Sunday, my family went to church. We wore masks and were otherwise a little guarded because this was a first for us, something Felix, our 17-year-old, wanted to try. I was raised Catholic and my husband Jack is generationally agnostic; when our older son Francis was little we went to a few churches but didn’t find one thatfit. At St. Paul’s Episcopal Church this week, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the ritual, and especially by my eagerness to have communion. I suppose I shouldn’t be, because I celebrate the secular communion of this symbol and substance in everything I do. Yet there it was, a satisfaction. Ever since, I’ve been thinking about the metaphor of bread and its potential to convey a sense of unity.
Less than two weeks away from the presidential election, we really need something to bring us together in America. The rector reminded us that voting is not going to end the divisiveness. “We’re going to have to figure out how to get along,” she said. Toward that task, which seems insurmountable, my family and I have been talking about crossing the fences that exist, the deep social walls that (sort of) protect us (or not). I’ve been observing my impatience when I hear people on the news express ideas that scare me. It's only through the radio or other media that I hear opposing points of view because I have gravitated to friends that share my outlook.
How did the habit of rampant othering get so entrenched? I remember interviewing a restauranteur, Anne Trimble, owner of La Serre Restaurant in downtown Albany. (I was writing a profile of her for UAlbany’s Alumni Magazine.) She served the legislative population and said that changes made to lobbying laws in the 1980s permanently affected the whole restaurant industry, from the produce suppliers to service workers. She saw the loss in terms that were not strictly financial, and observed that politicians were more able to mingle and talk across the aisle years ago. The reasons partisanship became a reflex are many, but I like this thought, of attributing a decline of civility to the end of the two parties dining together.
Considering the divides in my own life, I think of moving from Seattle to a rural village in upstate New York, not far from where we live now. My husband and I spent the 90s in the Pacific Northwest, like many rebellious twenty-somethings, and when we had Francis, we decided to live near my family. For a year, we fit in with the hippies shopping at the co-op, but at the rural diner, we felt unwelcome. Jack and I missed the social fluidity a larger population could provide, so we moved to Troy. We don’t have many non-liberal acquaintances here, having fallen prey to the stratification that strikes with kids and careers. There is less of an us/them vibe to my everyday life in this city; but as anywhere else, if you don’t actively build connections beyond your milieu, it’s easy to end up looking at mental mirrors.
Walmart, the Reagan years, the Koch brothers, rising housing costs, wage stagnation, and other general symptoms have contributed to the canyon that’s been carved between the many us-es in America over the last 40 years.
I wonder if bread could help foster a less us/them environment, in our personal lives and as a body of people?
Pancakes are my favorite bread.
I want bread to jump in and flex its muscle, whip us into shape, like a superhero! I love talking to people about bread and its potential to build us as individuals, and as communities. (I talked about all of this stuff on Instagram with Joe Bowie, a baker and dancer and person I admire.)
I adore the connections people have at community ovens and the ways that small bakeries are stitching people to mills and farms. As a home baker, I can integrate recipes and traditions from around the world, from history, and be a part of a process that feels like spinning straw into gold. Yeasted bread is magical and sourdough bread is extra magical. We can get really groovy thinking about the collaborations of wild yeast and bacteria that help flour become our daily bread. We can get poetic about the science of soil health and mycorrhizal fungi facilitating nutrient uptake into the plants that will become our nourishment. But how can we transfer those things, poetry and collaboration, into the world, and make it better?
And exactly what single problem can bread solve? Should it help address mass incarceration of African-Americans, or begin to make reparations for slavery? Could bread help us right the wrongs of Indigenous genocide or the Homestead Act? At the very least, or at the most, could bread help change our minds, asserting togetherness?
Is there a bread that will even out the inequities that so many people face in America and the world? Would it be a transformative sky-high biscuit? Could it be a flatbread that works like a bandaid on societal scars? What if pancakes, my favorite kind of bread, had the ability to reduce scarcity, both material scarcity and psychological scarcity, buoying us all up so that we can face the problems of climate change and extreme wealth disparities, and the generational traumas of domestic and racial violence? I want to make a dough that builds a bridge, a structure that is both imagined and real, that will support all of us in the development of our human potential.
