The 7 Lives of Bread: Recipe for Bread by the Sweat of Their Brow

Published by Wednesday, February 2, 2011 Permalink 0
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by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac

Translated and adapted by Diane Castiglioni

Discriminating bread lovers and sensitive natures, please abstain.

Photo: A Crow sweat lodge, photo from Museum of the American Indian.

The activity of kneading several pounds of bread dough, before the introduction of mixing machines, brought about a condition not unlike what the Lakota Sioux undergo in their I-ni-pi ceremonies, what is commonly called a “sweat lodge.” Theirs is an act of ceremony honoring the link with the Great Creator, and inside this veritable oven, the participant performs his metanoia (μετάνοια) by ritually “crying the tears of the body.” One offers this water in a manner to allow that which is within to be given back to Mother Earth.

Replace now this sweat lodge with an old bakery which is small, cramped, unhealthy, and suffocating, and you get an idea of the effort made for centuries and why this Promethean task was designated by the word “knead, “coming from the French “geindre,”  also meaning “to groan.”  He who “geint”, groans. Simple. To him, the martyr baker, his back is broken through his five main tasks of kneading: mixing, cutting, folding, stretching, and punching. Huysmans, in his book, Parisian Sketches, described the sounds of this trial:

Photo: Engraving by Victor Gilbert, The Republic Illustrated, 1886, excerpt from Pain Poilâne, Le Cherche Midi, 2005.

“They grumbled, groaned, shouted inarticulate words, uttered heartbreaking cries, fought with great blows upon the flaccid flesh. Hhn! Hhn! Hhn! Hhn! Clack! Wham! Hhn! and like a snake rolling in the rings, the putty writhed under their fists. The bodies gleamed, the bulge of biceps danced in the arms, large drops of perspiration beaded on the forehead and swallowed the flour gathered at the temples.”

Fashioned from very hard beech wood, the kneading trough was the theatre of the daily drama between the muscular baker who kneads and the dough. Rosa May, a fellow collaborator, delightfully illustrates this in her own way: the picture of her arm taken by Jessica Brogan bears the title, “My muscles making bread.”

But back to our ancient bakery. During this most beastly exercise (bear in mind that these activities were carried out within the confined area most often located in the basement near the furnace), some of the bakers’ sweat oozed from their shoulders, neck, chest and brow directly into the dough. The strapping chest and earnest brow. It was almost as if they were enacting the biblical commandment: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken” (Genesis 3:19). By the time hygienists of the nineteenth century expressed indignation at the working conditions in the bakeries of Paris, the sweat of our bakers had blessed the bread which our ancestors broke and shared. Bread by the sweat of the brow, coming from the whole body of the baker. Here we are.

As such, the recipe for bread in the sweat is universal. Here it is, exclusively: flour, water, sourdough starter or yeast, salt, water + sweat. What does sweat bring to bread? Jean Lapoujade, responsible for strategy and development at Poilâne, responds by saying that the kneaded dough was certainly enriched by the added “nitrogen” and it had more taste. The bread that we ate was once a bread of the sweat and this is the taste that our palates knew and liked. This does not mean that now we don’t sweat in bakeries, but no longer do we sweat into the dough. And with that we stopped eating both the body of the God-made man, and that of the baker.

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  • youngandfoodish
    February 2, 2011

    Very glad to read that old-fashionable sweat and toil can make a real difference.

    Is it possible that what a baker ate the previous evening “informed” his sweat and therefore his bread?

    • Jean-Philippe de Tonnac
      February 2, 2011

      hello Daniel, thanks for your comment. yes the previous evening of the baker is the core of this transubstantiation, isn’it. so an interesting article should be written around the “Last Supper”.

  • Rosa
    February 4, 2011

    A very well-written article! That must have been an even more difficlt job then. Quite a sacrifice. Seeing those poor people slaving away in the bakery and fighting their battle against the dough must have been quite a spectacle. No wonder bread is considered a sacred item…



  • Jean-Philippe de Tonnac
    February 4, 2011

    yes a sacrifice. as the one of the god-made man. the bread rises from the sweat and the blood.