Kristin Catherwood, Director of Living Heritage
“All sorrows are less with bread.”
Alternative translation: “bread is relief from all kinds of grief.”
- Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (borrowed from Mariette Sluyter, Bread, National Film Board of Canada).
I was not surprised to hear that some of the first reported shortages in grocery stores was (after toilet paper, a subject worthy of its own cultural study) yeast and flour. In my own experience, as I packed up articles from my apartment to move out to stay with my dad at our family farm for awhile, I grabbed from the back of my fridge a sorely neglected sourdough starter. Why did I grab the starter? Why did I feel like I should make bread? A wealth of articles that soon appeared in the media indicated I was not alone. These many articles have quoted experts from varied backgrounds and presented different theories and interpretations such as: a way to pass the time, it makes people feel secure, it provides a sense of normalcy, etc. I do not argue against any of these analyses, but want to add some commentary from a folkloric point of view, grounded in the principles of living heritage.
In this commentary, I am referencing several Newfoundland sources, since that is what I am familiar with from my studies of folklore. However, there are examples of bread’s cultural significance found throughout the world, including here in Saskatchewan. For years now, I have considered initiating some sort of living heritage project about bread, and this current situation is bringing it back to the forefront of my mind. I hold on to the power of simple, everyday themes to serve as portals into our most deeply held cultural values. Bread is one such. In my community workshops and presentations about living heritage, I often show parts of artist Mariette Sluyter’s National Film Board project, Bread (http://bread.nfb.ca/.) The project profiles six women from western Canada from diverse backgrounds as they share narratives of their personal life experience while baking bread. Each type of bread the women bake is as different as their personal experiences, and yet they are connected by their experiences of being women, and by the act of baking bread. I invite you to take 30 minutes from your day to experience this project which is brimming with living heritage. Another one to watch is Michael Pollan’s Cooked, available on Netflix. Particularly relevant to this discussion on bread is the episode, “Air.”
Bread is a symbol of culture as much as it is a tangible and indisputable foodstuff. “Give us this day our daily bread.” We break bread with each other; in Christianity and other major religions, bread takes on symbolic potency. One of the core tenets of Roman Catholic tradition is belief in transubstantiation – the process whereby specifically bread is literally transformed into the body of Christ. The form of that bread has changed over the centuries, with its present iteration as a communion wafer. During the medieval era, there were specially licensed bakeries which had the approval of the Church to bake the unleavened bread to be used in the Communion sacrament. This is one example of how bread is used in a religious context; there are countless others globally.
The cultural connotations of bread are informed by historic realities. For example, flour and lard were provided in government rations which often inadequately staved off starvation for indigenous peoples in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These ingredients were combined to make bannock, a traditional Scottish staple which has now become a culturally significant food for indigenous peoples of the plains. The ways in which bannock is made differs from community to community, sometimes from individual to individual, as does its cultural significance. But importantly is the significance itself – bannock is instantly recognizable as a food with cultural meaning for indigenous communities. In my own work, I have been treated to bannock, both baked and fried, in the northern communities of La Loche (Dene and Métis) and Cumberland House (Cree and Métis), as well as in southern plains communities in Métis Cree, and Nakoda contexts. It has the power to reaffirm a sense of cultural identity while also speaking to historical truths. Bannock is also referred to as a colonial food, one that represents the atrocities committed to indigenous people in Canada, and therefore tainted by these associations (for more on this topic, see Zoe Tennant’s article, https://thewalrus.ca/breaking-bread/). Like any form of bread, without cultural context bannock is just ingredients baked together. It is the weight of history and culture that imbues it with its meaning and significance, and thus it becomes an example of living heritage.
In folklore studies, scholars examine the everyday items, practices, and beliefs that inform people’s understanding of themselves and their belonging to place. Delving into the significance of what is often taken for granted reveals the richness inherent in all communities’ living heritage. Bread is a prime example. Folklorist, Diane Tye, published a study on the cultural significance of bread in Newfoundland. She argues that “bread touched all aspects of life,” and quotes anthropologist, Carole Counihan, whose study of the significance of bread in Sardinia found that bread, “is a particularly sensitive indicator of change.” (p. 175).
Tye’s study examines many aspects of bread’s significance to Newfoundland’s cultural heritage, but I found particular relevance in her commentary on the work of bread making. In today’s society, and even in current circumstances, bread making has become almost a hobby, or a recreational pursuit. As Tye demonstrates, “In earlier generations, the demands of bread-baking filled women’s days.” (p. 180). Bread was so essential to family survival, that its making was a core activity of a woman’s life. The “barm” or “sponge” that was used (sort of a yeast-sourdough hybrid) to rise the bread was a precious and labour-intensive commodity. Without it, the batch of bread would fail. Setting it out to rise was referred to as, “putting the bread to bed.” If the fire in the stove went out in the night, the bread might not rise; thus some women literally took their rising bread to bed with them -- the only warm place in the house on cold winter nights.
