by William Alexander
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Julia Child once asked, “How can a nation be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?” The validity of such a query may seem questionable – that is, unless one stops to consider the inextricable and formative role bread has played in the evolution of churches and the founding of states, the strength of armies and the sustenance and satisfaction of diners since (almost) the dawn of time. In his new book, 52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning and a Perfect Crust, writer, armchair philosopher and now accomplished baker William Alexander does just that. At length. Fortunately, Alexander’s laborious technical explanations are few and far between: the majority of 52 Loaves’ 324 pages are filled with informed, funny and surprisingly engrossing stories from a year of (sometimes) baking dangerously.
Alexander admits that, for the most part, he doesn’t even like bread. Or didn’t, rather, until a single, delicious, rustic peasant boule captured his senses and compelled him to undertake the journey chronicled in this, his semi-scientific and historically informed baker’s memoir. Beginning with, as he puts it, the realization “with both surprise and embarrassment” that he “really had no idea what flour was,” and culminating one year later in two destroyed ovens, a possible religious experience and – spoiler alert! – the perfect loaf – Alexander’s story covers a heck of a lot more than just bread. Part of this is simply his style. William Alexander is as comfortable detailing the discovery of yeast or, say, the historical significance of nutritional additives in commercial flour as he is revealing, sometimes with too much familiarity, the strain that countless hours of baking exerted on his sex life. Blended together as they are, these variances in style and tone can be distracting; more often, though, they mesh to create a pleasantly familiar cadence, as if we’re listening to the lengthy but admittedly compelling reminiscence of an intelligent, amusing and kind of off-color favorite uncle. As silly as a bread-based religious experience might sound at the offset (chapter headings named for the order of monastic services are an instant red flag), the realization of that experience, once it comes, is quite beautifully expressed. And the skill to turn what is ostensibly a baking book into a moving and true exploration of the forces that drive us, fire our passions and feed our faith…well, that skill is more than enough to redeem a few long-winded passages and awkward sex jokes.
Incidentally, along with his unmistakable talent as a writer, Alexander finds himself on the other end of 52 loaves with the completely legitimate credentials of an award-winning baker. It’s hard not to respect, if not necessarily envy, the process by which he crafts a loaf of peasant bread entirely from locally derived scratch. Ambitious readers can glean from his descriptions everything necessary to grow, harvest and mill winter wheat, make and sustain a starter, build a clay oven in the backyard and, of course, bake a loaf of bread. Or 52. Others may simply feel a very strong urge to find some scrumptious pain de campagne to much on. Regardless of how it moves you, Alexander’s latest adventure in food, science, psychology and spirituality will impress with its breadth and amuse with its oddities. Not your average cookbook, but nevertheless an ideal kitchen companion for thinking bakers everywhere.