Review: Our Daily Bread

Our Daily Bread: A Meditation on the Cultural and Symbolic Significance of Bread Throughout History Predrag Matvejević. Translated from the Croatian by Christina Pribichevich-Zorić. 2020. London: Istros Press, pp. 168. ISBN:978-1-912545-11-7

Anne Meneley (Trent University)

Predrag Matvejević’s book Our Daily Bread is particularly intriguing given the concern with bread in recent times. Two “bread moments,” if you will, over the past decade stand out for me. One is “bread as danger” where bread is seen as the vehicle for carbohydrate overindulgence leading to weight gain or as the carrier of gluten, newly refigured as a poison, wreaking havoc with sensitive digestive systems while providing fodder for new food marketing strategies, piously advertising products as “gluten-free.” (My personal favorite is the ad for “gluten-free” eggs!) The second is “bread as comfort” trend of sour dough bread making, which began before the Covid-19 pandemic, but increased exponentially during it, in what L. Sasha Gora calls “panic baking.” While Gora argues persuasively that both of these bread moments may be attempts to attain control over some aspects of food consumption in the “industrialized and globalized food system” (2020:93), what also seems to be going on is a renaissance of the idea of bread as the “staff of life.” It will be interesting to see whether this moment, when so many feel the power of bread and the power of sharing it to bind people (even if the sharing happened via photos on Instagram or Facebook or over Zoom), will last.

It is a perfect moment to read Matvejević’s book, to appreciate his wide-ranging reflections on the centrality of bread in ritual in all three of the global monotheistic religious traditions. Along with olive oil and wine, bread is a substance whose making, consumption and sharing have had profound and moving significance for so long. As is evidenced by the “throughout history” in the title, the scope of this book is vast, with a tilt to the significance of bread in the Mediterranean and its deep embedding in ethics and morality.

While the value of the “follow the commodity” has been persuasive to food anthropologists since Sid Mintz’ work on sugar, this aptly named book really is like a meditation. The book is written without footnotes or the usual in-text references to which academics are accustomed. There is no central “I argue…” structure.  Rather, Matvejević reflects on bread in pilgrimage, bread in ritual, and bread and class. For instance, bread, like body fat, used to be a sign of prestige, associated with the wealthy. But times have changed. As he notes, bread used to be associated with the wealthy, now it is a side-order for them and a food of the poor (p. 27).

Running throughout the book is a deep concern for the practical function of bread as sustenance. Matvejević notes the various grains, the various tools required at each moment of bread production (the hoe, the plough, the grinder, the sifter and of course the various forms of ovens or fires). Woven throughout are his observations on the circulation of bread: to one’s family or one’s army or one’s people. At several moments, he discusses the widespread ethical obligation to share bread, to feed the hungry even in times of emergency and conflict. The inspiration for this unusual text becomes clearest in the afterword, when he tells moving anecdotes of extreme hunger experienced by his family in during the Second World War and the unforgettable acts of strangers sharing bread across enemy lines.

While he does not mention the much-derided era of industrial bread, which inspired the counterculture food movement described in detail by scholars like Warren Belasco, he pushes us to think about what bread might have meant in eras where abundance and attendant food waste might have been unthinkable. I plan to use this book in tandem with Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins’ fascinating chapter on bread in her recent book on Palestine, Waste Siege. She addresses about the problem of what to do with leftover bread, which, for ethical reasons, does not fit easily into the category of waste.

Matvejević ends with reflections on how so many people in the contemporary world still go hungry. Echoing Levi-Strauss’ closing to Tristes Tropiques “the world began without the human race and it will end without it” he closes with “The human race began without bread and it could well end without it.”

References Cited:

Gora, L. Sasha. 2020. Brotzeit: Dispatches from Munich. Gastronomica 20: 92-93.

Stamatopoulou-Robbins, Sophia. 2020. Waste Siege: The Life of Infrastructure in Palestine. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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