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  • Rena Shapiro

The Conquest of Bread

When I walk downstairs on a typical Sunday, I am enveloped by the warm, comforting smell of baked grain, a freshly arrived guest from Copenhagen Bakery on my dining room table. Golden morning light pours through the front windows, facing northeast, and illuminates the breadbasket at the center of the breakfast spread. To me, the sight is a symbol of bread’s age-old centrality to the sustenance of life and stature as one of the most versatile but dependable culinary pursuits.

Making and sharing dough has been the livelihood of humans from the age of the Mesopotamian Empire to modern day. Technology has become increasingly more complex, but the general process is the same: mix flour, sugar, and yeast; then shape. Bakers use other ingredients and techniques today to embellish the basic cut with new flavors, where the centuries before calendars witnessed fire under stone rising a “bread” to the thickness of a cracker, as we would know it today.

The bread on my table on weekends, cranberry-walnut whole-grain, is a French tradition, likely baked in the shacks of peasants in the 18th century as the monarchy threw its money away on a grand, glamorous court at Versailles, masking the suffering of the masses with a sense of grandeur and luxury, and clothes for Marie Antoinette, where women across the country could not afford rags, let alone grain. The rapidly inflating price of grain in France after 1750 due to Louis XVI’s failure of running the country angered the masses and drove them to revolution. With the absence of bread came a critical rage. The peasants had enough of their life under tyranny. When the rich and poor became so disparate that even bread could no longer be scavenged, the greatest political upset in modern European history came to pass.

I find gratitude in my weekly inheritance of the recipes carried through history to the bakeries I visit regularly today. Bread is timeless, and carries the spread of life and rebirth on its surface. Even the French Revolution could not have been what it was were it not for the necessity and universality of bread.

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