Friday, July 23, 2010

Book Review: 52 Loaves by William Alexander

In his new book, 52 Loaves: One Man's Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust, William Alexander describes the year he spent baking a loaf of bread each week in an attempt to replicate a loaf of peasant bread he once tasted. In living out this obsession, he grows and grinds his own wheat, wins second place in a New York State Fair bread contest, and travels to a 1,300-year-old monastery in Normandy to help them restore their practice of bread baking.

This is not a cookbook, and I don’t recommend this book to new bakers.  But, it is well written and I found it to be sympathetic to the travails of home bread bakers searching for the perfect loaf.  Alexander has an interesting sense of humor and I appreciated reading his reflections on the process and particularly about his time with the monks of l’Abbaye Saint-Wandrille.

My mouth watered and I felt a strong desire to return to the kitchen as I read about his ritual of weekly baking, the meditative state achieved in kneading, and the nearly universal positive response to the aroma of fresh baked bread.  I also enjoyed reading his tangents into understanding enriched flour, the disease pellagra, milling wheat, and the images of bread in Da Vinci’s Last Supper painting.

I found, however, that Alexander seemed to make things more complicated than they needed to be and he was often surprised by what are usually seen as simple techniques, like the use of steam and high temperature in baking.  But, I suppose that will happen with a six thousand year old staple of human civilization that consists of a minimum of 4 ingredients, yet has thousands of techniques and variations.  He also seemed to take a while to realize that the definition of the perfect loaf varies around the world and from person to person.

Some of his quest was a bit trite.  I feel as though I’ve already read several other accounts of urban (within NY Times local delivery radius) New Yorkers and their humorous, but likely obsessive adventures in gastronomy.  The difference here was my shared passion for good bread, so I was more tolerant, I guess. I also didn’t care to have so many reports on his marital sex life.  I remember thinking that his high school and college age children must be pretty embarrassed.  I hope his wife was okay with it.

If you enjoy baking bread or reading about obsessive behavior, then I think you will find this an entertaining book.

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