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Thursday, September 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 55.0° F  Overcast
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Peter Reinhart visits UW-Madison: An interview about bread, spirituality and the gluten-free craze
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Reinhart: 'Baking is a practice that can be solitary and self-reflective.'
Reinhart: 'Baking is a practice that can be solitary and self-reflective.'

Peter Reinhart co-founded the famous Brother Juniper's Bakery in Sonoma, California, in 1981. One of the world's most respected bakers, he's since gone on to pen multiple award-winning books, including the enduring modern classic The Bread Baker's Apprentice. He now teaches at Johnson and Wales University in Charlotte, North Carolina; his next book, Bread Revolution: World-Class Baking with Sprouted and Whole Grains, Heirloom Flours, and Fresh Techniques, is forthcoming in October from Ten Speed Press.

Reinhart was in Madison recently to deliver a lecture at the UW-Madison's University Summer Forums class called "Food, Meaning, and Spirituality," taught by religious studies professor Corrie Norman. In the class, community members and students investigate the intersection of food and faith through film, literature and hands-on activities.

Isthmus spoke with Reinhart in conjunction with his Madison appearance.


Isthmus: How has the gluten-free craze or the Paleo diet affected bread making?
Reinhart: I've been reading some books on historical cycles and this phenomenon is not new; periodically bread comes under attack. And the response has usually been that bakers start making better breads. Every time we go through one of these cycles, something really good comes out of it.

One thing that came out of the carb phobia of the '90s was that people realized that carbs were a much bigger issue than had been imagined. The understanding of how carbs work in our bodies has taken a quantum leap. In 2003, we had a conference and the question that dominated it was, "Is bread dead?" My answer at that time was "Look, bread has been around for 6,000 years; I don’t think it's going away. But here's an opportunity to bring whole grains back." And sure enough, in the last ten years whole grains have come back.

The bakers themselves had to learn to make better whole grain breads. The Bread Bakers Guild of America has been bringing in European masters and sharing the techniques that make European breads so great. And they've been training a whole new generation of American bakers to compete against the European bakers in world competitions. We're winning these competitions now.


Was there a noticeable influx of interest in baking when Jim Lahey's no-knead recipe came out in the New York Times?
The no-knead recipe utilized a technique that many of us had been writing about, but this gave everybody a way of doing it that wasn't going to take too much time and effort. It was a very simple method that utilized long, slow fermentation. There is nothing that will turn a person into a bread freak faster than making a successful loaf. You make a successful loaf and you're hooked.


Do you think there's something about the act of baking that is essentially spiritual?
You have to be careful not to overly romanticize it, because for many people baking is just a job. But when we think about the archetypal image, it's of an artisan working alone.

Bread in particular lends itself to this spiritual aura, which has to do with what bread itself symbolizes. Baking is a practice that can be solitary and self-reflective, and gives the opportunity for a kind of spirituality. Bread symbolizes in all cultures life, transformation, and the presence of creation.

I have bakers who say, "I'm not religious, I'm not spiritual -- just because my goal is to make a beautiful product that tastes great doesn't mean I’m spiritual." I ask them, "What could be more spiritual than that?" It depends on how you describe spiritual or religious. I go back to a more fundamental definition of religion as "to be connected."


So there's a relation between baking and religious practice?
This notion of connectedness with generational memories, with the knowledge that we've learned from previous generations -- food is a vehicle through which this connection is made. The word religion in its root comes from the Latin word "religio" meaning "to be connected to." And I think the whole purpose of religion is to bring us close to the being that created us. And I think our universal drive that we all have as human beings is -- whether conscious or not -- to find out where we come from.

What is the meaning of our life? Our world is modeled through our worship practices, our celebrations and festivals that we participate in -- and their original purpose was to be a vehicle through which transmission of knowledge occurs across generations.

Then there's this fact that bread is so primal. You take something relatively tasteless like flour and transform into something so deeply satisfying. It's magic; it touches those deep chords.

I think a lot of this is reflected in the fermentation movement. What we're talking about is the transformation of an ingredient from one thing into something entirely different. All of those things, sauerkraut, dough, etc., go through these natural processes that totally change the nature of that ingredient and make it delicious and complex. That fires up our imagination. These are the kinds of transformative foods that are hot right now.


The idea that good bread takes time, is there a direct link back to the Slow Food movement?
Bread can be emblematic for the Slow Food movement. Bread is just one of the many metaphors. The idea that slow is better and slowness is a way back to community is powerful. And people that find a purpose in life become religious with a small r, in that they're passionate about what they find personally that provides meaning and common values.

I feel that my purpose, my mission in life, is to help other people find their meaning. I'm a baker so I try to do that through food. I believe that buried deep inside everyone is this primal instinct to find meaning, and food today is playing a prominent role.


Does bread, or artisanal food in general, then, become a kind of focal point for resistance to the societal pressures of speed and lack of meaning?
The other night I was watching When Harry Met Sally and Carrie Fisher says something like "I read somewhere that restaurants are the new theater." And Bruno Kirby says, "I wrote that line in The New Yorker! This is the first time anyone quoted me back to me!" And I was thinking that in some ways food has become a quasi-religious outlet for people. So we could say that restaurants are the new churches. Food is providing answers for how to live a better life, and giving hope for a more fulfilled life. And every time someone cooks, it's an act of empowerment.


What do you think connects readers to The Bread Baker's Apprentice that has made the book such a lasting success?
The notion of Apprentice evokes an idea of knowledge being passed on. I think readers hope they'll have this transmission of meaning and knowledge to them. It was also well structured and provided a step by step guide through the bread-making process that hadn't been done in quite that way before. Fifteen years later, that book sells as many copies as the year it came out. No one saw it coming.


Are there things about Madison food and spirituality that you've discovered so far?
The one thing I'd say is that so far all the people I've met are in their own discovery process. There's so much excitement, and I see tremendous fire and dedication to change the world around them. There's so much energy here, and who knows where it will lead? To meet three or four such people in just one day, and find so much talent and intensity, is heartening.

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