A Slice of Life

This year for the first time, I entered bread in the Minnesota State Fair competition. In retrospect I question the whole idea of a bread-baking contest. Bread is about nourishment, not competition. I don't bake for ribbons; I bake to share with friends and family.

Nowhere have I seen this ideal better presented than in The Secrets of Jesuit Breadmaking, by Brother Rick Curry, S.J. This book is as much a spiritual exercise as a cookbook.

Brother Curry, who as a Jesuit novice worked in his novitiate's bakery, weaves storytelling with recipes and prayer with cooking tips. His book celebrates the richness of bread and its power to nourish both body and soul.

A baker's greatest gift is patience - the dough must come together and rise at least twice. This has been my greatest challenge as a baker, but Curry sheds new light on this time spent with bread dough. During preparation, he connects with God and himself. Following the model of Ignatian exercises as the bread rises and bakes, he focuses on his day, the people with whom he comes in contact, his challenges and gifts, actions and inactions. In that intimate quiet time, as the smell of baking bread fills the kitchen, the struggles of a day are given over in gratitude to God.

That spirit of prayerfulness continues throughout Curry's technical suggestions. From the Ignatian pedagogical method of repetition to the respect for "sacred tools" in the kitchen, Curry presents baking as the whole-body, whole-spirit exercise it can be. And the results are both fulfilling and filling.

CURRY HAS DIVIDED his recipes, most of which were collected from fellow Jesuit bakers and friends around the world, into seasons: Advent, Lent, Easter, plus two chapters specifically on cornbreads and daily breads. The recipes are interspersed with stories of Ignatius, other Jesuit bakers and traditions, and Curry's own days baking at the Wernersville, Pennsylvania novitiate. A wide variety of bread recipes is offered: from Irish Soda Bread (and its story of the great "caraway seed schism") to Greek Easter Bread, from the competing whole wheat recipes of rival New England schools Boston College and Holy Cross to an Italian nun's delicious four-grain herb bread.

Curry believes that all should bake, yet he admits his discomfort with "prayer fascists and bread fascists":

In bread baking there are people who refuse to use white flour, or who won't use any flour that they haven't ground themselves. Prayer fascists are those who think there is only one way to pray, only one way to God, and of course it's always their way. But St. Ignatius taught us that all paths lead to God, and history teaches us that all flours can lead to delicious and nourishing bread.

St. Ignatius, who with his brother priests collected bread from the wealthy of Rome to give to the poor and sick, named the Jesuits the Society of Jesus (originally from the Latin Compagnia di Gesu; compagnia means "coming together around bread"). From that tradition, Brother Curry has elevated bread baking far above blue ribbon status.

Michael Menner was a joyful bread baker in his own kitchen, and was assistant director of Alliance of the Streets, a community organization in Minneapolis, when this article appeared.

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