Bread is deeply ingrained in culture. It has dominated civilization since the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution, and the domestication of wheat, as a source of nourishment and survival. From the Fertile Crescent, wheat cultivation eventually spread north to Europe, west to Africa, and east towards Asia, thereby becoming central to the formation of many early human societies. This widespread cultivation truly transformed human life. Our natural nomadic lifestyle became domesticated. Towns and sophisticated forms of societal organization, including governments, arose to adapt to this changing lifestyle. Additionally, societies everywhere learned how to transform the plant, specifically into the delectable loaves we know and love today. Bread was born during a period of radical innovation and discovery. It represents the creativity of the human species that has aided its survival.
Yet the value of bread appears to result in something less vivifying. The price of keeping civilization alive through bread production is that most people will spend their lives working. Today this work is reinterpreted through money, and literature appears to capture this correspondence. Centuries of literature demonstrate how bread arises as a critical signifier of wealth, or one’s lack thereof, depending on who can afford to acquire it and survive because of it. And the very range of perspectives in these texts communicate what bread signifies to different people. Thus, the narrative of bread is also a narrative of humanity. As the staff of life and a metaphor for wealth, it has shaped our species and our culture.
I. A World Made of Bread
Humble in origin and appearance, bread has historically and literarily signified life. The New Testament authorizes Jesus’s proclamation that he was “the bread of life” (New Oxford Annotated Bible 1892). He seems to have legitimized his divine mission among prospective followers by associating himself with its universally dependable sustenance. In fact, Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, means “house of bread” in Hebrew (West 1). So bread is evidently imbued with special meaning, but why? For one, it is abundant. Wheat, with its capacity to leaven when ground into flour, grows quickly, provides high yields and pollinates autonomously (Evans 1386). And because it retains freshness when stored, it provides abundant life by flattening the cycle of feast and famine. Compared to other resources, bread is deliberately regulated according to the annual prosperity of wheat harvests (Travaini 190). It also fulfills a human need by satisfying hunger. The German etymology of bread indicates that it linguistically derives from the word “piece” (OED Online). It thus appears that broken bread loaves feed numerous people. Its very fragmentation implies the experience of sharing and surviving within a community. Therefore, bread is more than just food. It is the solution to humanity’s hunger and evolutionary desire to endure. At the same time, however, bread is a problem. A centralizing element of consumption, it continuously demands attention from those cultivate and supply it. This consequently induces, and perhaps reinforces, inimical social structures as labor must be divided in order to produce it. Bread becomes power and power becomes destruction. Thus arises bread’s paradoxical identity as it both improves and corrupts human life.
II. We Become Domesticated
As humans have domesticated wheat in order to make bread, wheat actually appears to have domesticated them. Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens suggests that wheat manipulated the species that had previously “been living a fairly comfortable life hunting and gathering until about 10,000 years ago” (Harari 80). In fact, within a couple of millennia, humans spent most of the day cultivating wheat plants which “wasn’t easy” because they “had not evolved for such tasks” (80). So while controlling agriculture seems to have alleviated the burdens of survival, insofar as humans could better regulate their nutritional consumption, it curiously elicited more suffering due to the burden of control itself. Therefore, from its conception, bread has arisen as a counter-evolutionary element that was created by humans for humans. In this, perhaps bread is the catalyst for the downfall of humanity as it relentlessly inflicts bodily, societal and economic burdens.
However, since humans developed agriculture to have more control over their food supply, bread unsurprisingly results from this aspiration. Robinson Crusoe in Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe overcomes all threats to survival after a nearly fatal shipwreck, primarily because he discovers wheat and learns how to turn it into bread. Shortly after his ship wrecks during a sea voyage, he stuffs a surplus of stored dry bread in his pockets and eats it “sparingly” in order to preserve it for as long as possible (Defoe 77). After consuming the last remaining crumbs, while stranded on a remote island, he instinctively and strenuously takes up the lifestyle of hunter-gatherers by foraging for natural sources of food. Fortunately, he stumbles across “English barley,” after failing in his scavenging endeavors, and learns to cultivate it. As a result, he produces an adequate supply of bread, teaching himself how to cook and bake it (123). These discoveries are critical to Crusoe’s survival on the island. While the agricultural labor is technically more burdensome than foraging, the product of his efforts is familiar and satisfying. Thus, Crusoe embraces Harari’s supposition of agriculture when he indicates that he now “worked for [his] bread” and learned about “the strange multitude of little things necessary in the providing, producing, curing, dressing, making, and finishing” simply one loaf of bread (187). It is not easy, but the result is delicious.
