As I enter the sixth month of my life away from the Netherlands, away from home, I find myself evaluating some of the changes that remain difficult, even though I have adjusted to them. Using the English language, the thing I struggled with most when I arrived, continues to be a challenge I enjoy. And though I wish people would not declare me crazy and honk at me every time I use my bike to shop on Grand Rapids’ busy 28th Street, I am open to new ways of transportation. Walking with a friend in the snow turns out to be just as fun. But when my thoughts turn toward bread, I cannot come up with an alternative; I have to admit to myself that I miss bread.
Bread, our staple food, is to me what rice is to my friend from Nepal, who, with a homesick look in her eyes, piled more and more rice on her plate during our lunch in Chinatown, Chicago a few months ago. It was the first time since she came to Calvin College that she had access to well-cooked rice. Unfortunately I have not had a moment like this yet. Hamburger buns and over-processed wannabe whole-wheat bread obviously do not do the trick, but even a more authentic attempt like a Panera Bread sandwich lacks something. Bread in the United States means something different than bread at home.
At home buying bread is the one household job we stand in line for, because, although all the bread is delightfully fresh and delicious, we all have our favorite kind and going to the bakery means that you get to pick. Because preference is so personal and, in the case of Dutch bread, full of nuance, I can only describe bread the way I experience it. My favorite bread is called Waldkorn, and, like all our bread, eating it is a feast for multiple senses. First there is the smell: rich, fresh, and rustic. The bread, in the shape of a well-formed oval, is dark from all the different grains that are in it. When I touch a slice I notice the no-nonsense, robust texture and when I withdraw my hand some fine flour sticks to my fingers. It tastes great and does not need anything on it. It must be my lucky day, because it is still a little warm, and that adds to the pure taste (no sugar or preservatives added) and the nourishing feeling it gives me. No wonder most Dutch still eat bread two meals a day, despite all the other exotic food options that have become available over the last decades.
One might think that this tradition is based more on habituation than on enjoyment, but a little research on the Web and into my memory disproves this. The Netherlands may be the only country in the world that has a National Information Agency for Bread, which among other things regularly launches promotional campaigns and provides us with facts like the following. When asked to name their favorite smell, 71% of those questioned named the smell of fresh bread before other popular smells, like the smell of freshly mown grass, perfume, or fresh coffee. And another popular initiative of the Agency, the Bread Diet, emphasizes how the Dutch appreciate the health benefits of bread.1
My memories of our family’s bread meals color this picture of bread as one of the benchmarks of our life. My siblings would sometimes decide before the meal what toppings they would put on their bread slices, as well as in what order they would eat them. And everyone could fully relate to the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us today our daily bread.” Although the Netherlands today is more in need of spiritual bread than physical bread, it becomes clear why Jesus taught us to pray for bread instead of for, say potatoes: we need bread. This explanation was made even more plausible by our language, in which the word broodnodig, of which the literal translation is “bread necessary,” means “highly necessary.”
Bread, for me, is connected to our history, to our family traditions, to our faith (in which it is seen as a symbol of Jesus), to our fabulous bakers, and to the farming land, in which the wheat grows as I bike through the fields. There is something about knowing that the story of the bread you eat is simple and short: after the wheat was harvested by the farmer it was transported to the mill where it was ground into flour; the flour got to the bakery and maybe just minutes after the bread was baked by our friend, the baker, I came along and bought it. Every link in the chain is there for a reason, and each person involved in making bread knows that what they do is essential to the process.
But all these connections only make sense when you eat the bread in the Netherlands; food and its comfort are bound to a place. For example, when we go to France in the summer, we are excited about the French baguettes and the French pastries. These foods match the French sunny weather, and our sunny holiday moods in everything, from their form to their fluffiness. But when eaten at home, the texture of Dutch baguettes is denser. It’s as if even the baker understands that too much French authenticity would not fit the environment, and that we have to come back to our senses into our normal working modes. Even if he would make the perfect baguettes, they could not taste the same.
Of course, the food here should match the American soil and psyche, not the Dutch (although they do get mixed up a bit in western Michigan). It is maybe not fair to expect another culture to care about bread as much as I do, but in the case of American bread it says something about American food in general. First of all, I cannot find the bakeries here. Supposedly they exist, but non-chain, independent bakeries are rare. People buy their bread at the grocery store, and when I do that I feel like the bread loses some of its authenticity when it lies at the check-out between the laundry detergent and the instant noodles. To my surprise, however, the label on my grocery store bread says “sliced bakery bread” and the fact that it does not taste like bakery bread at all, affirms my general suspicion of American food labeling. Now why does it taste too moist and sticky and overall very unlike bakery bread? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the ordinary whole wheat bread (“100% whole wheat” the package says) contains 35 (!) ingredients as opposed to five in a similar Dutch bread. Considering the fact that it had to stay fit to eat all the way from Kansas City to Grand Rapids explains the extra ingredients, but it also reveals something about the way American bread businesses work and why most Americans have such a different relationship with bread.
This is not to say that Americans cannot have strong personal connections with a food. I have a friend from New York, for example, who talks about ice cream the way I talk about bread. Maybe she even prays for it; I should ask her that sometime. Probably everyone has foods that give comfort and the sense of home, foods that bring memories can make you long for that food, when in fact you long for the world associated with it. But it seems like in America these associations are less likely to be connected to the actual land and to the process of food preparation, simply because most foods are produced so far away. There are exceptions, like Michigan apples that are actually grown and eaten in Michigan, but for business reasons a lot of foods that could be distributed locally are instead produced far away, like my whole wheat bread from Kansas City.
So do we lose anything by removing the direct connection between the food and the land? I think so. First of all, the extensive processing and packaging take up a lot of our global natural resources, and they do not make the food healthier or tastier. People are also content far too easily with the very meager food experience they get by only functioning as end consumers. Lots of people recognize this and are setting up local businesses that bring the food process back to the people, not just because of economical or environmental reasons, but, I like to think, also because this aspect of knowing where your food comes from and (roughly) how it gets to you fulfills a desire
we have to belong somewhere, and can give a deeper sense of God’s beautiful creation.
All my life I have been part of another world, a world that bread connects me to, and, although my very valuable experiences here in the States are shaping me in such a way that I might end up being part of two worlds, I accept the fact that I cannot get my bread satisfaction here. Considering the fact that life here satisfies me with all kinds of sensations, I should not complain too much. Nevertheless, I am eagerly anticipating the day that the computer can also send smell files.
1 Brood, daar zit wat in. Voorlichtingsbureau Brood. 5 Feb. 2007 www.brood.net/default.asp?pid=broodconsumptie.