Food books have a lot of autobiography about them, don't they? I mean, even cook books (and I'll review a cook book later this month, probably), which purport to be basically instruction manuals, invite the reader into the author's kitchen. There is a sense of the personal in books about food, a sense of intimacy that comes from talking about food. In 52 Loaves, William Alexander lays out, in loving detail, his project to bake a single loaf of bread once a week. He was attempting (and maybe succeeding?) to re-create a perfect loaf of bread he once consumed in a restaurant, a loaf of "peasant bread," with a perfect crust, an open, airy crumb, and a great flavor of rye and wheat and yeast. His writing is intensely personal, bringing his readers not merely into his yard (where he constructs an outdoor brick oven for baking - and, you know, if I weren't renting, I'd be greatly tempted...), or his kitchen (where he takes readers through the painstaking process of making bread from a poolish - a multi-hour endeavor), or even his analyst's office (mid-way through, Alexander worries that he is suffering from some sort of mental breakdown because he is so obsessed with this perfect loaf), but, really, inside his head.
Alexander weaves through his personal narrative a discussion of the history of bread as a food, globally, but also locally. Why is American commercial bread so universally reviled? What, actually, is "enriching" enriched flour? What lay at the root of years of pellagra throughout the American South? This is fascinating, and adds a stability to the personal narrative - not unlike (if I can engage in a little analogy) the gluten containing the yeasty leaven of Alexander's obsession.
In addition to the technical and historical discussion of bread making, Alexander also explores the philosophical implications of bread. How do we eat bread? Why is that important? Do people in France make and eat bread differently than Americans? How about Moroccans? What does this say about people in those cultures? Alexander visits France and Morocco to explore these questions. He also spends a week baking in a French monastery - a fascinating portion of the book in which Alexander explores the possibility that bread, for him, is spiritual or even religious on some level.
This was a surprisingly delightful book, full of humor (mostly self-deprecating), history (which I, naturally, appreciate), and thought provoking information. It also (as my baking earlier this week suggests) invites readers to experiment with baking. If you like bread, or baking, or the compulsions of aging American men, check out this book.
And how did my bread turn out? Well, it didn't live up to Alexander's standards, that's for sure. It had a fine, dense crumb (not the air holes that Alexander was trying to find, but not something that I was necessarily aiming for - big holes makes it tough to spread things on a slice) and a nice crust, but it lacked flavor. It was, sadly, a bland bread. I'll keep trying.