Still, maintaining agriculture takes a village or, in Crusoe’s case, two people. He eventually discovers a native on the island, whom he names Friday, and “teach[es] him everything that was proper to make him useful, handy, and helpful” (269). Inviting Friday into his agricultural lifestyle helps them “make more bread” together and distribute the workload (274). Crusoe even declares this time “the pleasantest year” on the island (274). Despite the complex cultivation process that bread demands, having a companion makes the yield more abundant and satisfying. And they become friends not only through their labor, but also their consumption as they survive and enjoy fresh bread as a proud and productive team. Crusoe even admits, “I could not live there without baking my bread” (227). After mastering the processes of both wheat production and breadmaking, they cannot imagine life without them.
Crusoe eventually has the opportunity to return to England, after living on the island for twenty-eight years, but he teaches new arrivals about agriculture before leaving. In fact, when the English captives and Spanish mutineers depart from their ship, he shares “provisions of bread” with them (319). This in turn allows him to gain their trust. He sympathizes with their tumultuous travel experience while he also arises as their only source of food and survival. Bread actually becomes his source of power and they elect him as their island “governor” (351). However, he resolves to return to England, since he now has “the authority to do so,” although the mutineers “said they would much rather venture to stay… than be carried to England to be hanged” (353). In order to help them survive, he gives “them the whole history of the place” and shows them the way he “made [his] bread” (354). Sharing his knowledge helps establish a new civilization on the island. Despite the laborious burdens of agriculture, the remaining Spaniards can now retain a consistent supply of food that to survive through changes in season and weather. Throughout the text, Defoe seems to suggest that the life-sustaining value of bread has become culturally irreversible. This consequently prevents humans from ever returning to their original, and perhaps more natural, hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
III. Holiness and Unholiness
Bread cannot be discussed without considering the Bible. In fact, “manna” connotes a type of bread, with specific spiritual and cultural complexity, that is symbolized today in the eucharist. In “Heavenly Manna & The Holy Eucharist,” the Monk of Heilsbronn describes what differentiates manna from other forms of bread. It has six characteristic qualities. He indicates that the first characteristic is that “God caused it to drop down from Heaven in a marvellous manner, contrary to the laws of nature” (The Monk of Heilsbronn 546). The second characteristic lies in its taste, “for when it was eaten it had for each man the flavour which most appealed to him” (547). The following two characteristics refer to the place where manna is distributed, as it is “given nowhere but in the wilderness, where there was no other palatable food,” and its sudden disappearance when earthly food, like fruit, reappears (547-8). The fifth property is its melting point, for “when it was laid in the heat of the sun, it melted” which is emulated in contemporary offerings of the eucharist when it melts in devotees’ mouths (548). And lastly, the sixth property is the layer of “dew” that surrounded the manna when it fell from heaven, symbolizing “divine grace, for the true bread of heaven” (548). The Monk’s detailed description of what constitutes manna epitomizes the importance of bread varieties. Manna was specifically offered as a solution to exiles’ starvation and suffering. While it satisfied their hunger in a good way, it arose during a crisis. Perhaps “bread” is too general of a word to encapsulate the miracle of manna, which might explain its limited but significant presence in the text and history alike; for manna is mentioned only twice in the Hebrew Bible. Thus, the very language used to describe bread powerfully captures the different contexts, and resulting cultural meanings, that characterize it.
The Book of Exodus, the second book in the Old Testament, typifies God’s greatness for feeding the hungry exiled people of Israel with manna. God tells Moses that he is “going to rain bread from heaven” so all can receive their “fill” of it (New Oxford Annotated Bible 105). Moses later explains that the “house of Israel called it manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey” (106). Preceding Jesus’s vivifying and inspiring bread-of-life proclamation, God seeks to prove that he is the source of life. So he helps his children survive on their arduous journey from Egypt by sating their hunger. Despite his generosity, however, he cautions them from overindulging in order to feed the entire village. In fact, his specification that they must only receive their “fill of bread” suggests that people should not become stuffed, but rather, satisfied (105). Still, some do not listen and gather more bread than they need, which ultimately breeds “worms, “became foul,” and “melted” (106). While God represents the good of bread in this story, people represent the bad. Their selfishness and gluttony impede their ability to help feed each other, especially during a time of crisis, so when they hoard bread for themselves, it does not last. Bread therefore becomes a sign of negligence, thoughtlessness, and gluttony among people fleeing a nation that embodies the same attributes.
But God redeems them and poses bread as symbol of morality. In fact, he reveals the Ten Commandments after the exiles’ transgression to teach them a lesson – indeed, bread induced the articulation of these principles. Through Moses he cautions that they “shall not steal” and they “shall not covet… anything that belongs to [their] neighbor” (111). Here, God establishes a moral code of life by connecting the physical world to the spiritual. He suggests that in order to live with him forever in heaven, they must demonstrate virtuousness on earth. And performing the latter specifically involves breaking and sharing bread. So food which preserves life on earth also allows for life in heaven. Therefore, bread literarily becomes a symbol of God and his power to sustain lives. Its power arises from its sustenance while its religious significance develops from what many deem the source of its creation.
