What I’ve Learned From Baking Bread

Photo and Bread: Scott Nuzum

By Scott Nuzum

For many of us, the last six months have had dramatic impacts on the way we think about time. Before Covid-19, many of us felt as though we never had enough time. But in the months since the pandemic struck many of us now face the opposite challenge—namely, how to fill those hours that we once spent commuting to work, chauffeuring our children, running errands, and so on. I, like many others, have turned to the art of bread baking to get me through these challenging times and it has fundamentally changed the way I think about my relationship with food and the planet.

To be completely candid, I never thought I’d be one of those people who bakes his own bread. In my mind, baking bread was one of those unnecessarily time-consuming millennial hobbies that people undertake ironically—like making artisanal soda, riding a fixed-gear bicycle, and growing a mustache. But with lots of time on my hands and no bike to be found, I finally decided to embrace my millennial status and set to work cultivating my own sourdough starter.

Over the course of several weeks spent combining one cup of flour with a half-cup of water, something magical happened—I found that I actually enjoyed the process of making bread. Quickly, what had started out as an ironic one-time foray quickly turned into a sincere and cherished pastime. The process allows me time to slow down and focus on those things that are within my control.

Through caring for my sourdough starter I’ve reflected on the beautiful accidents that led to our ancestors first cultivating Saccharomyces cerevisiae—commonly known as baker’s yeast. In the process of baking bread, one can begin to understand why our species once believed in alchemy. Before we understood the chemical and biological role of yeast in baking, the process of combining flour, water, salt, and starter into leavened loaves must have seemed like something akin to sorcery. No wonder, then, that humans would make similar attempts to transform other natural resources into objects of even greater value.

Through the act of making bread dough I’ve gained a new appreciation for the farmers who cultivate the wheat that becomes my bread flour. I’ve learned to distinguish between flour of greater and lesser quality, which has in turn led me to study agricultural supply chains and the impacts those networks have on both people and the planet.

Above all, through the act of baking my own bread, I’ve come to see the beauty that is possible when we take time to engage in the simple act of creating. Through baking, I’ve come to realize that so many modern practices masquerade as helpful shortcuts meant to make our lives easier when in reality they drive mindless consumption and heedless waste.

It saddens me that it has taken social distancing for me to truly appreciate all that goes into making bread. As a child, I vividly remember my grandfather baking his own bread and I can still conjure the olfactory sensation of entering my grandparents’ home and being enveloped in that comforting aroma of a sourdough loaf just out of the oven. In the last six months, I’ve thought about my grandfather on a daily basis. Now, when I bake, memories of his love come flooding back to me. I lament that I cannot share my own fresh-baked creations with him and I am saddened to think that the sourdough starter he cultivated with his own hands died with him. But I feel a new connection to him and to the people through whose toil I’m able to make my loaves.

Over the past six months, many of us have come to realize that society in the days BCE (before COVID emerged) drove us to prize convenience and economies of scale above all else. Pre-pandemic, we had become disconnected—from our families, from our communities, from our food. Everything had become standardized and we had lost our ability to appreciate beauty and variety in the world. For all the horror and loss associated with this terrible pandemic, COVID has afforded many of us a rare opportunity to take a foot off of the metaphorical accelerator and see the world with greater clarity. We’ve been able to reflect on what really matters, which for many of us means reconnecting—with our families, with our neighbors and local communities (albeit from a safe distance), with the natural world, and with our own humanity.

In the early days of the pandemic, I was one of those people who pilloried the abrupt surge in bread baking. But now I embrace it. People are relearning how to slow down and appreciate the little things in life, like the aroma of freshly baked bread. Moreover, they are acquiring a useful skill that until fairly recently was more of a necessity than a hobby. Baking bread, then, becomes a metaphor of our human agency—it is symbolic of the individual taking back something that was taken away and taken for granted.

At the same time, the symbiotic relationships I’ve cultivated with bakers yeast and wheat farmers have shown me that I am part of something much bigger than myself; I am but a single part of an astonishingly complex and beautiful system that connects me with every other thing, both living and nonliving. Baking bread, then, is also a metaphor for our fragile planet and serves as a reminder that we must place greater value on the natural resources—clean water, clean air, and fertile ground—on which we depend for life.

As I reflect on what baking bread means to me, I now think that maybe alchemy really is possible. For when we bake we are, in a way, connecting with those who nourish our souls and our bodies. That feeling is worth more than gold.

Scott Nuzum is a father, husband, and aspiring baker based in Vienna, Virginia.

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