Yeast of Eden

When I started this blog, I thought I’d secured the niche on putting theology and bread making side-by-side. I prided myself on my double pun blog title and figured that there would be an audience who would enjoy each part, and perhaps a small few who shared both my passions.

It appears that Matt Hosier is after my crown!

In the space of one day he posted a piece about artisan food, Jeremy Corbyn, sermon preparation and tomatoes (a natural combination!) and then a video demonstration of how to make sourdough. The latter was helpful (though for what it’s worth, I try to keep salt in bread to 1% of the overall weight). But the former was most thought-provoking because of what it had to say about the theme of authenticity.

You should sit down and read it, whilst sipping a single-origin coffee.

When I read the piece, I tweeted:

My tongue was grazing the edge of my cheek, but it wasn’t firmly wedged in there. Because I’m kinda serious. In my more poetic moments I can’t help but wonder if the Artisan Food Movement isn’t motivated by a yearning for Eden. A sense that, as Joni Mitchell put it,

We are stardust,
We are golden,
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.’

If you’re rolling your eyes and thinking that’s just some crazy hipster speak, rest assured I’m no hipster. I have a modest beard, but I can’t fit into skinny jeans (though my thighs do make regular jeans look ‘skinny’). And really it’s no more odd than the trend of seeing the gospel retold time and time again in films and TV, a la Mike Cosper’s The Stories We Tell.

I think at some level, the desire for an authentic food experience – locally sourced, naturally grown, un-adulterated, and perhaps even homemade – may reflect an inherent longing for a return to an Edenic state.

In many cases there’s a definite desire to return to practices and methods of yesteryear, before evil mass-produced corporations stepped in and conditioned us towards quantity over quality. But what if the yearning actually goes a little further back than that? To a day when:

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.’ (Genesis 2:15)

Like Matt, I am a fan of craft beer, artisan bread, good coffee and locally sourced produce. I make my own bread, mostly sourdough, and I’m a paid up supporter of the Real Bread Campaign. I got a bit uptight recently with Gregg Wallace’s misleading documentary advert for mass produced bread.

I like artisan food.

But there is plenty about the ‘authenticity drive’ that I find distasteful, some of which Matt nicely expresses in his piece too. I don’t think that it’s all good, any more than I would endorse every line or shot in a film that happens to have a clear redemptive theme.

For one thing, there can be an inherent snobbery in the artisan food movement. I know I’ve been tutted at for having unwittingly committed some kind of crime like ordering the wrong type of beer, or daring to put milk in my coffee because it was just too bitter black. And I have little patience for the holier-than-thou raised eyebrow of the authenticity police. Firstly, you should read Jay Rayner on third-wave artisanal coffee. Some of your favoured fruity notes are just horrible to my palate. Secondly, if I don’t like the taste of something, I’m not going to smile and pretend in order to win hipster points. People shouldn’t be made to feel bad for having tastes that differ from those of the trendy gatekeepers. You may be more ‘authentic’ than me, but you may also be an authentic ass!

I also find it distasteful when people are made to feel like food criminals for not being able to afford artisan food. An artisan loaf is going to cost more than a mass-produced one because of the effort involved. It should do. The worker deserves his wages (1 Tim 5:18). One of the reasons I make my own bread, apart from the fact I enjoy it, is that I can’t afford to regularly spend £4 on a loaf. So I aspire to authenticity within my means. I weigh up my time and my money and find a solution that works for me. And I don’t expect everyone to make the same value judgments as I do. There’s loads more I could say about that… another day perhaps.

I also think that – like everything else – artisan food is best enjoyed with love! Many of the most memorable meals I’ve shared with friends have been great because of the friends, rather than the food. Sure, the food played a part of it, and I remember appreciatively amazing meals that friends have cooked me. But as Proverbs says: ‘Better a dish of vegetables with love, than a fattened calf with hatred’ (Proverbs 15:17). I’d rather eat Kingsmill white squares given to me by a true friend, over a meaningful conversation, than a two-day, slow-proved, San Francisco sourdough served by someone who was just trying to show off.

If I serve bread with a perfect crust and an open crumb structure, but have not love, I am a stodgy tasteless mass!

But those caveats aside, I think there is plenty in the artisan food movement that points to Eden. When done well:

  • It affirms the goodness of this world, and thus agrees with God’s own verdict in Genesis 1.
  • It doesn’t prioritise ends over means, but achieves excellence in a way that respects the Earth and humanity. I don’t care how good your coffee is if you trebled your carbon footprint in the process of making it, which is why I appreciated people using locally sourced, sustainable produce and renewal energy.
  • It honours the cycles of creation. There’s a reason fields are meant to be left to rest and recuperate, and why forcing things to grow out of season by artificial means is a bad move. Things are designed to be enjoyed in their season.
  • It honours the animal kingdom. Of course, some would say that it’s not very honouring to chomp down on an animal at all! But I’m ok with eating meat. In fact I like eating meat very much! But I also like for that meat to have undergone as little pain as necessary before it arrived on my plate.
  • It honours the body. Many of the illnesses and intolerances that are so prevalent today are caused by cut corners, added chemicals, and a general impatience that means speed is more highly valued than nutrition. Check out some of the links at the bottom of this.
  • It sees work as a gift and food as a gift (Ecclesiastes 3:13), and work that produces food as a beautiful partnership.

Might these points – and others – not be hints that we were made for a world a little less like what we currently see around us, and a little bit more like the one depicted in the first two and last two chapters of Scripture?

Of course, I don’t for one moment think that everyone who makes bread by hand is consciously striving to return to Eden. But I like the way Mike Cosper writes about story in film and TV. He says:

It’s important to say from the outset that I do not look at our stories as allegories or metaphors. Instead, I look at them as evidence of longing and desire. They intersect with, reflect, or parallel what the old story tells us about the whole of history. For instance a fall story might not be a direct allegory or metaphor for what happened in Eden, but it certainly is trying to understand it, to wrestle with it.

I don’t presume to know or speak for the intentions of the writers, directors, or actors at all. I simply believe that if art is accurately depicting human life, it will reflect both humanity’s brokenness and the heart’s longing for eternity, beauty and redemption – all of which are found in the gospel.’ (The Stories We Tell, p38)

That is nicely put. And I could say the same about the passion for artisan food. It may not be a conscious attempt to recreate Eden, but it’s certainly trying to understand it, to wrestle with it. To answer the question of man’s relationship with this Earth – a toil which has become hardened since Genesis 3. As such it will reflect both brokenness to be overcome and the heart’s longing for eternity, beauty and redemption, all of which will come when the world is set free from its bondage at last (Romans 8).

From dust I have come and to dust I shall return – though I shall not sleep in the dust forever! When I connect with the earth, via a miller, grocer, farmer, or brewer, in some sense I am returning to my roots.

Next time you knead dough, why not try whispering under your breath with each move: “Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.” It’s a shame those words are reserved for funerals. They can be so life giving…

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