The Bible also demonstrates how bread varieties reveal the conditions of a society. It carefully distinguishes when and whether people produce and consume leavened or unleavened bread. In Deuteronomy, the Israelites learn that they “shall eat unleavened bread… the bread of affliction” during the seven days of Passover to commemorate the Exodus and haste at which their fathers fled Egypt and found security in God (276). P. Zerafa in “Passover and Unleavened Bread” indicates that Passover “is a nomad’s rite and a traveller’s feast,” for the nomad “does not employ kitchen utensils to cook his food, and his usual diet consists of unleavened bread and wild plants” (Zerafa 243). Unleavened bread is at the center of this Judeo-Christian ritual. It honors the plight of the Israelites and God’s greatness for saving them. By contrast, leavened bread represents stability. It implies that those who produce or consume it can safely devote time to it. Today, the bread of the eucharist may be either leavened or unleavened depending on how congregations prefer to honor the tradition.
The Gospels of the New Testament have most influentially inspired the tradition of consuming bread at church. In the Book of John, the “crucified body of Jesus is explicitly equated with that of the sacrificed Passover offering” and his death is “firmly rooted in the lasting power of the Exodus story” (Baden 81-2). Jesus tells a crowd that “‘the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world’” (New Oxford Annotated Bible 1892). He also proclaims, “‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry’” (1892). Many in the crowd leave because they reject Jesus and his claims, but the twelve who stay become his disciples. These disciples eventually enjoy a final meal together, known as the Last Supper, during which Jesus and his disciples feast in Jerusalem shortly before the crucifixion. The Book of Matthew states that as they ate, “Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body’” (1786). In order to communicate his righteous power, he claims that he is literally the bread of life. Comparing himself to this food helps them understand this because they recognize its sustenance. Moreover, it serves as a familiar, physical and ubiquitous representation of his divinity which otherwise might be difficult for them to comprehend. This important literary moment demonstrates how bread symbolism, inspired by what might have been a true event, transformed history and thereupon inspired life and literature afterwards.
The famous scene of the Last Supper also inaugurates the ritual of the Eucharist which is commemorated in various Christian denominations today. While the form of bread in the Eucharist varies among different denominations, its general significance to all remains consistent. Joel S. Baden The Book of Exodus argues that “for some it is actual bread, for others, such as Catholics, it is the communion wafer, meant to represent the unleavened bread of the Exodus” (Baden 87). Still, it ultimately “serves as a reminder that the power of the ritual has remained consistent even over two thousand years of history, theological changes, and fraught Jewish-Christian relations. Whether in the Seder or in the Eucharist, the Exodus story still stands as a central point in Judeo-Christian self-understanding” (87). Baden’s point is particularly striking in the connection he draws between bread and the self. He suggests that personal and spiritual development arises in part from one’s engagement with food in ritual. Consuming bread allows people to physically engage with God, whether they believe it is him or simply a representation of him, and it dissolves the separation between them. Furthermore, this act also unites all followers in a long lineage of devotion. From the Israelites fleeing Egypt to Jesus and his apostles to Christians and Jews at religious services today, bread persists as a symbol that connects people to each other and their Lord. In this, it becomes a grand unifier on earth as it is in heaven.
However, religious institutions appear to complicate the positive narrative of bread. In Christianity specifically, the inconsistent symbolism of bread in different denominations creates contention among followers. Bram Stoker’s eponymous Dracula considers bread, or Holy Communion, the primary disparity between Catholics and non-Catholics. In the novel, Van Helsing fervently embraces Catholicism and its defense of transubstantiation, the position that bread wafers convert into the literal body of Jesus on the altar. Yet while practicing Catholics can consume the wafers, the Church prevents anyone else from doing so. Dracula, for example, cannot consume the Sacred Wafer because the Catholic Church rejects his unholy vampirical identity. And his victims who become immortal after he bites them also cannot consume it. Peculiarly, Catholics employ bread as a weapon to defend their lives at the expense of nonbelievers. When Van Helsing places a wafer on the forehead of Mina, Dracula’s now vampirical victim, it “burned into the flesh as though it had been a piece of white-hot metal,” visualizing her own permanent shame of immortality for all to see (Stoker 426). Similarly, they weaponize bread against Dracula himself, believing that he does not “obey some of nature’s laws,” unlike his Catholic adversaries (342). To destroy him, Van Helsing and his crew crumble bread wafers and “lay them into the crevices between the door and its setting in the tomb” to prevent him and his “UnDead” companions from entering their lives ever again (299-300). The exclusiveness of bread is socially divisive. Its enforcement of otherness heightens criminality and violence. And while many dystopic, fantastical elements in the novel are indeed fictitious, its criticism of religion continues to resonate with contemporary audiences who are increasingly turning away from religion (Uecker 1667).
