In the grocery store everyone stays as far apart as possible, repelling each other like the flipsides of magnets, inventing an awkward dance of social distancing. I boogie towards the bread section and stare at the loaves for a while. There is absolutely nothing wrong with them, they all look perfectly uniform. I try to imagine the bakery, envisioning images of steel machines, strangers in white coats and gloves, huge ovens and stacks of sterile plastic containers. No matter how much I like to imagine the stranger in the industrial assembly line putting some true love into their labor, I will never know them.
Their potential love remains a secret sealed within the unrevealing, golden bread crust like a winning lottery ticket. I just want to touch something. I waltz up to the flour aisle and grab one bag of wholegrain rye and one bag of organic wheat. I am not much different from anyone else, I judge the flour by the package, knowing nothing about the fields or factories where it originates from. I feel utterly empty to the tunes of the in-store radio.
Standing in the neatly scattered self-checkout line I vaguely remember a passage from Chris Kraus’ Aliens and Anorexia, taken from Kraus’ LA diary. Her days-long starvation leads her to an upmarket grocery store in search of something that she would be willing to eat. She looks at the luxurious delicacies displayed, foreign cheeses and little packages of salads. The desire she had hoped for does not come, instead she is disgusted by how ”this food was never touched with love or understanding”. I text the friend who borrowed me the book years ago, asking for the quote. After several failed attempts to find the specific page, he suggests that I just come over and borrow the book.
I was raised by a mother who would always answer the question ”How did you cook this?” with the mysterious and annoying ”With lots of love and magic”, a
quote taken from a dramatic Mexican movie called Como Agua para Chocolate2.
I was raised to see food as an expression of love and care. I prepare a batch of almond cookies, careful to add a little extra emotion this time, and bring them over to my friend’s place.
The quote is right there when I open the book at a random page. On the same page I find the following: ”If I’m not touched it becomes impossible to eat. It’s
only after sex, sometimes, that I can eat a little. When I’m not touched my skin feels like the flip side of a magnet.” I smile as I am brought back to the uneasy dance in the grocery store. It does not matter that I despise Kraus for being so
spoiled, blatantly denying the luxury of food, even expensive delicacies. I could call her a brat for having the time to aversely stare at foreign, expensive cheese.
Yet I understand Kraus’ reluctance towards the lonely experience of eating something void of love, understanding or magic if you will.
Another friend agrees to give me some of her sourdough starter. I could have made one myself, asked the local bakery for one, or even bought one. None of these options felt nearly as satisfying as sharing a microbial culture with a friend. Sharing food is sharing love. My friend tells me she has an easy recipe which she will send me, but the most important thing is that I get to know the dough. I can weigh out the ingredients by the gram, but I still have to pay close attention to the texture of the dough as I stir, knead and fold it. The equation of food to love seems particularly true in the case of bread baking. Ursula K. Le Guin wrote:
“Love doesn't just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new”.
When I get home I immediately start weighing out my flours. Preparing and kneading the dough moves me far from my ordinary thoughts, into a focused state. My inexperienced hands are clumsily getting to know the dough. I am trying to connect to something, with my hands I am performing the same actions my friend has practiced since a few months, the same process as the first farmers of early civilization. At the kitchen counter I ponder upon what came first, the loaf or the house? Over 24 hours later I cut into the promising crust of my first loaf, revealing a completely failed bread. This makes me sad for approximately two minutes, then I start weighing out my flour again. I did not expect to get to know the dough the first time baking, I am learning, I am connecting to something. I call my friend and ask for help with troubleshooting, I could google this, but that’s exactly the type of action I want to replace with an opportunity for human contact.
What I felt at the grocery store, and tried to combat in the kitchen, could be described as alienation. Discussions on alienation are mainly associated to Hegel and Marx, but Rahel Jaeggi summarizes one aspect of alienation as ”the inability to establish a relation to other human beings, to things, to social institutions and thereby also—so the fundamental intuition of the theory of alienation—to oneself”. The social distancing during the outbreak of Covid-19 might play a role in heightening the sense of alienation. Being disconnected from workplaces, friends and family can contribute to the feeling of confusion and disconnect from oneself. Alienation can also be described as ”relations that are not entered into for their own sake”, such as wage labor where it is common to perform an action in order to make a living rather than to enjoy the work or the products of it. The product of one’s labor ends up somewhere far from one’s own life. I am a stranger to the farmer, the miller, the truck driver, the baker, the store clerk and possibly even myself. I know that the people who produced the perfect, golden loaves at the store did so for money, but I don’t know if they share my alienation. I can’t possibly know whether they performed the sowing, milling, driving and baking with love and magic.
There is a bakery initiative in the Netherlands called Bakkerij de Eenvoud, which translates to Bakery Simplicity. They exist in seven locations, three mobile and four stationary. Bakkerij de Eenvoud was not initiated to sell bread, but to connect people. The concept is centered around traditional wood-fired clay ovens, intended as spaces for initiation of social processes. Sometimes they function as a space for discussion, booked for example by municipalities or companies. Usually they function as a collective oven for the inhabitants of the area where the ”bakery” is located. At one of the Amsterdam West ovens I joined one open baking session for the residents of the neighborhood, and another session lead by a local women’s network. I was amazed to see how the oven really did connect people from different backgrounds around the bread. I think of the Bakkerij Eenvoud as a way to combat the sense of alienation. The community oven is an ancient phenomenon, found in societies throughout history, including neolithic times in what is now called Pakistan, medieval France and contemporary Morocco among other places. Reclaiming the production of your own food, as well as providing a meeting opportunity for neighbors and a space for social projects, all seem to serve a purpose in recreating connections lost in an industrialized and individualized society.
Right now, however, the Bakkerij Eenvoud is closed for the sake of social distancing to reduce the spread of infection, and I am far away in my hometown dancing with my fellow grocery shoppers. I can’t physically get together with others and bake, but I can still bake. In my opinion, alienation is an issue of society, and not something I can just fix within myself. Yet reconnecting my own labor and the products of it, by manually and carefully baking bread, seems to have some effect on the way I feel. The baking helps me feel connected to the food that I eat, and it gives me an opportunity to care for myself. It is far from an adequate replacement for community, but food is still a symbol of love and care to me, meaning that every time I take the time to bake for myself I am caring for myself. I do not know if baking relieves my sense of alienation, but I know it calms me down and makes me feel like I am showing myself love.
- Kraus, Chris. 2000. Aliens & Anorexia. Smart Art Press vol. VII
- Arau, Alfonso. 1992. Como Agua Para Chocolate [film]. Miramax Films.
- K. Le Guin, Ursula. 1971. The Lathe of Heaven. First Diversion Books edition April
- Leopold, David. 2018-08-30. Alienation [encyclopedia article]
- Jaeggi, Rahel. 2014. Alienation. Columbia University Press.
- Buurtwerkplaats Noorderhof, Bakkerij de Eenvoud https://buurtwerkplaatsnoorderhof.nl/BAKKERIJ-DE-EENVOUD
- Ahmed, Mukhtar. 2014. Ancient Pakistan - An Archaeological History: Volume II: A Prelude to Civilization. Foursome Group.
- Weiss Adamson, Melitta. 2004. Food in Medieval Times. Greenwood Press.
- Hembree, Mikelle. 2019-02-25. Communal Ovens in Morocoo – Baking Bread As a
- Community [blog] https://www.citynibbler.com/home/2019/2/20/communal-ovens-morocco