Bitter Bread and Sour

An essay written for the module ‘Principles of Gastronomy’ in the Masters in Gastronomy delivered by Cordon Bleu and Adelaide University.

‘For dole bread is bitter bread, bitter bread and sour
There’s grief in the taste of it, there’s weevils in the flour.’

Dorothy Hewitt, Weevils in the Flour

For on the day he died he took bread into his hands and breaking it said – Take and eat. This is my body

English liturgy of the Catholic Mass

It was common at high school to gossip about which girls ‘had a bun in the oven’.

The author recollects his schooldays

I thought I’d start a discussion of the symbolism of bread with three potent associations of it from my background.

The first is from a song I used to sing in a leftie community choir and is a superb example of Frazer’s concept of contagious magic where things that have once been in contact retain a permanent trace of this contact. Here, the grief of the poor during the Depression is kneaded by them into the loaf that they bake, and the bread itself becomes bitter and sour. Then the grief is eaten again by them in a vicious circle. But the image is made even more potent because the flour itself is contaminated with weevils. When I read the words or hear the song I invariably get the sour taste in my mouth though I’ve never been poor. I know just what that bread tastes like from eating hard stale bread. So I can immediately taste what the grief also tastes like.

The second is one of the most potent cornerstones of a religion you are likely to come across. And that’s particularly if you stay with the Catholic interpretation of the meaning of the words and act as literal. It’s called transubstantiation, and good Catholics have to believe that the host, the wafer of bread that they receive during communion, has become at that time the body of Christ. Yep, it’s cannibalistic in the same way as Dionysian rituals were. Here, bread, already a symbol of life (and more of that later) has become not just physically life-giving but spiritually life-giving. Again, if we think of this in terms of ideas of contagion, it’s a mind-bogglingly powerful event. The penitent is taking into theirself godhead and so are taking on some of the nature of god. (As an aside here, St Teresa of Avila apparently once said ‘God exists even in a pot-au-feu’ (Predali, 2000). Predali implies that to some extent, monastic prescriptions against waste carry this weight of meaning. Her article describes particularly the monastic practice of collecting crumbs of bread at the end of a meal and recycling them as soups, pancakes and puddings – a Spanish version of the latter being made at Christmas for the poor and called las migas del Nino or the Crumbs of Baby Jesus). 

The third is a clear example of the symbolism pursued (with the relentlessness of a dog with a bone) by Camporesi (1998: 15 – 17). To go with his heated language, the womb has become the oven in which the male’s seed is being baked into the foetusloaf, just as the humble grain of wheat is transformed (after a lot of grinding (mill-stones and thighs?), mixing with fluid (water, milk, and what – seminal and vaginal fluids?), and kneading (easy one this – hands in both cases with the dough and with flesh) ) into a loaf.

I’ve done that bit deliberately for two reasons. One, to toss a little cold water on the over-yeasty imagination of Camporesi. After all, as Jung didn’t say, ‘sometimes a loaf is just a loaf”. The second, to raise (oh my lord, the puns are so inevitable) the question of just which bread Camporesi is talking about. It’s like the question of what is milk. What is ‘bread’ for Camporesi. I want to suggest that it’s leavened bread only. Hence all the symbolism he finds of the sun, rising, swelling, creating spaces and light. I can’t see it with the flat breads of India or the Middle East – pita, roti, chappati, etc. It’s not to say that some part of bread’s symbolism has this sexual connotation, but I think Camporesi overstates the case.

In this light, it’s interesting that Montonari says that in the Jewish tradition, leavened bread has no place in religious ritual because it is somehow ‘corrupt’ (Montanari, 1996:16). Camporesi’s interpretation begins to look a little bound within a Western Christian analysis of the meanings of food.

It seems to me that there are three ways in which bread is deployed symbolically:
. transformation
. fecundity
. nourishment both physical and more importantly perhaps spiritually.

It also seems to me that it’s not bread per se that’s carrying the meanings, but it’s the whole cycle from seed of wheat to loaf of bread, and because it is this cycle there is space for unleavened bread to have meaning as well. It’s most clearly there in the quote from Augustine (Montanari, 1996: 16). It is also there in Camporesi when he talks of bread as a symbol of ‘life in perpetual regeneration….of the continuity of existence’ (1998: 15), but I think Camporesi is missing the wholeness of the cycle. Bread is the midpoint in the whole cycle, which he does recognise continues with ingestion and, yes, defecation.

Let me draw a parallel. In the English folk song tradition there is the tale of John Barleycorn. ‘John’ is the barley plant, and more particularly the barley seed. In the song, men come into the field and cut down John Barleycorn, then beat him (threshing), grind him between two stones and bung him in a vat. The song portrays this as men (yes, it is a heavily gendered song) killing John Barleycorn. The punchline, though, is that John Barleycorn ‘lives to tell tale, for they pour him out of oaken vat and they call him nut brown ale’. This is a resurrection symbol, which of course is a harvest/spring story in the same way as the story of Persephone’s abduction by Pluto is also a resurrection story and a harvest/spring story. 

