Bread is often considered a metaphor for life. But one only has to sit in the presence of a baker making a slow rise loaf to be staggered by the spiritual symbolism involved in the process.
Many have noted this connection. But I was struck by it again as I sat last week in a Denver kitchen and watched my friend prepare a loaf of bread that was to be consumed the next evening. The preparation process took most of an afternoon, so our conversation naturally turned to the process as it unfolded.
He was working with live yeast. Knowing how yeast like this is often passed down from one baker to the next, I asked him where he got his yeast. “Out of the air, two years ago,” he replied. He went on, “I set up the conditions—water and flour—and the yeast begins to grow from the germs and microbes in the air around us. I call it ‘Wild Thing.’ Since then I just feed it and keep it alive.”
Something mysterious was afoot here. My interest was peaked.
My friend then prepared the body to receive the levain (‘Wild Thing,’ the alive yeast mixture). After mixing the levain through the dough by hand, he left it to rest and rise, and then he repeated the process on the hour several more times. Finally, the dough is refrigerated overnight so that the fermentation process can infuse itself throughout the loaf. This is a similar process to the making of beer, which is actually liquid bread. The baking occurred the next morning to produce the loaf pictured above. To say that the results were fabulous is an understatement. But more than its taste, I felt like I had touched a deeper spiritual world.
Peter Reinhart, a master baker with a mystical orientation, points out that bread is a uniquely transformative food. Consider the process:
Dead to Alive – creating the yeast from the air
Alive to Dead – crushing the wheat seed to flour
Dead to Alive – adding the levain to the body
Alive to Dead – baking the loaf
Dead to Alive – ingesting the bread as food
In a non-dualistic universe, spiritual reality is not separate from physical reality. All of life is based on the same rhythms for those who have eyes to see. The sacred text states, “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.” Our bodies are designed for spiritual leaven. We may not like the process or the time it takes, but there are no short cuts to a life that has been transformed by the spiritual. You can taste it in slow rise bread and see it in some of the people you meet who have been leavened by love and suffering.
Atheist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach stated, “Man is what he eats.” By this he thought he was putting to rest any mystical speculations about human nature. In fact, he was expressing, without knowing it, a profoundly spiritual idea. Oh, to be as transformed as the bread.