It seems to me the faster the world gets, the more we need to take time to be slow and mindful. We race through our days, constantly reviewing our past actions while projecting ourselves into the future, making plans and to-do lists. What we really need is to settle into the present moment like a pinball coming to rest.
When I first started my bakery series, I thought it was just for fun. The more little paintings I finish, however, the more I realize making these paintings has become a meditation practice about sustenance. When we’re busy, we scarf down food without thinking. We don’t think about where it came from or who made it. If we bought it on a street corner or it came out of the freezer at the supermarket, we are about as disconnected as possible from the process. Even eating at a gourmet restaurant – while you may slow down and enjoy the flavors – does not get you any closer to understanding your food and how it got there.
And yet, we all know in the backs of our minds that process is staggering. Energy from the sun, 92 million miles away, reaches our planet where plants convert it into food. This food is harvested and distributed through our agricultural industry, worth $100 billion a year. Then the food is further processed into a form that no longer reminds us of where it came from. It retains no hint of the sun beating down on fields, the smell of dirt, or the feeling or sounds of rustling leaves… Incidentally, I love to buy lettuce just because it often smells like earth.
There are so many sayings in English referring to bread and its role as life-giving nourishment. We beseech God to “give us this day our daily bread.” If we are the “breadwinner” of our household, our families depend on us to survive. If a job is the only thing standing between us and impoverishment, we call it our “bread-and-butter.” In Christian belief, bread quite literally is the symbol of everlasting life and salvation.
When we look at it that way, it doesn’t seem possible that bread could be regarded in a negative light at all. However, Americans, with more food-related illnesses and health concerns than ever, have become largely suspicious of carbohydrates, bread included. The very thing that has nourished humans for eight thousand years has been regarded in modern times as the enemy.
I have another suggestion.
Next time you eat, try this meditation and you don’t have to be a painter to do this… Look at your food. Really look at it. Notice its color and texture. Notice its smell. Imagine where it first began its journey to your plate. Think of the sun, the rain, the soil. Imagine it being transported in a truck and turned into food as you know it. This is where it gets tricky. How many of us really know what happens then? Even how flour is made from wheat in our present day? But at least try to fill in those blanks in the journey of how your food got to your plate. And then, take a bite. Don’t think about anything else. Just be in the present moment, eating your food. For a moment just focus on the taste and the feeling of it in your mouth. After you chew and swallow, think about how it will be broken down in your body to eventually become part of you and all you do.
This is what I think about now when I taste and chew bread. And I think about much more…
It seems to me that connection to our food is fundamental to being connected to God (however you might understand what or who God is). So, while it might seem at first glance trite to paint pictures of bread, these past months of doing these little paintings has invited me into a very slow mindfulness about the food we eat and where it comes from. Even though the bread smells delicious, I don’t eat it but remain seated, observing it in all its aspects, its materiality, color, and texture. I ponder the chemical process that makes bread rise, solidify, and take on a hard, crackly crust.
I try to achieve a Trompe L’oeil quality with these works, which takes a long time. It is unbroken time because I want the bread to stay fresh. It won’t keep… it comes from a bakery that makes daily bread, not bread pumped with preservatives and shipped thousands of miles to sit on shelves weeks later. It is an unbroken tradition in Germany to have a bakery in every little town. Yet, I’ve learned that even here, more and more bakeries rely on a central plant to supply their daily offerings. Not many can afford to bake their own bread anymore.
I’m told in German baking a certain process is used to create dark and light “stripes” by dipping the bread — in this case a croissant — in a lye (sodium hydroxide) solution. This is the same thing that gives pretzels their dark color and, in the case of rolls and croissants, it results in beautiful stripes as the bread expands while baking.
I can’t tell you how a kaiser roll gets its pin wheel shape. Perhaps I should look into it…
Röggenbrotchen rolls are clearly whole grain. Dusted with whole wheat flour, they have a wonderful grainy texture outside, but are soft and chewy inside.
Hope you enjoyed this little tour of German bread and my thoughts on it alongside some new paintings. I did not know this aspect of German culture would so captivate me when we moved here last year, but here we are. I feel like I’ve embarked on a journey simultaneously cultural, historical, geographical, and spiritual. And, with perhaps hundreds of varieties that vary from region to region, this journey might be quite a long and involved one.
To see all of my bread and sweets paintings, visit my website here.