IV. Supply, Demand and Capitalist Corrosion
The place of bread in any civilization tends to represent the morality of its economic practices. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables epitomizes the degradation of society through bread because of how it represents extreme wealth and poverty. Jean Valjean, the novel’s protagonist, financially struggles during a period of economic depression in nineteenth-century France. He steals a loaf of bread to feed himself, his sister and her seven children who were all “enveloped by a poverty that was slowly squeezing them dry” (Hugo 72). Still, Valjean is “found guilty” before the French court for his theft and is “condemned to five years in the galleys” as punishment, which endures fourteen years longer after various escape attempts (72). His criminality is a direct result of his hunger. And his hunger arises as an immediate consequence of his peasantry, a social position into which he was born, that he can neither evade nor transcend easily. In this situation, bread becomes a symbol of social inequality, and furthermore, social iniquity. After all, Valjean does not appear “naturally bad” (77) and he condemns society “for the fate he suffered” insofar as there seemed to be “no balance between the damage he had done and the damage done to him” (76). Ultimately, he steals bread to momentarily satisfy the hunger of his family which is not necessarily an intrinsically evil act. What puzzles him upon deep contemplation in jail is the source of his culpability. Trapped within the irreversible divisions of French society, he must beg or steal to eat. And although this is his only way to obtain food, society punishes him for it. Valjean’s situation illuminates the conflict between one’s right to live and the means one has to do so which are determined by economic status. His poverty is inescapable as is his starvation.
David Bellows deconstructs the significance of bread as a sharp marker of economic status in Les Misérables. In The Novel of the Century, he indicates that the plot “is constructed on the basis of a wide grasp of economic realities of nineteenth-century France” (Bellos 69). Hugo typifies these realities through bread insofar is it subdivides his characters into social classes which are represented through the very types of bread they consume. Valjean steals a standard loaf of the poor at the time that ordinarily weighed “four and a half pounds, with a thick black crust and heavy grey meal inside” (7). Unappetizing but essential, the rural poor must consume black bread and break it “with the aid of an ax and soak it in water for twenty-four hours before they are able to eat it” (Hugo 12). A starving young girl in a later scene gleefully spots “a crust of dry bread gathering mold in the dust,” eats it and shouts, “Good! Nice and hard! I can cut my teeth on it!” (611). While the poor consume coarse black bread made from sawdust, tree bark and other unappetizing additives, the rich consume soft white bread that likely registers more familiarly among modern audiences. Hugo clearly attacks “monarchs for creating the conditions that turn the poor into such lamentable folk” (Bellos 8). The ever more visible gap between needs and resources intensifies which demonstrates how crime and poverty originate from social inequality, an economic cycle that further perpetuates the problem. Thus, fundamental social inequality embodies itself in bread. While it symbolizes life and survival, its absence represents the opposite.
Similarly, the beloved Brothers Grimm fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel” conveys how families survive and suffer from bread. The father of Hansel and Gretel is a “poor wood-cutter” who “had little to bite and to break” especially during a national famine which prevents him from “procur[ing] even daily bread” for himself and his family (Grimm 109). His conniving wife, their evil stepmother, proposes that they “take the children out into the forest where it is the thickest… and give them one more piece of bread” in order to get “rid of them” (109). She chooses to sustain her life over the children’s lives, hoping that they will consume their respective pieces of bread and eventually die of hunger and isolation. But after overhearing her plan, Hansel and Gretel develop their own plan with bread at the forefront. They divide and disperse “crumbs of bread” while walking through the forest in order to find their way home (113). The physical flexibility and fragmentation of one piece of bread ultimately save them from dying “of hunger and weariness,” for their crumb path leads them to a little house “built of bread and covered in cakes” (114). While bread initially serves as a parental ploy to manipulate the children, it becomes their primary means to survive because of durability for the guiding crumbs remain fairly fresh and unaffected after days of exposure to the natural world. Moreover, bread guides the children back to domesticity, or safety, not only as a food but also a sign. Without bread, they are hungry and lost in the world. With it, their hunger is satisfied and their trail of civilization helps them return to familiarity.
