Hits and Misses

Hits and Misses

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Wiliam Alexander's 52 Loaves

The subtitle of 52 Loaves (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010) conveys in a suitably ironic way what Alexander's book is about:  One Man's Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and the Perfect Crust.  Obsessed by memories of a peasant loaf, Alexander decides to bake one loaf of bread a week for a year, fifty two loaves, obviously, so that he can replicate that perfect loaf of bread.

Critiquing his efforts are his wife and his two teenagers, and they provide a skeptical and sometimes comic commentary on his efforts.  He seeks out professional help, and he even builds a wood-fired oven in his backyard, or, rather, he builds two, for the first one collapses.  He takes a bread-baking course at The Ritz in Paris, one that emphasizes quantity over quality.  And then, by a process that I don't want to spoil by revealing, he finds himself a special guest of an ancient abbey in Normandy, l'Abbaye Saint-Wandrille de Fontenelle, engaged to teach two of the monks how to bake their daily bread.

This monastic experience not only gives him the organizing principle for 52 Loaves, a division by the canonical hours of Vigils, Lauds, Terce, etc., but makes him reconsider his entire concept of spirituality.  Even though he can't understand the Latin of the Gregorian chants, they begin to work on him in unexpected ways.  For a week, he too is in the world but not of it.

My only criticism of 52 Loaves is that Alexander is not forthcoming about what his experiences in the abbey really amount to.  He admits to a problem of re-entry when he returns to his home in the Hudson River valley, but he doesn't want to tell his family about it, and unfortunately we don't learn much about it either.  Like the subtitle's juxtaposition of the pursuit of truth and meaning with the perfect crust, we are forced to lower our expectations:  we are told in detail not what he took away with him from the abbey but how after his return he ruined their kitchen oven, and then ruined its replacement as well.  The reader must rest content with his recipes.

Postscript:  for other books on bread and bread making, see my earlier post, "Homemade Bread to Die For, Part 5 (2/28/2014).

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