The Parable of the Bread


Once upon a time, in a small town, at the edge of the fields, stood a bakery and in it a baker. The baker was known throughout the town for his craft: as the townspeople would bring in their grains from the field, he would artfully grind them respectfully on the stone mills handed down through his family. The grain was treated reverently and preserved whole whenever possible, full of goodness, nutty, earthy, naturally organic. Out from the baker’s ovens would emerge hot bread, the smell of which wafted over the town and drew in hungry folk from far and wide. Large loaves and small, rolls and cinnamon buns, pumperknickel and sourdough--these and more bore the signature of the baker, a wondrous reverence for the gift of grain, its goodness and nutrients, its ability to feed and warm and bring loved ones together around a meal.

Over time, an industrial bakery grew up on the opposite side of town. It was the local expression of a national brand of bread—a bread white and fluffy, mass-produced, and, frankly tasteless. But due to good marketing efforts, standardization and mechanization, efficient production techniques, and word of mouth, this bread—bland, uniform, and ubiquitous—became the rage throughout the town and indeed, the country. Gone was the relationship between baker and people, between field and oven, between craft and nutrient. Though the baker kept open his store and a few patrons refused to buy the mass-produced bread, the vast majority of the townspeople were swept up in the rage of the giant bread manufacturer across town. “It’s quick and dependable—there’s no waiting for a loaf,” they marveled. “It’s efficient and, if not tasty, at least it’s cheap and easy to get,” they said. Truth be told, this bread was quite unlike the bread made by the baker. Indeed, it involved the same basic ingredients—water, yeast, and flour. But that’s where it ended. The bread from the factory came from grain that was subjected to a strange new process of hulling, bleaching, milling, and the extraction of all that made it healthy and appealing. For this reason, another process was deployed: artificial enrichment. The bleached, bland, sterile flour was sprayed with vitamins, minerals, and other things naturally lost in the efficiency of mass-production. In would come a rich diversity of whole grains and out would come the same enriched, bleached flour. Each and every time, the same.

Slowly, the majority of the townspeople forgot what good bread tasted like. Gone were the variety of breads originally available from the baker. Even the smell of bread had changed with the arrival of the factory. Few remembered the original grains grown by their grandparents in the field, lovingly harvested, and brought for milling and baking to the baker. Whatever grains used by the factory were quickly subjected to the “Process”—the bleaching, the sifting, the mass-production. And out came uniform commercial bleached white bread. The same loaf, the same shape, the same taste (or lack thereof) time after time after time. It was efficient, it was dependable and predictable, it was orderly and organized—but it was bland, sterile, lifeless, tasteless. White bread for the masses.

But some began to tell stories of the baker and the rich emanations that came from his ovens. They remembered the intimate connection between the earth, the grain, and the craft. They recalled the labor of love of the artisans, who humbly and creatively devoted themselves to the baking. Above all, they remembered the bread—the powerful, inviting smell of freshly-baked loaves, the crisp crust and soft, steaming centers. They reminisced about the laughter, the stories, the times they would enjoy as they ate bread around their tables and shared in life’s goodness together. Slowly a dissatisfaction arose among the townspeople—many chose to forego the commercial bread from across town. Some began to bake their own loaves. Some rediscovered the little baker, who was now quite old, in his bakery on the edge of town. Many began to realize that efficiency and mass-production, marketing and advertising, standardization and even science—though all good gifts in their own way—were not helpful in the making of quality bread. A revival of bread-making, of a slower, more purposeful, and more relational approach to this wondrous food source, began to arise—and with it, came a people more open to one another and to the wondrous gifts around them, the goodness of which they were just beginning to taste and see.

5 comments:

Mitali Perkins said...

Oh, I like this, Carl. Such a savory metaphor for so many things, even the way we try and Costco-ize our churches. But your writing makes me hungry for good bread, so I'm off to the kitchen.

Anonymous said...

Ahhh...I can smell the bread baking. I Can't wait to taste this new yet old recipe. Although well fed, this body could use a less refined, more wholesome grain these days. How insightful of the townspeople to bring about a revival of the old and less manufactured way of bread-making. I'm confident they will break bread and eat together and rejoice in the good gifts this awakening will bring.

Wendy said...

How have I missed your blog till now, Carl? Well, the timing could not be more apt, actually. My latest freelance copy writing job, which commences in January, is for Great Harvest Bread Company. One of the pieces I am slated to work on details the journey of a loaf of fresh, whole grain bread from the wheat fields of Montana to the local Great Harvest bakery. The whole gist of the piece is the better taste, deeper nourishment, sustainable farming practices, and the importance of relationships throughout the process, whether with grain growers, quality-conscious bakery owners, or customers yearning for a loaf with real heft, flavor and substance. I do believe I caught a wink of God's eye as I was no more than a few sentences into your musings here on the 'staff of life'...

And speaking of other life-sustaining comestibles, I'd love to hear your top 2 or 3 cappuccinos in Boulder County. I nominate The Cup, continuing in the tradition of the original Euro-faithful Allison, which superseded the Trident for me once I discovered it. Creamiest pile of foam in Boulder, I venture. What say you we make a date for a coffee sometime in January, to talk about bread-baking in all its rich metaphorical dimensions, and you introduce me to your current favorite barista?

I see it's nearly time for Santa Claus to head this way...No other creatures are currently stirring at my home, which means I'd better tuck myself in, too, and resist the temptation (for the moment) to read way back in your blog. But I shall!

Merry Christmas to you and Rupali and the boys.

Wendy said...

One more thing -- I saw Mitali's reference to "Costco-izing," and it reminded me of a book I highly recommend called "The McDonaldization of Society" by sociologist George Ritzer. It's highly readable and entertaining, in some respects a primer on the prescient social analyis of Max Weber who I imagine could never have foreseen the degree to which the principle of efficiency would come to dominate contemporary western (especially American) society. It's frightening when it defines how bread should be manufactured, let alone churches.

Carl Hofmann said...

Hey Wendy,
Thanks for your (ever erudite) thoughts. Glad to know we're "breaking bread" together in this portion of the blogosphere. As for preferred cappuccinos...I'm such a snob, I'm getting to the point where I actually prefer my onw! But barring that, a quick trip to nearby Organica at 17th and Walnut can do the job nicely. The Cup, as you mentioned, is good. Amante's art is good, though its coffee tastes stale to me. I like Peet's, though no latte art to dazzle...

Let's do aim to connect in the new year soon!
CSH