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In a loaf of bread, a story of culture

Shannon Kuhn
Jerry Lewanski, co-owner of Fire Island Rustic Bakery on the corner of G Street and 14th Avenue, in the bakery on Thursday, February 10, 2011 Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News

Forget the roses; bring me a homemade baguette any day.

Bread is one of my favorite things to eat, and I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately. In my travels I’ve learned you can explore a country’s culture through the types of breads its people eat. In France, the irresistibly-light-yet-chewy baguettes are the heartbeat and icon of the nation. Mexico has colorful pan dulce, Scandinavia’s loyal to its hearty rye and crisp barley and naan in India is an essential part of any meal. Countries are as defined by their national breads as they are by their land.

So then, what story does bread in America tell? Is it a success story, with its multi-packs of pre-sliced bread conveniently packaged to be stored away in the freezer until ready to eat? Or is it a story, fraught with loss and anxiety, of a nation that has long struggled with its relationship to carbohydrates, gluten and the often-dreaded bread crusts?

It seems that we are at a crossroads, that our story is still evolving. We have a growing number of artisan bakers and entrepreneurs who are creating a national neighborhood bakery movement. As they serve an increasingly diverse population, these bakeries often have global offerings, from freshly made braided challah to sweet Parisian macarons.

So now it’s up to us, the eaters, to create a groundswell.

We can easily choose to fill our freezers and cupboards with mass-produced commercial bread and be done. Or we can patronize the neighborhood bakery, which plays an important and often overlooked role in the modern American community. Along with breads and baked goods, it provides the quintessential gathering place and a way to bring people together. We desperately need places like this, where you can meet your neighbors.

Let's make our story of bread more than a side note in our busy lives. Stop at the bakery on your way home. Meet old friends there on the weekend. Taking the time to buy fresh bread for your loved ones is an act of kindness. This simple action has the power to become extraordinary. In a baguette lies the story not only of the baker and the care and labor that went into the creation of the bread, but also the recipient. Stopping by the neighborhood bakery to bring a homemade loaf home shows your loved ones that you have thought about them during the day.

Let bread be more than a source of calories, but a way of life.

Shannon Kuhn lives in Anchorage, where she writes about food and culture.