At the TASTE3 conference in Napa, instructor and author Peter Reinhart told a fascinating life-and-death tale about breadmaking. Although a baker with Reinhart’s years of experience might have some tales of Lethal Weapon-style escapes from exploding flour mills or daring bread-delivery runs through a hurricane, he told the audience a much more common life and death story: The transformations of wheat, water and yeast that happen each time a loaf of bread is baked.
A loaf of bread begins with wheat kernels, objects that are lifeless yet also contain the potential for life. In the fields, water, nutrients and sunshine release that potential, giving way to a plant that yields even more kernels. At harvest, the harvester takes the life of the wheat plant (though if properly processed, the wheat can store the potential for new life). The flour mill removes any chance of the harvested wheat becoming a new wheat plant, but it converts the grain into a form that can achieve new life in the baker’s kitchen.
Bakers bring life to flour by combining it with water and yeast. The sugars, starches and water in the dough nourishes the yeast, which in turn releases gases that help create structure (like carbon dioxide) and chemicals that help create flavor (like various alcohols). During multiple rising stages, the dough is a living, breathing object.
The heat of the oven kills the yeast and the loaf becomes dead again. But when we consume the bread, it contributes to our living bodies and enables us to plant, harvest, and grind wheat to use in the next loaf of bread. One thing that Reinhart didn’t mention (he had only 18 minutes) is that on a metaphorical level, a loaf of bread can help to bring life to the table by fostering community and creating or strengthening relationships.
One of the breads served at lunch that day fit perfectly with Reinhart’s life and death story. The bread (from Reinhart’s “Whole Grain Breads“) uses grain left over from beer-making in its base — and so the loaves gave another life to the grain.