The Restorative Power of Bread

October 24, 2019
Illustration of babka
Art by Kirsten Hemrich

A few weeks ago, I was kneading bread and thinking about capitalism.

I spent fall break with my family and, over the course of a full day, took over the kitchen of my parents’ house to finally perfect my execution of the babka, an Eastern European sweetbread that has recently become InstaFamous. With clinical precision, I measured out cups of flour, feeling a stupid thrill go through me after I poured a packet of commercial yeast into a mug of warm milk and it actually bloomed, foaming and filling my nose with the scent of fermentation. 

“Ah, success,” I said to no one in particular. I used my mother’s KitchenAid mixer to knead the dough a second time, adding an ungodly amount of butter one tablespoon at a time. The mixer began to smell vaguely like smoke, and I panicked a bit. 

Why am I doing this? I thought as sweat gathered near my ears. Why had I decided to spend my Saturday (the first in a while where I had no plans or pressing assignments) coaxing unruly dough into an elegant plait? In a fraction of the time, I could have thrown together a batch of boxed-mix brownies that would have been a much bigger hit with my family, who look at my fascination with this particular genre of baking as just another of my minor eccentricities. 

But I like baking bread. There is something soothing about it (smoking mixers aside), something enchanting about the way dough rises when left to its own devices. I like waiting for it, the uncertainty that comes with wondering whether or not it will turn out as it’s supposed to. I like knowing that I am able to make something that is, in its own way, alive. 

I am forever coming up with theories. Here is one of them: in a late-capitalist, hyper-consumerist hellscape, bread is a simple act of revolution. 

Bread is unproductive—it sits for long hours beneath a kitchen towel before it can be shaped and baked and consumed. It wouldn’t last a day in the cutthroat world of Silicon Valley high-tech. Eating bread baked from scratch is a ritualistic experience. The smell of it, the flaky crust and fluffy interior, demands full attention. I would consider it sacrilege to eat fresh bread the way I eat everything else—mindlessly, in front of a screen that stares blankly back at me, our glassy gazes stuck in an endless loop. 

My babka eventually rose (imperfectly, heavier on the right side than the left) and made it into the oven. Every so often, I pressed my forehead against the glass door, checking on it the way an anxious mother might drop in on her child’s first day of preschool. When it was ready to be extricated, I snapped a few pictures before cutting into it, wincing as I did so. 

As I had a slice with a cup of tea, I thought about how capitalism corrodes our ability to enjoy and experience things: food, and the act of preparing it. Work and everything that comes with it. Time spent with friends. A sick day. For people living under American capitalism, all of these things can have consequences that range from the inconvenient to the catastrophic. 

Is it any wonder then, that we seek ways to cope with the pressures of living? I bake bread. Other people do yoga or volunteer with animals or smoke weed. Anything to ease the blow of hearing that yet another corrupt corporation is working hard to speed up climate change or recruiting impressionable college students to join their empty-eyed ranks. We seek ways to disengage, to spend a few hours looking at something other than our bottomless Twitter feeds and the news we come to expect: wealthy billionaires make gifts to wealthy universities. They get a tax write-off, we doubt the money will ever see any of the students it is intended to help. We find out that the billionaire made his money gentrifying Brooklyn. In short, things are very, very bad and seem to be getting worse. So we try our hand at meditating for the tenth time. 

In late-capitalism, there is a high premium placed on doing nothing. People pay thousands of dollars to travel to exotic locales just to escape the unspeakable burden of cell phone service. There are a whole slew of “mindfulness apps” out there that promise to turn your phone into a tool that will help you avoid...your phone.

There is a twisted irony to the fact that whenever I am told that I need to “take some time for myself” to engage in “self care,” that message is likely coming to me from a screen and trying to sell me a skincare line or bundle of bath salts in the process. Laura Hinnenkamp, our fearless leader here at Iris, elucidates beautifully this conundrum of the “self care narrative,” noting that self care, when packaged and sold to us, becomes just another source of anxiety. Another series of boxes waiting to be checked—put on this sheet mask and get in a bubble bath goddamnit and forget that the only reason we still have world hunger is because Jeff Bezos has chosen to not do anything about it. 

But I bake bread. And I look for small ways to reclaim my sanity in a world that does not make sense to me. 

Mental health, to me, is a way to understand how nervous systems react (and don’t react) to the bizarre demands of capitalism. We are living in the most high-anxiety times in the history of the planet. Our attention is a commodity, fought over by various marketing strategists and shiny, algorithmic advertisements that promise to make us into exactly the type of person we want to be. To speak in broad generalizations: Americans are overworked and in debt. We are tired and worried about what the future holds.

Baking bread gives me a way to press pause on the constant flurry of notifications that threaten to encroach on my right to my own mind. “Self care,” in that sense, does not have to be glamorous or imagesque. It can be as simple as taking an hour to sit in unproductive silence. It can be as simple as a lopsided Eastern European dessert.

I was initially drawn to bread baking because the labor of it felt so profoundly un-alienated. The constant contact between my hands the dough kept my attention fully engaged, my mind alert as I waited for gluten to develop. My first favorite part of it is the process, the work itself. After that comes the pride in the final product, the pleasure in sharing it with friends and family. Bread is communal and it is egalitarian.

Russian Marxist Pyotr Kropotkin once wrote that “well-being for all is not a dream.” Kropotkin was a firm believer in the notion that all people had “a right to well-being,” a “well-being for all.” His book, released in 1892, was called The Conquest of Bread.

In the present moment of mass communication and ceaseless stimulation, simple things have restorative power. For me, that might come about through a cinnamon-laced plaited loaf. For others, it might look different. The important thing is to take a moment to step back, to breathe deeply and appreciate small moments of peace. That is, in and of itself, a type of revolution. 


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