Tye also shares stories of the ways parents would encourage their children to eat the bread crusts, and thus not let the precious food go to waste. There were tales a “crust man” who would come to steal children who did not eat bread. Others tried to convince their children by saying the crusts would make them strong, make their cheeks rosy, or their hair curly. That last hit home for me. As a child, I remember eating my sandwiches but leaving the crusts behind. My grandmother would tell me to eat them, so I would have curly hair. When that didn’t prove enough incentive, she would get stern, telling me that there were starving children in the world who would do anything to have my bread crusts, and so I’d better not waste them.
Bread had medicinal uses as well, and could be used in divinatory practices. Bread was also used as protection. In folklorist, Barbara Rieti’s, study of fairy lore in Newfoundland, she found that it was common practice to carry bread in one’s pockets to be protected from being, “taken by the fairies”, or harmed by other supernatural entities. Rieti argued, “even without religious associations, bread provides a talisman of domesticity (and culture) against the perils of the wilderness.” (p. 76). If we take that word wilderness to mean “the unknown” we can make an argument about the use of bread as a comforting symbol of home and of culture against the great uncertainty we are collectively living through. Tye adds that this practice of carrying bread in the face of potential danger was, “a physical reminder of where you came from, and by extension who you were.” (p. 187).
In her article, Tye also speaks to the connections of bread with a nostalgic yearning to return to earlier times, and particularly, to rural lifestyles that were self-sufficient and grounded in family closeness and connection to place. My perspective on our current bread frenzy is closely related to this. The act of baking bread is symbolic of the self-sufficiency most of our ancestors lived. They did not have the option of whether to eat out or cook at home, or even to go to the grocery store for that matter. We as a western society are only a couple of generations removed from a time when almost all meals were produced at home, and often the ingredients to produce them were sourced nearby, oftentimes from one’s own garden and barn.
The “panic buying” we have witnessed in recent weeks may not be irrational after all. Rather, we are responding to fundamental human fears of survival, and these are culturally informed. Bread, at a deep level, represents food in general, and the COVID-19 pandemic is revealing the fragility of our current food systems. We know that much of our food comes from faraway places and must rely on complicated transport networks to get to our supermarket shelves. During “normal” life, we can ponder these things with concern, but without urgency. But when a disruption occurs, we are confronted with our vulnerability. The act of baking bread, of producing our own food, is perhaps an assertion of self-sufficiency and personal survival in the face of uncertainty.
As for my own bread, grabbing the sourdough starter was an instinctive act, perhaps informed by my knowledge that yeast was running low in grocery stores. As far as I’ve heard, bread itself has not been scarce in the stores, but the instinct we act upon is cultural heritage imbedded in our very bones. In a complicated world brought to a sudden halt, the essentials of life and the very question of survival rise. For me, slowly nurturing my sourdough starter back to life took two weeks. The symbolism was not lost on me even as I performed the daily ritual of feeding the starter until finally it was ready to produce a loaf of bread.
In this time of global uncertainty and change, the pandemic is forcing us to be close to hearth and home, and bread is inextricably linked with that. As we move through our days wondering when things will get back to normal, or perhaps if “normal” is what we actually want to return to, we reach for something solid to hold onto. A daily food usually taken for granted, sometimes demonized because of its heavy carb load, and other times brought into the spotlight for religious or cultural ritual, bread is now returning to its place on our tables and in our collective cultural consciousness as the very stuff of life.
Bonus: Bread is one of the themes explored in our Val Marie Elevator Living Heritage Project. Check out the link for a viceo of Val Marie's Maurice Lemire slicing in the the bread he baked for the comunity launch of the project. (Visit this page to see the full booklet)
Rieti, Barbara. 1991. Strange Terrain: The Fairy World in Newfoundland. St. John’s, NL: Institute for Social and Economic Research.
Pollan, Michael. 2016. Cooked. Netflix Original series. www.netflix.com
Sluyter, Mariette. Bread. National Film Board of Canada, 2015. Accessed: https://www.nfb.ca/interactive/bread/, April 13, 2020.
Tennant, Zoe. “Does Bannock Have a Place in Indigenous Cuisine?” The Walrus, June 2016. Updated April 1, 2020. Accessed: https://thewalrus.ca/breaking-bread/, April 13, 2020.
Tye, Diane. (2011). “Bread for the Road”: Intersections of Food and Culture in Newfoundland and Labrador. Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, 26(2). Retrieved from https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/NFLDS/article/view/21031, April 12, 2020.