Review: 52 Loaves by William Alexander

A few weeks back, guest critic Brandon Wicks took a look at one man’s inquiry into the history of moonshine and foray into distilling that elixir himself. This time out, Wicks reviews a book that offers a resonant examination of yet another staple (presuming that whiskey is a staple, of course): William Alexander‘s 52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust. Alexander won acclaim for for his previous book, The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden, and the new book promises a similar mix of research and reflection. But does Alexander’s recipe for success work as well in the kitchen as it did in the garden?

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

By William Alexander

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Review by Brandon Wicks

Few things in life are as simple — or complex — as bread. The same four essential ingredients, as Julia Child once noted, yield ten thousand different combinations. And, she might have added, ten thousand more ways of ruining them. William Alexander’s new book, 52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust, is concerned with just one combination: baking the perfect loaf of pain de campagne, or peasant bread. In his quest for perfection, Alexander bakes a single loaf from scratch each week for a year, ultimately to produce a seed-to-table bread. The project soon becomes a journey which takes him to professional millers and bakers across the U.S., to a communal ferrane in Africa, and finally to a remote abbey in France to bake (and break) bread with Benedictine monks, all to discover the provenance behind the staff of life.

Undoubtedly, the book’s strength lies in its bountiful knowledge. Though ostensibly concerned with a single variety, 52 Loaves gives readers a full education in bread. Alexander hits the highlights of its six-thousand-year history: from the Egyptian roots of leavened bread and medieval bakers laws that pre-date the Magna Carta, to more contemporary influences. The 2007 bread riots in Morocco, for example, are intimately tied to U.S. ethanol production, as diverting yeast from food to fuel had doubled the price of wheat worldwide. “For most American families,” Alexander writes, “this was merely an irritation… but in countries where bread is still a staple (including such flashpoints as Pakistan, Egypt, and Iraq), it threatened… stability.” Likewise, the 1915 controversy in the U.S. over pellagra — the disease responsible for our vitamin B enriched flours — bears an uncanny resemblance to the partisan mudslinging over certain public health policies today. Such moments elevate the book above mere trivia and instill not only a sense of global connection but the continuing social relevance of this humble foodstuff.

Along the way, Alexander explores the science behind each of the four basic ingredients — flour, water, yeast, and salt — in an attempt to produce his much beloved gas holes in the breadcrumb. His own kitchen disasters with gluten levels, anaerobic yeast, and temperature do much to entertain as well as explain why such factors are important, say, to building a good levain, or preferment. (And, incidentally, to explain how flour mills can randomly explode.) Even for readers with no aspiration to bake, both of these contexts, the historical and scientific, shape the evolution of bread into a complete picture — one that provides an interesting, even alarming, insight to the poor nutritional quality of the mass-produced varieties today.

Unfortunately, the narrative vehicle for this foodie education is less developed. While the idea is certainly compelling — who wouldn’t fantasize about her own seed-to-table bread? growing and threshing grain, building a clay oven to bake it in? — the book has the rambling anecdotal narrative of a personal blog, attempting a cozy humor that more often than not falls flat. (Two short and mostly irrelevant chapters seem to exist solely to crack jokes.) Other times, the prose pushes too hard to dramatize scenes and so turns treacly: Rainbows appear on cue, and during a moment of ontological crisis, Alexander “aches for the release of tears,” conjuring up a single teardrop which falls “unceremoniously, into [his] bread.”

In fact, Alexander frequently analogizes his pursuit of bread to a spiritual journey. Indeed, the book itself is structured after the seven canonical hours, or prayer services, of the monastery he eventually bakes in. But devout agnostics and wavering atheists need not be nervous here, as Alexander’s notions of spirituality remain aestheticized and vague. In some ways this is a shame, because even though he habitually refers to baking as a solace amid our hectic modern world, “temporarily escaping the industrial age and all that it has wrought,” the book never quite gets at what making bread is suppose to satisfy in the human psyche.

Despite these shortcomings, 52 Loaves remains knowledgeable, engaging, and instructional enough to satisfy. Included in the appendix are several recipes perfected over the course of Alexander’s journey, as well as wonderful collection of baker’s references. At the heart of William Alexander’s quest, I suspect, is a larger cultural need: the unfulfilled American consumer’s pursuit for something to be hard-earned rather than bought; for something that is unique in the truest sense — one-of-a-kind and blemished — rather than glossy and easily reproduced; for something to be made. In the end, 52 Loaves points us toward a truer autonomy than all the cellophaned choices in the grocery store aisle can provide, even if it lacks the strong flavor and distinctive texture of that perfect pain du campagne.

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