So, what I’m arguing for here, is that the symbolism of bread is only partially understood if we just focus on the bread, as Camporesi does and Montanari doesn’t so much. And if you stand outside of a modern understanding of the nature of seed, of germination, of nutrient, of yeast even, you get some sense of how miraculous must have seemed the transformation of seed under the earth into grass, the transformation of flower into seed again, the sudden rising of a mixture of the powdered seed and water into a pulpy lump. Why wouldn’t you want to take in that magical power by eating the product?

Sardinian’s, for whom bread is a staple, have a number of sayings that make this whole cycle symbolism explicit:

‘Chie hat pane mai non morit’ – Who has bread never dies (Cambosu in Cirese et all 1977, cited in Counihan, 1997)
To have security is to have ‘pane in domu’ – bread in the home (Pinna 1971 cited in Counihan, 1997)
‘Bellu laore, annu vonu; laore mezzanu, annu malu’ – Beautiful grain, good year, poor grain, bad year.

Each of these in isolation might focus our attention on either the bread, or the grain. But it’s clear there is a through thought underlying the three expressions, and that I think is the cycle of grain to bread. 

And here’s a fabulous story told by Counihan. One of her informant’s, Luisa, in the first year of her marriage, bakes the traditional Easter bread from her husband’s wheat. One of the loaves is in the shape of a crucifix (not penises, here, Camporesi). When she gives it to her husband to eat he says ‘Don’t you know that we have to eat the cross together, now that we are married. As we share our lives, so too must we share the cross, so that we bear life’s burdens equally in the year ahead’. Counihan comments ‘Bread was the product of their union, and its shared consumption reaffirmed their interdependence’ (Counihan 1997). Again, the bread is a part of the whole that is being commemorated.

The Hewitt song quoted at the beginning of this encompasses this cyclic symbolism, too, in referring to the weevils in the flour. The grain itself is contaminated and so the bread becomes contaminated. The punch line to this, though, is that ‘men grew hard as iron upon that black bread and sour’. That is, that grief here is spiritually strengthening just as the bread itself, for all its contamination, is physically strengthening.

If my view holds good, that it is the nature of the cycle of grain to food and the regeneration story in it that is the meaning of bread, then one might expect to find that where bread is not the staple something else has taken its symbolic place. Owen (1998; 39 – 60) looks at the culture and myths of rice, and there are parallels here to the bread stories. The Bagobo of Mindanao have a story about Mebuyan, who, refusing to follow her brother to explore the sky, sinks instead into the earth, scattering rice as she goes, and remains now under the earth. This is not to far away from the Persephone story. In a Javan rice origin myth again, it is a young goddess, Dewi Sri, who is saved from being raped by another god by being killed by other gods (hmmm, there’s a very interesting cross-over into cultural practice). They bury her body and from it grows rice. Owen notes that Dewi Sri is now the spirit of fertility and increase, protectress of rice fields. The Lamet people of Laos believe that rice alone among all plants has a soul and line the roads to their fields with altars and flowers so the soul can find its way there in time for the harvest. Owen doesn’t go on to discuss what these farmers believe happens with the ingestion of the rice, but I’d wager that some sort of contagion notion isn’t far behind.

Visser (1986: 166 – 171) also draws attention to the soul within rice. A telling practice she recounts is a Thai custom where the purchaser of rice gives back a handful of grain to the farmer, the grain being the soul of the rice which must ‘impregnate’ next year’s crop. Visser notes ‘The act is an elegant sign of co-operation and good will’. Visser goes on to speak of rice, for the Thai, as ‘like mother’s milk, white and pure nourishment from maternal womanhood.’ It is the soul in rice that has this nourishing property – the khwan. ‘The khwan in a person is nourished by his or her mother before birth, by her milk after birth, and by rice thereafter.’

What does all of this say more generally about the power of food symbolism in general ? That it is potent, for one. Counihan calls her article Bread as World and that’s a whole lot of wrap in one little bit of food. That the symbolic themes, the ur myths or narratives, if you like, are the same across cultures, while the food that carries the meanings can wary – bread and rice, for example. That food from the same ingredients don’t necessarily carry the same meanings in all situations – the Jewish lack of deployment versus the Christian deployment of leavened bread. That it isn’t only the specific piece of food that carries the meaning but its genesis and its working by humans – John Barleycorn. That within the general meanings, individuals can find more specific meanings – the wonderful story collected by Counihan.

Camporesi, P (1998) The Magic Harvest. Food, Folklore and Society (Trans. Joan Krakover Hall) Cambridge: Polity Press
Counihan, C (1997) Bread as World. Food Habits and Social Relations in Modernizing Sardinia in Food and Culture. A Reader Edited by Carole Counihan and Penny van Esterik. Routledge
Montanari, M (1996) The Culture of Food (Trans. Carl Ipsen) Blackwell
Owen, (1993) Sri The Rice Book, Francis Lincoln. London
Predali, D God in Crumbs in Slow. Year IV, Issue No 18, July-September 2000
Visser, M (1986) Much Depends on Dinner. Penguin

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