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Bread: The Great Leveler

Bread is the great leveler.

While mixing bread dough last week, I listened to a captivating podcast called “Bread: The Rise and Fall.” It was from CBC Radio’s Ideas program, initially aired in 2017. 1

It was captivating because it was a deep dive into the cultural, religious, and symbolic aspects of our favourite subject here, bread.

Bread to me is warmth, connection, and love. I think of working the dough with my hands and feel it come alive over time. The aromas all through the bread-making process are heavenly. The smell of home. I love sharing it, conversing, enjoying it with other food.

These feelings are much the same for all people, it turns out, but there are differences in outlook as well.

Commonality but differences, too

We hear a Catholic priest, a rabbi, and an imam all talk in the podcast about the role bread plays in their respective traditions. Historians discuss the earliest origins of grain cultivation and the creation of bread … and moving into the present, talking about the unrest that bread has caused. The protests that became part of the Arab Spring, for instance.

All this talk of bread as a civilizing force is countered, in the program, by writers who believe that agriculture and bread were among the biggest mistakes of humankind’s evolution!

How could something so simple, so exquisitely pure, be such a beguiling and troubling factor in civilization?

Flour, water, yeast … and time

Flour, water, yeast … and time. That’s all bread is, and probably why it is so irresistible, universal.

It’s haunting to hear the priest in the program, Fr. Damian MacPherson of Toronto, offering the sacrament as part of the Eucharist celebration of the Catholic service.

“The body of Christ,” he says. “Amen,” says the supplicant, taking the wafer that symbolizes the body of Jesus. Over and over again, he intones these words.

“Without bread or flour, there is no Torah,” says Rabbi Jonathan Rubenstein, who bakes bread in his New York synagogue. “And without Torah, there is no bread.”

Without bread or flour, there is no Torah

“Both spiritual sustenance and physical sustenance represented by flour and bread are necessary for a complete life,” Rubenstein says.

“The making of bread is not measured in cups,” says Imam Habeeb Alli, a Toronto-based Islamic chaplain, and writer. “It’s in the feel! When you add water, you’re adding love. When you add yeast, you’re adding patience. When you add flour and salt, you’re adding compassion and forgiveness.

“It’s a long process, but I can tell you, the wait is worth it.”

The podcast is all very uplifting until we hear a Cornell University professor say: “The worst mistake in the history of the human race was the development of agriculture. It brought about the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and the despotism, that curse our existence.”

Agriculture: the worst mistake in the history of the human race

And it was the development of bread more than 10,000 years ago that ensured the human transition from hunter-gathers to farming and agriculture.

“The idea of living in cities was not possible until agriculture made it possible. We can’t really talk about civilization and [bread/]grain separately. They are really the same thing,” says the Montana-based writer, Richard Manning.

“All the upsides of agriculture aren’t worth the downsides. There is no such thing as unvarnished progress. We have to take into account the negatives that occurred and deal with those at the same time.

Manning is the author of Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization, published in 2005. At the time he was interviewed, he hadn’t eaten bread in five years, but at the end of his interview, he confessed to having once liked bread. “It tasted like it was really connected to the earth.”

All agriculture depends on suppressing biodiversity

“The problems we’re dealing with today, especially global warming, depletion of the oceans, have really been coming for 10,000 years. All of agriculture depends on suppressing biodiversity. And the consequences that ripple through almost everything we do. So agriculture is at this point, almost always has been, humanity’s largest footprint on the planet.”

Overpopulation and the diseases of civilization comprise the most significant impact on humanity, Manning says. 

“The consequences of our diet now are showing up in profound ways,” he says. “All of agriculture is based on carbohydrates. Because most of what we eat is grain, our bodies convert the carbohydrates to sugar. So we have insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome — our leading health problems in the world today.”

This is the root not only of obesity but heart disease, diabetes, and other diseases of civilization.

That’s quite a legacy for bread if you can follow it. But interestingly, one of the secular voices in the podcast is the greatest naysayer of bread, agriculture, and civilization. The discussion begs for someone who can straddle the secular and the spiritual.

Bread is the great leveller

Along comes the pleasing voice of the Reverend Zenji Nio, a Canadian-born “motivational chaplain,” who articulates from the Buddhist and eastern philosophical traditions in a most eloquent British accent.

Oppression, starvation, war, tyranny — all the worst impulses of humanity — are not all that civilization is, according to Nio.

“Civilization has its problems and, yes, it has its dark side. But it is true that with darkness, we can be instruments of light. Stars shine brightest against the dark sky. So you’ve also got to look at the good in bread,” Nio says.

“Is it perfect? Nothing is. It’s messy, but everything that is beautiful is messy — diamonds in the rough.”

Nio believes that civilization is a test and has brought out the best in humanity.

“Bread is the great leveler,” he says. “And that’s a very important thing. Bread is a symbol of equality.”


You can find the Ideas podcast, “Bread: The Rise and Fall” at Apple, Google, or where ever you get your podcasts. Or go directly to the CBC Ideas site.


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