Sunday, July 22, 2007

Black Bread Is Beautiful

I've been reading -- ever so slowly! -- bits and nibbles of Marion Nestle's latest book, What to Eat, over my lunch breaks at work. It's a fascinating book, going aisle by aisle through the supermarket to take a close look at all the foods we buy and eat, breaking down the science and the myths to help you make sensible and healthy choices. (Hint: The closer to the original form the food is, the healthier it is, the more you get for your money, and the more the farmer gets for the price.)

Over lunch on Friday, I read the chapter about breads, both those baked in the industrial process and those "artisan" breads baked in house. While I've long been a fan of whole grain breads -- ever so much more interesting and tasty than white bread! -- something striking happened while I read about the nutritional value of Wonder Bread and the other loaves available in the grocery store. I found the urge to bake my own bread raise its long-dormant head, and I even had a particular recipe in mind: black bread.

Long, long ago, black bread was the bottom of the barrel, literally. Made with the cheapest, coarsest grain, often with all sorts of unsavory "additives" left in, black bread was what was left for the peasants... or for everyone, in times of high taxes or famine. Over time, though, with better quality ingredients and the health-conscious fixation on whole grains, black bread (like pumpernickel) has become more respectable.

Thing is, most people still prefer white bread or a mild whole wheat bread, and it's not often you'll find a truly dark bread in the stores or even in most bakeries. But I can certainly find a recipe or two in my collection of cookbooks.

I pulled out my ragged copy of Uprisings, which is a wonderful collection of bread recipes from bakeries and cooperatives around the country, laced with stories about the people and ideals about social justice, peace, and cooperation. It always makes me happy to bake from this book, as if I'm part of broader community dedicated to making real food for real people. (Oh, wait. I am!)

The black bread recipe found in the book incorporates a number of different grains, and I was pleased to be able to use local ingredients for about half of them: local organic spelt flour, local corn meal, and local rolled oats, along with whole wheat and rye flours, cocoa powder, and wheat germ.

Despite my eager rush to get the bread started and my unintentional destruction of the yeast in the sponge (it's OK, I added a little more), the dough came together and rose reasonably well. I divided the dough to make one large loaf for me and two smaller loaves for friends, and I baked them off just in time for lunch.

I couldn't wait to tuck into my loaf, so I cut off a few slices, slathered them with butter, sprinkled them with fresh local dill, and topped them with slices of cucumber from a co-worker. Lunch time!

I certainly wouldn't want to glorify the black bread of the past, knowing it wasn't of high quality (like this). I know I have access to far better food and a better variety of food than many people today, let alone centuries ago. But I'm glad I can appreciate the simplicity and the wholesome taste of such foods.

That's the beauty of local and home-cooked food: simple, fresh tastes that are good for you.


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