However, bread continues to complicate relationships between the children and their adult adversaries. It clearly represents power to the stepmother, for when she distributes pieces to her family she thereby surrenders some of her life sustenance for the children with whom she does not sympathize or love. Sharing bread minimizes her wealth and she binaristically perceives two consequences of its distribution as a simple binary. Either she and her husband eat more and outlive the children, or they equally distribute pieces among the family and will “‘all four die of hunger’” (109). Therefore, in order to live the family must financially afford the food it consumes. Still, the father admits his feeling “sorry for the poor children” and rejoices when they return “for it had cut him to the heart to leave them behind alone” (109-110). His emotional connection to them supersedes their financial threat to his life. Contrary to its significance to his wife, bread for the father signifies familial love and support. It confirms the bond he shares with them despite the financial burden it causes. So, the Brothers Grimm appears to reveal bread’s complexity in social relationships. It may sustain or destroy depending on how it is consumed. To some food may represent life or death while to others, including the children’s father, it represents love.
Still, this liminality invites interpretation because of how people value bread differently. At the gingerbread house that the children discover in the forest resides “a wicked witch, who lay in wait for [them], and had only built the little house of bread in order to entice them there” (115). After luring a child into her home, “she killed it, cooked and ate it” (116). In order to satisfy her cannibalistic, and perhaps pedophiliac, desires as she creates a gluttonous carbohydrate paradise that is irresistible to hungry children with voracious appetites. Like the stepmother, the witch chooses to sacrifice the lives of the weak, or children, in order to sustain her own. She manipulates their need to eat so she can consume a twisted delicacy. Through another detestable adult figure, the Brothers Grimm introduces bread as a symbol of power that supports one demographic and exploits another.
This exploitation may symbolize more general political and economic upheaval within the context of the tale. Scott Harshbarger in “Grimm and Grimmer: ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and Fairy Tale Nationalism” argues that famine often serves as punishment for communal sin in fairy tales. In this one specifically, the famine represents “a periodic scourge well known to the European peasantry” and the stepmother’s “plan to dispose of the children makes her part of the problem” as she persuades her husband “to collaborate in a plan that will devastate the home” (496). In fact, Harshbarger suggests that this storyline “aligns her with a number of stereotypes which would be active in the minds of a German audience in the run up to WWII, during which Jews were regularly charged with seducing innocent Germans to engage in any number of nefarious plots designed to weaken the homeland” (496). Furthermore, while the children challenge the stepmother and her malicious plan, they still “endure a plight ideal for evoking nationalist nostalgia, the loss of home and parental care metaphorically triggering feelings of loss and abandonment endemic to post-WWI Germany” (497). Reexamining this popular fairy tale reveals how interconnected food in literature is to critical moments in history. While economic disparities may signify problems in society, bread more tangibly represents them.
Thus, food has become a core contradiction of capitalism. Karl Marx developed a compelling critique of the food system during the nineteenth century in response to the Second Agricultural Revolution that occurred during the two preceding centuries. To challenge the official reports of public health in England, including those published by Chief Medical Health Officer John Simon, Marx considers the relation of class and gender to calorie intake in his book Capital. He notes that agricultural families experienced food insufficiency, women and children being the “‘worst-nourished’” compared to men (Foster 14). Continuing, he indicates that the “‘intimate connection between the pangs of hunger suffered by most industrious layers of the working class and the extravagant consumption, coarse or refined, of the rich, from which capitalist accumulation is the basis, is only uncovered when the economic laws are known’” (15). He ultimately attempts to expose the deficiencies of the capitalist system because it starves the working class. Examining food statistics allows him to explore the implications of this problem. He highlights how “the capital system disrupted corporeal metabolic processes due to insufficient or inadequate food, leading to various illnesses, ailments, and starvation diseases” (15). Moreover, in spite of the limited availability of bread, the working class had even more limited access to fresh meats and produce. So, Marx astutely acknowledges how bread serves as a leading indicator of food availability. If people cannot obtain bread, they will struggle to obtain any other food.
And even if man tried to live on bread alone in the nineteenth century, his experience would be dangerous. John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark in “The Robbery of Nature: Capitalism and the Metabolic Rift” detail the repugnance of bread loaves among poor classes. They indicate how the adulteration of food exacerbated the already gruesome living conditions of the period. The working poor “consumed dark bread rather than the white loaves prepared for the wealthy” and the “former was made with alum, sand, and bone earth, often with feces and cockroaches baked into it” (15). Regular consumption of this resulted in “chronic gastritis and food poisoning, which was sometimes fatal” (15). While Foster and Clark expose the most appalling features of breadmaking in the nineteenth century, the exact prevalence of which is unclear, their claims nonetheless confirm Marx’s conclusion that capitalism does not feed humanity. Moreover, while the economic system is obviously flawed in this context, the people who enable its continuation are Marx’s true enemies. He identifies wealth disparity as the source of hunger and demands economic reform to resolve it. Here, bread is an indicator a greater problem. Its ability to sustain life does not imply that the life it sustains is easy or even worth living.
