[13 July 2010]
He only tasted it on one occasion. Crackly-crusted and baked to a deep, caramelized brown, the outer layer gave way to an airy but hearty crumb, sending up wafts of yeasty perfume as he bit down into a loaf that was surely baked in heaven. Never a bread lover, in a high-class Manhattan restaurant one Sunday over breakfast, William Alexander was reborn.
Every quest story needs a triggering event, and Alexander serves his with tantalizing detail in his second book, 52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust. A changed man, Alexander went on to spend a full year trying to replicate that artisanal version of the scrumptious staple food, baking one loaf per week and taking more than a few field trips in his effort to bring bread’s storied pedigree to life.
Impressively, Alexander does go for the whole bread-making process, even growing his own wheat to grind by hand into flour. He visits a yeast factory to learn how the sour smelling creature is produced and spends months working on the perfect poolish, a wet dough left out on the counter overnight to ferment which he uses as the base for his bread recipe. He also manages to build a brick oven in his backyard, a task which sounds labor-intensive and proves even more challenging in practice.
In his hokey, jokey voice, sometimes groan-inducing and always sitcom-friendly, Alexander also takes the reader through bread’s roles in the worlds of faith, science and public health. He delves into the specifics of the all-important yeast reproduction process, veering just a little too far into high school chemistry territory, and reveals nutrient-enforced flour’s role in battling a ‘30s health epidemic of pellagra, a now little-known disease.
Not averse to venturing outside his kitchen, Alexander enters a bread baking competition in upstate New York, goes to Paris for a baking class at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, and then heads to a French monastary to teach monks their order’s lost art of bread making. This last trip is a gratifying one all around, a culmination of a year’s worth of research, training and practice that yields a fulfilling experience of peaceful thoughtfulness, if not godliness, as well as some damn good bread.
His focus is not solely Euro-centric, however, a refreshing surprise given France’s reputation as the holy land for carbohydrate worshippers. Proving bread’s universality, Alexander writes of an ancient recipe for the crusty stuff found on a pyramid wall in Egypt and makes a journey all the way to Morocco to check out the largely forgotten practice of using a communal oven to bake for an entire community.
Above all, 52 Loaves is informative, explaining fascinating details about one of the world’s most prominent foods. The reader learns, for example, that artisan breads have those criss-cross markings on the tops of their crusts because bakers slash the loaves with razors before sliding them into the oven. All that rising dough needs someplace to go, it turns out, and the nicks allow the bread to burst through the openings in neat rows of golden deliciousness, rather than popping out like tumorous growths from some random place in the loaf. Alexander’s first book, The $64 Tomato, is full of similarly nifty trivia on gardening, and the fun facts work well here, too.
As a how-to, though, the book is hardly followable. True bread baking comes off as a tedious process, dependent on chemistry knowledge and precise measurements and loads of one’s time and attention, as Alexander comically illustrates when he skips a rare afternoon roll in the hay with his wife to ensure that his loaf gets into the oven at exactly the correct time. How anyone with a commitment outside the kitchen could take up the art is a mystery.
Even the passionate home baker, willing and able to put in the work for a lovely loaf, may feel a tad disheartened by the book. Alexander struggles with his oven’s inability to reach a high enough temperature for an ideal bread, and he goes through several failed attempts to incorporate steam into the process, an element built into professional-grade ovens.
When the writer brings his dough to a professional bakery, the result is his best bread to date, but the baking reader’s rising happiness for his success quickly deflates with the realization that it took an industrial strength oven to achieve the desired result. The back of the book does include a few bread recipes, but after 300 pages of yeast chemistry and oven catastrophes, one might not feel prompted to reach for the flour.
The most nagging missing ingredient in 52 Loaves is a truly compelling reason for the year-long baking bonanza itself, beyond some tasty bread for the dinner table. Skipping out on the personal contexts and philosophies that make up the secret sauce to any memoir worth, well, remembering, Alexander stays largely within the literal realm of his bread baking and leaves the reader without any emotional ties to the book.
Alexander seems to know that something’s lacking, repeatedly questioning the reason for his project and wondering what propels him toward it. A lapsed Catholic, he considers the symbol of bread in Christianity—the reader can smell the guilt wafting out of his kitchen—and makes the thoughtful note that baking every loaf is an act of faith, with the baker never exactly sure of the how each attempt will turn out. Still, nothing resembling a religious epiphany, or even prompting, reveals itself as the need behind his kneading.
A trip to a psychiatrist to decipher the motivation for his quest feels indulgent and staged. After discussing the general public’s ties to bread, including feelings of home, health and prosperity, with the doctor, Alexander shies away from asking about the possible reasons for his own floury fixation and leaves the office without any illuminating answer.
Bread, Alexander claims, is a “powerful stimulus, capable of probing deep into the subconscious, if not into genetic memory.” The same cannot be said about 52 Loaves, but with some fun facts, travel tales and cautionary stories of oven calamities, the book does have its place on a home baker’s bookshelf, if not in her kitchen.