Satish Kumar on Baking and Breaking Bread

Roti - the macrocosm in a microcosm

“Bread is sacred”, Satish Kumar says.  “It is a holy thing. And because it requires all four elements to make it, it is the macrocosm in microcosm.  Thich Nhat Hann describes it as the body of the cosmos, and I think that is very apt.  When I eat it I am very aware that I am consuming a bit of EVERYTHING and I have a sense of completeness and a sense of gratitude toward the earth and toward my mother who taught me how to make bread when I was four years old.”

Satish sits opposite me in the sunshine.  Director of Resurgence, an organisation for people interested in a just society, ecology and the environment, Satish was born in India several decades ago, used to be a Jain monk and has the energy and enthusiasm of a 20 year old.  He is still teaching, lecturing, running conferences, and editing the Resurgence magazine, among other things.  I sent him a loaf of bread once and was delighted when he rang me on the phone.

“I am looking at a beautiful loaf of brrrrrread!”, he exclaimed before inviting me to the Resurgence conference and then asking me to speak about Virtuous Bread to explain how we use bread to change the world.  I had no idea I had hit such a deep nerve, but I did.  Satish bakes every day and if people drop in unexpectedly he will whip up a batch of rotis, rolling and frying them just as his mother taught him to do.  He carries on the tradition of teaching bread making.  In his schools the children bake every day because he wants to get them young:  If you have good bread, good food will follow.  You cannot possibly have good bread with bad food. It is the process of baking, however, that is even more beneficial than the bread itself.

“Baking bread teaches patience and demonstrates transformation in a timeframe that is manageable and in a space that you can physically see.  It is a kind of alchemy and when you bake you feel both relaxed and powerful.  Relaxed because it IS relaxing.  Kneading is relaxing…Powerful because you suddenly understand, when you eat your first bread, that you can feed yourself. You are empowered!  You have self confidence!  No amount of  education can give you self confidence the way learning to bake bread can give it to you.”

What else can bread teach us?

“Bread!” he hoots, “Bread teaches us everything.  About the sun and the moon and the wind and the rain.  About grains and farming.  About milling and chemistry!  It is a bridge between communities, families, friends and strangers.  Bread also teaches us about destruction:  intensive farming destroying the earth; the wasteful use of energy to destroy natural nutrients, unnecessary packaging and transportation…all of this reduces baking to a destructive science when it should be a truly noble art.”

We talk about the British and their preference for white sliced bread.  Neither of us is British although both of us have lived here for many years.  Our respect for the British is enormous and our gratitude for having been able to live here, immense.  But the bread….

Elizabeth David puts the desire for white bread down to the fact that wheat was incredibly expensive in Britain a few hundred years ago (and getting that way again).  The predominant grains were barley, oats, and rye and with the exception of rye in the hands of a very skillful baker, none of them has the right kind of gluten to make a soft, risen loaf.  The lure of white wheat flour that rose magically into a soft, airy loaf was immense because it was such a luxury – to eat soft bread, back then, was an aspiration and a great treat.  The heavy bread eaten by most people was not, in fact the fault of the baking method, or an indication of a lack of interest in good food, it was simply that the availability of the right sort of flour was limited.

Satish accepts that explanation and reminds me, too, that the industrial revolution started here and that the British have always been passionate about exploring – ideas, foreign lands, new ways of doing things – they are a true nation of inventors and engineers.  The received wisdom here is still that making things in factories is good – modern, progressive, efficient and inexpensive – and making  at home is regressive – time spent when you could be doing something else.  Three hundred years of that kind of thinking will take many generations to change – not least because we have lost many traditional skills.

“If we are truly interested in creating a Big Society we have to empower people, not take away their ability to fend for themselves.  We say we want a Big Society and then we make thousands of people redundant who have no skills but to work in an office.” he rolls his eyes in frustration.  “People don’t feel they have any power to change their lives and the fact is that many do not!  They are incapable of DOING anything except working in an office and waiting for a pay cheque.  It is not their fault.  This is what they have been educated to do.  What they have not been educated to do is to fend for themselves in any way at all.  They cannot even feed them selves.  We need people with skills to make and do – not just people who can sit exams, because when those people with their qualifications face a day without money, what can they do?  They cannot even make something that they can trade or sell and then you are really reduced to begging.  Who is in the developing world now?”

He roars with laughter but his genuine sense of concern and frustration is palpable.

“Bread, made in the right way,” he concludes, “is the small answer to all the problems in the world.”

Who are we to disagree with that?

Satish Kumar by the little altar at the Resurgence conference in 2010.

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