June 26, 2020
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
Bread is of universal importance. Since nearly every culture has a type of bread used for celebration, ceremony and comfort, today’s blog breaks bread in the form of an invitation for community. Thank you for joining me today.
First, I want to share my favorite bread with you: Pão de Queijo. As you read, imagine sitting at a table, breaking bread together.
In the Hunger Games, Peeta Mellark is the son of a baker which taught him various skills such as how to decorate cakes and throw one hundred pound bags of flour over his head. These skills later came to serve well during the games. Peeta is only one example of the many literary characters who understand what it means to break bread. This tradition stems back to Homer (and beyond). For example, when Odysseus returns from his journeys, the swineherd Eumaios serves a meal to Odysseus and Telemachus. It is important that they eat prior to discussion. Even the lowest servant knows how to prepare such a meal and to share with others. The narrator describes the scene: “The swineherd strewed green brushwood and fleeces on the ground for him. There the beloved son of Odysseus seated himself, and for them the swineherd brought and set beside them platters of roasted meat, which they had left over when they were eating earlier; and hastily set bread by them, piling it in baskets, and mixed the wine, as sweet as honey, in a bowl of ivy” (Book Sixteen). This meal sets the stage for the reunion of father and son. An important aspect of the scene, the meal brings everyone to the same table, literally and figuratively. Furthermore, throughout literature, a humble table is as respected as a regal one. These examples demonstrate that the idea of breaking bread with a friend, neighbor, stranger – with anyone – is as vital today as it has always been.
Bread is one of the most common symbols of imaginative literature. Being common, however, does not dull its importance and power. Bread interacts with ancient traditions as a consistent metaphor and cultural staple. Bread is a meal fit for kings as well as strangers. Likely for this reason, bread was incorporated as a fitting metaphor of Christ’s body, as described in Luke. The gospel reads: “And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19, KJV).
Not only a religious symbol, we use breads for all sorts of celebrations. Some began as holy days and slowly melted into common culture. For example, in Swedish Traditions, Jan Öjvind Swahn writes of Waffle Day, which arose from a mispronunciation: “The Swedish name of the day Vårfrudagen (Our Lady’s Day) was mispronounced in many Swedish dialects. In parts of Sweden where the consonants L and R are pronounced with a retroflax flap, people gradually altered the pronunciation to Vafferdagen, and later on to Vaffeldagen. Since the Swedish word vaffla was an antiquated form of the Swedish word for a waffle, våffla, a permanent association to this particular food was established.” And what better way to celebrate the day, any day, than with sweet bread? Moreover, bread often acts as a comfort and eases conversation, which is why restaurants offer it at the beginning of the meal.
Bread comes in so many shapes and sizes, it’s impossible to catalogue them all. Made by accident (such as farinata di ceci ) or by necessity, it often serves to bring people together. Tasteatlas.com compiled a list of one hundred breads of excellent variety, which exhibits both its ubiquity and diversity. In fact, Tasteatlas.com tells us that injera bread is so important in Ethiopia that “people greet each other by asking ‘Did you eat injera today?’, and if the answer is positive, that assures the other person that all is well.” Furthermore, ancient flatbreads like injera often combine with communal meals, further establishing relationships and bonds. Tsoureki, a Greek bread, is exchanged on Easter Sunday as a sign of good will and friendship. Sometimes bread replaces a significant tradition from the past as with Zopf, the Swiss braid. Legend has it that in Switzerland, widows would braid their hair and cut it off to be buried with her husband. Eventually, the women began to offer a loaf of braided bread, or zopf, instead. A final example of the fellowship of bread (though there are many, many more) is Challah. Used on Shabbat, Challah symbolizes peace, love, justice and connection.
As noted before, bread comes in all shapes and sizes. Though many breads are flat and devised to be used without silverware (such as injera and tortillas), some come in elaborate shapes to celebrate holidays. Leavened and unleavened breads are also common terms with long histories, often important to religious traditions. Living in a global society allows us to take advantage of the many flavors of the world. Bread is simple, universal, and easy to procure. In writing today’s blog, I really wanted to highlight a single item of cultural importance that encourages sharing and friendship. For these reasons, bread is an excellent companion of both literature and conversation.
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