V. Experience and Escape
Although bread clearly symbolizes many religious and socioeconomic problems, the experience of baking it seems help people momentarily overlook them. Raymond Carver’s short story, “A Small, Good Thing,” details the circumstances that follow the death of an eight-year-old and how his family responds to it. Just before his eighth birthday, his mother Ann Weiss visits a bakery to place an order for chocolate cake. The baker “let her take her time” ordering since he had “just come to work and he’d be there all night, baking… in no real hurry” (Carver 213). Still, he “made her feel uncomfortable, and she didn’t like that” (213). She wondered if he did “anything else with his life besides be a baker,” a feeling prompted by her desire to feel connected to him because he likely also had “children who’d gone through this special time of cakes and birthday parties” (213-214). Ann judges the baker because he does not demonstrate the compassion she hopes to see after telling him about her child’s birthday. But when she ponders if he has done anything else with his life, she also appears to criticize his job. Before even tasting his baked goods, she disregards his competence because of his unemotional demeanor. This distaste continues after her son is hit by a car and she forgets to pick up the cake from him. He persistently calls to remind her which infuriates her, and she tells her husband that he is a “son-of-a-bitching baker” and a “bastard” who only calls to “harass” them about the cake (235). While she exhibits more coldness than the baker before the car crash, the tragedy of her son’s death exacerbates it. Unsurprisingly, she begins to process the incident through anger and criticizes everyone who does not seem to understand her.
After days of calls from the bakery, Ann and her husband visit it together and observe the baker’s surprising generosity. At first, he responds angrily to her contempt and says, “‘Lady, I work sixteen hours a day in this place to earn a living… night and day in here, trying to make ends meet” (237). To this, she eventually reveals to him that her son has died and frustratingly acknowledges that he “couldn’t be expected to know that” (237). He softens and thoughtfully responds, apologizing several times for the situation and for his contribution to her sadness. He claims that he is “just a baker” who has not lost any children himself but can “only imagine” what she is feeling (239). Afterwards, he offers them hot rolls and says, “Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this” (239). As the couple eats with the baker, they learn that he laments being lonely “childless all these years,” at times dreading the days when his ovens are “endlessly full and endlessly empty” (239). To lift all of their spirits, however, he admits that he is “glad he wasn’t a florist” because it is “better to be feeding people” (240). He then breaks open a dark bread loaf which “had the taste of molasses and coarse grains… like daylight” and they talked “on into the early morning… and they did not think of leaving” (240). Although Ann and the baker do not share identical life experiences, they unite despite their differences. Eating bread satisfies the appetite she forgets while mourning and also establishes a shared experience between her and her former adversary. In this moment, the man behind the bakery has a “necessary trade” in supplying not only bread but also emotional support (240). Again, bread is presented during a deeply emotional moment. Yet this time, its significance is less controversial. In a more personal way, it intimately unites two people amidst tragedy and resolves their conflict.
Similarly, William Morris’s News from Nowhere subtly celebrates bread and the artistry that produces it. The novel explores life and society in a fictional Socialist Utopia during the twentieth century that functions because the people find pleasure in nature and, therefore, their work. The protagonist William Guest falls asleep in nineteenth-century England and awakens in the same spot one hundred years later. He quickly befriends a communist educator, Dick Hammond, who teaches him about this peculiar society. Together, they enjoy breakfast and William marvels at the bread of the new age that tastes of paradise. He notes that it “was particularly good, and was of several different kinds, from the big, rather close, dark-coloured, sweet-tasting farmhouse loaf, which was most to [his] liking, to the thin pipe-stems of wheaten crust” such that he had eaten in Turin (Morris 13). And as he begins to eat, his “eye caught a carved and gilded inscription” beside him that reads, “Guests and neighbours, on the site of this Guest-hall once stood the lecture-room of the Hammersmith Socialists. Drink a glass to the memory! May 1962” (14). William is struck by the ease of this life and the pleasantness of his new contemporaries. He feels “moved” by the engraved message that was written by a group that made this life possible (14). Because bread makers and other artists are liberated from the restraints of money, they can allocate their time to the pleasure of creativity. This in turn produces delicious varieties of bread. And this bread, to William, appears to symbolize a reward that the bakers earn for honoring their cooking curiosity. In his previous world, this exploration was not possible. But in a world where people have time and freedom, it is.
