Tidewater Review - June 2010


52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning and a Perfect Crust
Anne Stinson

52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning and a Perfect Crust by William Alexander. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 354 pp. $23.95.
Even ordinary people get fixated on a topic sometimes. It could be to build his own bookcase or to mow his lawn in ornamental patterns. Whatever the notion, repeated failures often put the project in the “ain’t gonna happen” category.
That’s enough to jerk the dreamer back to reality. On the other hand, if you’re William Alexander, the urge to follow through is like being on a train with no brakes. No amount of disappointment deters him.
His most recent path to obsession was a simple one. In a New York restaurant he bit into a piece of bread. The aroma, the flavor and crackle of the crust, the yeasty taste of the interior, all laced with holes that sharpened the roll’s incredible perfection ... well, Alexander began a quest to reproduce it in his own kitchen.
The impetus was merely a simple, basic roll, the product of four ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast. How hard could that be?
When the dreamer is Alexander, it turns out that it could get pretty complicated.
Chasing the difficult, if not the impossible, is getting to be a habit with Alexander. Readers may recall his previous book, The $64 Tomato, his effort to grow a perfect Brandywine tomato that tasted like the home-grown tomatoes of his youth, not the red or pink plastic tomatoes on sale year-round at the supermarket. When he added up the cost of his organic fertilizer, his tomato cages, his searches for the perfect seeds, he calculated that the single tomato cost him $64.
He got out of that quixotic adventure easily. Sixty-four dollars was chump change compared to his perfect artisan bread caper. His first foray into the mystique of breadmaking was his decision to devote a year to the quest, baking at least one loaf of bread a week for 52 weeks. He’d educate himself along the way and hopefully learn from his mistakes.
But before he donned his apron and began to make a mess in the kitchen, he bolstered his determination by reading. A lot of reading. Standard cookbooks, special bread cookbooks, advice about yeast, how to build an outdoor bread oven, different types of flour, etc. Each of the 52 chapters gives the weight of his breadmaking books. Week 1 weighs in at 2 lbs. By Week 47 (the last listed weigh-in), the groaning shelf holds 64 lbs. of books related to bread.
Lest the reader decide in advance that Alexander is on a fool’s errand, he discourses on the importance of the subject. A recipe for an ancient loaf, he says, was found scratched on the inside of a pyramid, somewhere around 6,000 years ago. Yet the Egyptians were not the first bakery chefs. The forerunners of modern wheat were domesticated and grown in the fertile crescent since the Stone Age. “Most commonly,” Alexander writes, “these grains were cooked with water and eaten as gruel.” He doesn’t say how he found indisputable evidence for that statement, so we have to take his word for it.
When he’s kidding, he makes it clear that his hypothesis is of the “could-be” kind, as when he speculates about how gruel turned into a loaf of bread, possibly by the recipe-writing Egyptians.
“They liked to tip a cold one back now and then (or, more likely, a warm one) and had numerous small breweries where they cultivated brewer’s yeast,” he writes. “Now, maybe it happened this way and maybe it didn’t, but it seems quite likely that one day a tipsy cook spilled a little beer into the dough, and the inevitable happened; yeast and dough were accidentally mixed, and leavened bread was born.”
Having verified the crucial role of yeast, Alexander was ready to make his first batch of “poolish,” which is, as closely as this casual baker can figure, a kind of sourdough starter. He used commercial yeast from the grocery store, but you can bet your baguette this will not be the last time yeast is dissected. No indeedy.
Right now, in Week 2, he’s already unraveled the mysteries of different kinds of flour. And why is flour loaded up with all those vitamins that are lost when it’s bleached and added again later? Why, why, why is Alexander’s plaintive cry every step of the way. And what the hell is pellagra and why does it have anything to do with bread?
After bugging farmers and flour millers, Alexander decides on the obvious following action. Obvious to him, of course. He’ll plow up his backyard veggie garden (the site of the $64 tomato caper) and plant the raised bed in winter wheat. Never mind that his house in the Hudson River Valley is not wheat-growing country.
Meanwhile, each weekly batch of bread is less than perfect.
The wheat crop grows up through the snow, then is buried in snow again (repeat until hoarse), and Alexander studies gluten in flour, proteins by flour type, techniques for keeping a “boule,” the classic shape of “peasant bread,” from flattening to pancake shape in the oven, how to mist with water to make a crackly crust and every imaginable obstacle to his goal.
Winter turns to mud season and black fly season and at last it’s time to harvest his wheat. And thresh his wheat. And grind his wheat into flour. One backyard’s worth of wheat, it turns out, can’t be handled with modern inventions. It requires medieval tools and medieval patience.
To mill his bucket of grains, he has to track down a museum in the Southwest and borrow Indian grinding stones. Any contact with a modern mill would taint the purity of Alexander’s pristine crop (which turns out not to be the ideal bread flour at all).
This last disappointment comes after Alexander has visited umpteen granaries, flour mills, baker’s competitions and studied scientific articles on everything even barely related to baking a decent loaf of peasant bread.
What’s next? he asked himself. In the history of breadmaking, centuries passed with women baking in a common oven. The brick or stone interior was preheated for up to 24 hours, so the bread did not bake over fire, but from high heat stored in the oven walls and ceiling.
A how-to book gave instruction for building one’s own backyard brick oven in a single day. Make that more like several months, Alexander discovered. In the meantime, he harkened back to the medieval period again in his reading. The only places still baking bread not differently from a millennium ago might be in European monasteries.
While waiting to make a connection to a religious order still making its own bread, Alexander signed up for a breadmaking class in Paris at the venerable Ritz Hotel. It was not a happy experience, but he followed the classic trail through southern France, Italy and across the Mediterranean to Morocco, all in search of women using communal ovens. It was a fruitless journey, but an epiphany was down the road and Week 52 loomed ahead.
Several disappointments preceded news that an Abbey in northern France was buying commercial bread because the old Brother, a trained baker, had died. The Abbot wanted to hire a baker to teach one of the younger Brothers to learn to bake and use the centuries-old equipment in the monastery.
Alexander applied, fudging his resume to indicate that he was a successful, qualified baker, familiar with the ovens, recipes and techniques. He was hired and faced the biggest challenge of his life.
All his maddening research of the previous year was needed to fulfill his mission, the crowning challenge that all started with a taste of wonderful bread in a New York hotel years earlier.
Autumn comes early with harsh weather in Normandy. Alexander, an atheist, was drawn to freezing services in the dark stone church, the 14-hour days in the ancient kitchen, the kindness of his apprentices, the trial batches of seven or eight loaves a day and, by the end of his five-day stay, revised recipes, mastery of the old bakery and the most fruitful week of his life.
The closer the reader gets to the Abbey and its routines, the more he appreciates the transformation of an obsessed man’s quixotic quest.
Funny in places, grimly stubborn in others, the final chapters are as irresistible as a rainbow after a scary storm.
52 Loaves feeds the heart as well as the belly.