done: throw themselves into the domestic arts, preferably something that is beyond the time and connects us with ancient truth. For my part, it is all about bread.

I know that on LewRockwell.com, bread is out, meat is in. In the Age of Adkins, bread is the great taboo, the thing that puts inches on your frame. Anti-breadism runs rampant.

And yet, we must keep some perspective here. Some things in life are not dispensable, no matter what the dietary trends. Bread is among them. Man cannot live on it alone, but it isn't called the staff of life for nothing. It is the substance Christ chose to become, through the sacrament of communion, His own Body. Surely that means something.

We should not contemplate life without bread any more than we should imagine living without wine, the choice of which to become Precious Blood makes Prohibition and teetotalism radically objectionable.

Once you accept the inevitability of bread, that it must be fresh from your own kitchen is proven by a taste test of the greatest store bread from even a moderately good home baker. The results speak for themselves.

Now, quick breads have much to recommend them. I favor the old (and out of print) Better Homes mix (10 cups flour, 2 cups lard [yes, LARD], one-third cup baking powder, one-quarter cup sugar, some salt) , which turns into biscuits, pancakes, or muffins in no time. This repertoire is a regional favorite, and the kids love it. It is quick, easy, and versatile.

I don't know if other quick-bread people are the same way, but I've found the prospect of cooking with yeast intimidating. In college, I thought I had it all figured out. On Sundays, I would make six loaves of bread, eat one, and give the rest away. But it only took one bad experience in a mucky coastal town (the bread wouldn't rise!) and I gave it up.

But social and political calamity calls for taking new risks. So, yeast bread it is. And yeast is all about giving life and avoiding death that comes from the wrong temperature. We are fortunate nowadays to have access to electronic temperature checkers. For those of us without infallible wrist-based temperature gauges, these are a godsend for getting the yeast to a 100 degrees and the milk-sugar-butter mixture to 110 degrees before the addition of eggs cools it down a bit more. One mistake can kill the yeast, so the gadgetry is a help.

What kind of bread? This is the real glory: the ritual of the dough itself. Once you understand it, and can make this part, anything is possible. Baguettes? Sure. Cinnamon rolls? Homemade are the best. Or make just plain white bread, eat a slice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and French toast tomorrow morning. Somehow, just the smell of it provides comfort and security, a sense that all is right in the home even if not in the world.

And as much as we love technology, as much as we favor time-saving devices, ideally bread should be the work of human hands. The mixing and kneading is the very essence of what bread making is all about. Turn the job over to a machine, and you drain the entire exercise of life and joy. Why not just buy bread at the store?

When you give some of your bread away (as you should), you don't really want to say that you used a bread machine, do you? You want to say that you mixed and kneaded it yourself. And why does this please people? Because it suggests integrity and truth, that you care enough to mix your labor with basic ingredients to generate a new creation, and do this for another as a pious act of generosity.

We have all seen those flour commercials that claim that this or that product gives you confidence in what you cook. Perhaps. But it's not really the product that matters. It is the doing itself. When you make bread, you are given a sense of extraordinary accomplishment, as if you have conjured up something spectacular out of nothing. This sense spills over to life itself, granting you an overall confidence, the belief that whatever else is going on around you, you have within you the capacity to create glorious things, things that rise and grow and become something completely new and life sustaining.

I'm sorry, but quick-bread just doesn't have these mystical properties. Neither, for that matter, do meats and vegetables. Bread alone among all foods seems to touch the very soul of man and contains within it the power to remake our spirits and bring us life.

Make one loaf, one pan of cinnamon rolls, one baguette, and you have a vision of yourself doing it every week, or every day. It seems possible.

Anything seems possible. Making bread all the time could become a part of the liturgy of life, and then – and then – you are complete. Though the politicians call for war, the stock market sinks, the terrorists plot, as a baker of bread you are the bringer of life and health and happiness to yourself and the world of your own choosing.


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