William better understands this transition when he meets Henry Morsom, an intelligent man who studies the past which in turn allows him to celebrate the present. Henry “has an extraordinary detailed knowledge of the history of the country-side” (178). He tells William about the recent “exodus of the people from the town to the country” that occurred so they could gradually rediscover traditional “arts of life” (178). During this cultural renaissance, Henry had once traveled to far places where people “had even forgotten how to bake bread” because of industrialization (178). He perceives breadmaking as an essential human activity and remembers several “townspeople who came into the country to pick up the agricultural arts by carefully watching the way in which the machines worked, gathering an idea of handicraft from machinery; because at that time almost everything in and about the fields was done by elaborate machines” (178-179). In the new society, human labor instills a value in the things produced that could not be imitated by machine. They appear to have returned to a less robotic and more natural state of living. And the return of urbanites to the countryside represents a widespread transformation in the perception of pleasure. Through the socialist economy, people can devote their time to their interests. Additionally, the demand of large-scale production diminishes when people wish to curate or locally purchase their own goods. Ultimately, Morris’s novel denaturalizes capitalist competition and class struggle, replacing it with socialist cooperation as a more natural stage of humanity.
VI. The Carbohydrate Apocalypse
Unsurprising then, bread is declining in importance today, now because of continued industrialization and capitalism. M.F.K. Fisher in The Art of Eating condemns authoritative institutions including national governments and food organizations for enabling the diminishment of the product’s nutrition. She suggests that “an inborn and growing hunger for decent bread” today is superseded by consumers who “continue everywhere to buy the packaged monstrosities that lie, all sliced and tasteless, on the bread-counters of the nation” and spend even more money “on pills containing the vitamins that have been removed at great cost from the wheat” (Fisher 246). Big Food and Big Pharma seem perpetuate this nutritional imbalance in order to save and earn more money. Therefore, Fisher attempts to expose the capitalistic deficiencies of bread since its affordability in today’s cost-conscious societies equates itself with blandness and unhealthiness. Furthermore, while making “good bread… does not cost much [money],” it certainly costs time which capitalism diminishes because it is leisurely and unnecessary compared to labor that stimulates the economy (247). She believes that domestic breadmaking smells and tastes better than anything purchased in a commercial grocery store, and it can make her readers feel “newborn into a better world than this one often seems” (251). However, Fisher’s proclamation of bread’s benevolence conflicts with capitalistic demands of consumers today who incessantly work and therefore lose time that could be allocated to the creation of truly nutritious loaves. At the same time, current consumers are beginning to cease their bread purchases altogether to save time and money. So, does this dietary departure from bread benefit society at large? Surely not. Although cutting bad bread from one’s diet may improve one’s health, bread serves as a representation for economic and societal corruption, and society will exist and produce corruption as long as the humans who live in it.
Amidst the financial controversy of bread arises its similarly complicated nutritional value. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan recalls how bread, “one of the most ancient and venerable staples of human life… abruptly disappeared from the American dinner table” (Pollan 1). He suggests this “carbophobia” seized the country after “a perfect media storm of diet books, scientific studies, and one timely magazine article” inspired by “the formerly discredited Dr. Robert C. Atkins” (1-2). Dr. Atkins popularized the high-protein, low-carb diets in the early 2000s that allegedly helped people lose weight “as long as they laid off the bread and pasta” (2). Appalled by this memory as a carb-lover, Pollan laments how bread, one of the most wholesome foods known to man, “acquired a moral stain that promptly bankrupted dozens of bakeries… ruin[ing] an untold number of perfectly good meals” (2). The humor, but truthfulness, of Pollan’s story communicates his surprise in witnessing the diets that swept America like never before. He conjectures that the nation’s rejection of bread “never would have happened in a culture in possession of deeply rooted traditions surrounding food and eating” (2). Pollan argues that bread is not usually unhealthy. Moreover, he explicitly recognizes a connection between food and culture. Unlike Europeans, for example, whose cultures developed for millennia around the food that sustained them, American culture is newer and less definitive. This fluidity seems to enable food pandemonium as people increasingly trust media and its explanations of food health since they have no other traditional and credible sources of nutritional information.
The considerations of Fisher and Pollan regarding bread’s unhealthiness are not incorrect. In “‘Big Food’ Is Making America Sick,” Lawrence O. Gostin indicts prominent institutions in the food industry for causing the American obesity epidemic. He describes how the industry produces and aggressively markets foods laden with sugar, salt, saturated fat, and calories,” “obfuscates nutritional information to confuse consumers,” and “purchases influence at every level of government” to maintain power against the American population (Lawrence 480). While bread, when baked through a natural process, is full of nutrients, the industrial machinery that produces it at a large scale strips it of these nutrients. So the companies that produce and sell it threaten the wellbeing of consumers who are ignorantly just attempting to save money. Gostin advances this claim by accusing other industries of shaping “consumer preferences through slick marketing” and undermining “strong government action” which literally makes people sick (483). Although bread seems to have never sufficiently satisfied all of humans’ nutritional needs, the food industry and the capitalistic system sustaining it further devalued the baked good. As a result, humans have developed gluten intolerance and become obese or misguidedly health conscious.
