Pillars and Millers

Excited for my next destination, last year on August 30, there was very thick fog as I left the mountains of Montreat early in the morning, driving through a “pillar of clouds”: https://breadforthejourney.blog/2017/12/19/o-lord-of-might/

I was heading to St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, PA, founded in 1832, the oldest Benedictine monastery in the United States. I was also drawn to this place because of its 150 year old working gristmill, still in operation today. When I visited this historical landmark, I viewed the beautiful chestnut structures and French-flint millstones. The gentleman working there noticed my passion for bread as I asked him many questions, but maybe made clear after I purchased a dozen bags of freshly milled flour. He told me he was thankful that I noticed and appreciated what he does.

I’ve been reading a book about the six thousand year history of bread. What Peter Reinhart says in the Foreword is fascinating as he speaks of how the author portrays the “bread-centered, eternally transforming universe” and how “it is in this very notion of transformation that bread’s power resides.”

A seed grows into a grass that yields more seeds, some of which are harvested and destroyed, pulverized into a powder called flour. The once life-giving seeds are combined with water and salt to make clay and the clay is then leavened with yeast. With this act the baker has engaged the Promethean challenge; he or she has raised an Adam (which translated means clay) and brought that clay to life. The clay, now called dough, undergoes numerous transformations as its enzymes rearrange the starchy molecules and release hidden sugars; the sugars are then transformed by bacteria and yeast fungi into acids, alcohols, and gasses. The dough grows and develops character; the baker divides and shapes it and exposes it to various temperatures and environments in which it can achieve its optimum potential. But, as dough, it is still unable to fulfill its destiny; for this the yeast and other living organisms must make the ultimate sacrifice, enduring the fiery furnace, passing the thermal death point, and in a dramatic, final surge and feeding frenzy, create one last carbonic push while the flour proteins coagulate, the starches gelatinize, and the sugars on the surface caramelize. Multiple and nearly simultaneous transformations take place behind the veil of the oven door until, at the appointed time, the bread emerges as something totally other. It has become a loaf of bread, the iconic staff of life. We then consume it and begin the cycle again.

Milling wheat into flour. A seemingly ungrateful task, yet steeped in importance.

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