I may sound like I’m dreaming, but if bread can create such satisfaction, rising from almost nothing in our hands, can it empower us to repair the layers of desolation and woundedness we are experiencing in America?
On my walks in the morning, I pass a house that sits on a big knob of sedimentary rock. Jagged dark gray slate holds chunks of other rocks, us-es and thems. I see America stuck there, in our history, in our now. And in my kitchen, I wish that I could dislodge those rocks, let some ease begin.
It may be foolish to put such hope in food, but that’s what I’ve got, and it’s a common habit. I love the promise of food truly uniting us, even as the pandemic has slapped that idea in the face. In all layers of the food system we have witnessed gross problems that prove some of us are more in this trouble than the rest, from meatpacking plants being called to reopen after forced closures due to Covid 19; why didn’t the president invoke the war defense act for medical supplies, wasn’t that more urgent? The upending of the restaurant industry had one tiny silver lining: that of many restaurants turning into community kitchens and food pantries to help feed everyone, including out of work professionals in the field. The criminality of the inhumanity of conditions people face as they work in fields to feed us, and their lack of social/physical distancing capacity these farmworkers face at home; none of these snapshots of the food system support the moral ideals we lay upon the concepts of breaking bread and sharing meals. Miles long lines at food banks? Are they bringing us together?
Despite all this evidence, I have to believe in the power of food. My good friend Ellie Markovich turned 48 this week and she asked people to send her a recipe and cook with her long distance. Ellie has been practicing ways to stay connected to people through food and recipes since she left Brazil when she was 18. She came to school in Oklahoma, and worked in France and New Jersey before I met her a dozen years ago. I had the great good luck of living near her for seven years and finding opportunities to collaborate, usually around food and community. She invited me to make pancakes at youth cooking programs. We taught digital food storytelling classes and writing and photography classes. We made snacks for public events as ways to create conversations about ingredients and food waste. In the four years she’s been gone from my area no one has filled the Ellie-sized hole in our community, but she and I continue to connect, texting pictures of our dinners to each other, talking about ways to talk about bread, talking about recipes and the necessary generosity of sharing food and methods with everyone and anyone. Her hope and faith in food as a unifier gives me hope.
Another person who gives me hope is Liberty Hyde Bailey. He is not near me either, because he died long before I was born, but I am enamored with his writings and keep his books close. This year I’ve been reading UNIVERSAL SERVICE (Comstock Publishing, 1919), written during the first World War. Bailey, Dean of Agriculture at Cornell and a popular writer, composed this book as a critique of war and proposition for a cooperative future. The writing is 100 years old and speaks to me deeply, identifying commercialism and materialism as enemies to society.
“In these times of stress, when what we have considered to be the highest forms of human organization have failed, when cherished ideals seem to have fallen and the very foundations of society are shattered, we must do our best to find a common interest and a basis of action that lies in the necessities of our existence on the planet. Nor is this basis far to seek. Beyond all institutions, and all social national developments and all racial prides, and all literature and all forms of religious worship, is the surface of the sphere from which every one of us draws sustenance and supplies. The land is the basis of our life; and to keep this land, for ourselves and our successors, is the first responsibility of the race, responsibility, and to every people.” (Page 34)
“The Principle of Fellow Service” is how he titles his plans, outlining in detail a future filled with private duties of public service. He sees science as diminishing partisanship, citing several examples, and is almost as romantic about the capacity for science to reform life as I am about bread.
From UNIVERSAL SERVICE by Liberty Hyde Bailey.
“There are no parties in science. There may be difference of opinion when we do not yet know the truth, and variations in interpretation, and personal antagonisms between those who science does not reach to the heart; but government at present is organized partisanship. A merchant may not be a partisan in his shop, nor a manufacturer in his factory, nor a farmer on his farm, nor a teacher in his classroom; but at the polls these persons think they are not citizens unless they have opinions which are correct because they hold them this practice long continued solidifies opinion and makes it impregnable to evidence; we comment length to substitute habit for reason.” (Page 86)
If he could see the current lack of esteem for science in the presidency, oh, it would break his heart. Or his reason, if reason has a heart that can be broken.
Well, dear readers, that’s enough for today. I hope you are finding hope in bread or reading, or both.