Searching for meaning, loaf by loaf
In 52 Loaves, William Alexander, an IT manager and amateur baker, recounts a year spent trying to bake the “perfect“ loaf of bread. Alexander, author of The $64 Tomato, takes the reader on a quest that involves growing his own wheat, building a brick oven in his backyard and traveling to a yeast factory in Canada, a commercial wheat mill, a communal oven in Morocco and, ultimately, a French monastery, where he teaches the monks to make their own bread.
Alexander, who is a funny and likable writer, tells us a great deal about the history of bread, the process of making commercial yeast, and one courageous doctor’s fight against a disease called pellagra, which killed hundreds of thousands of people during the Great Depression and has now been vanquished by the simple addition of niacin to bread. But while 52 Loaves is in one sense a book about bread, it is really the story of a middle-aged man discovering a need for spiritual meaning in his life—a need that is entwined with, and perhaps even supersedes, his quest for the ultimate loaf. Though the sections of the book are named after the seven daily services of the monastic ritual, Alexander does not return to the Christian faith of his grandparents. He does, however, come away with a renewed appreciation for the value of a spiritual life, and he learns that “the only thing more unsettling than having your faith shaken is having your lack of faith shaken.”
If you are looking for a book that will teach you how to make a great loaf of bread, 52 Loaves is probably not the place to start; Alexander does include some detailed recipes at the end of the book, but it is not meant to be manual for bakers. Instead, it is a very engaging and well-written book about the lessons that a smart and sensitive person learned from trying to do something as well as possible—and that is a story always worth reading.