The bread brand Wonder Bread is perhaps most famous, or infamous, for lying about the nutrients of its products in advertising. Researchers Richard S. Higgins and Fred S. McChesney indicate that the “makers of Wonder Bread have been advertising that their product ‘helps build strong bodies twelve ways’ for as long as people can remember” (“Corrective Advertising and the FTC” 374). However, the Federal Trade Commission recently charged that the bread “is no more nutritious than any other bread made with enriched flower and that it contains only eight elements that could possibly help build bodies” (374). In 2002, the Food Institute published an article announcing that the marketers of Wonder Bread eventually agreed to settle charges that “ads claiming that Wonder Bread containing added calcium could improve children’s brain function and memory were unsubstantiated and violated federal law” (“Wonder Bread Marketers Settles Unsubstantiated Health Claim Charges 1”). There is no evidence that supports this. Going a step further, the FTC demanded that the company issue corrective advertising “to inform consumers that previous advertising… was deceptive” (“Corrective Advertising and the FTC” 374). The researchers recognize that advertising shapes public perception. In fact, surveys commissioned by ITT Continental Baking prove that “certain of its television commercials for Wonder Bread generated a significant increase in the number of consumers who rated Wonder Bread excellent or very good as compared with other breads in terms of the quality of nutrition and the value of use of the bread by children” (380). Clearly, advertising is effective. However, when it promotes false facts and ideals, its effectiveness is harmful in terms of brand trust and personal health.
Therefore, the disparity between bread’s true nutrition and consumers’ knowledge of it presents an ethical problem. American mothers, for example, might be interested “in knowing that Wonder bread does not help build their children’s bodies twelve ways after all” (384). For this reason, researchers propose corrective advertising as a means to correct the deceptions fostered by companies and amend the knowledge of consumers. Additionally, the FTC enforces truth-in-advertising standards which are specified under federal law. So now, federal organizations promote truthful advertising in order to right the deceptive wrongs of the past and prevent them from arising in the future. Still, the Wonder Bread Case has undoubtedly damaged the trust in bread by consumers. Noteworthy is Pollan’s claim that “in the fall of 2002,” eating preferences of bread transformed “Virtually overnight” (1). Although he does not explicitly draw this connection, his recollection aligns with the date of the Wonder Bread advertising settlement that also occurred in 2002. Wonder Bread quite literally seems to have caused what one might call a Carbohydrate Apocalypse. Consumers’ distrust of one bread company generated a greater distrust of the food altogether, despite its age-long cultural significance across the world. The future of bread and people’s relationship with it is unclear. However, this case epitomizes a shocking shift in, not only consumer preferences, but the culture of eating. People want to know what they consume and in modern grocery stores today, it is easier for them to ignore the bread aisle than to make sense of a world of advertising and other misinformation.
VII. Bread Doesn't Grow on Trees
Studying food through literature reveals complex connections between wheat and our culture. In fact, the literatures of food have become interdisciplinary, spanning a variety of fields including anthropology, geography, and history among others. In “Books that Cook,” Jennifer Cognard-Black and Melissa A. Goldthwaite argue that studying the literatures of food reveals “part of what it means to be human” (Cognard-Black 422). Food texts appears “multifaceted in terms of their content, and yet they’re also complex in terms of genre, tone, and approach – thereby mirroring the intricacies of writers and readers” (422). Moreover, they “‘turn the tables’ on food-writing clichés – including readerly expectations of fiction or memoir” which also “create both literal and metaphorical connections” between the readers and the texts (428, 433). The very mundanity of bread on the surface demonstrates how consistently it has permeated human life. Yet this mundane creation has proved central during critical moments of history, from the development of agriculture to the crucifixion of Jesus to the advent of health-conscious consumers today. Focusing on bread ultimately allows people to explore its complexity and learn more about the multiplicities that have made the world what it is.
Yet deeply examining bread, and its unique social history, reveals more about its domesticator than its own domestication. Clearly, bread plays a subtle but central role in some of the most famous books ever written. The narrative of all these texts demonstrate how humans, since they first discovered agriculture, have continued to manipulate the natural structures of the world, thereby altering themselves as well. What bread exposes through the literature chronicling it is the extraordinary power of the species that persists through its own destruction. From corrupt governmental institutions to corrupt baked goods in cabinets, bread truly epitomizes the nature of humanity.
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