All grains contain peptides that mimic morphine or endogenous opioid substances. This is where I deal with my latest loaf craving. Get your bread-based exorphin fix here.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Ethical Bread: what do you do?

Ethics: Oven Dilemma

Let us suppose that you are asked to do something that you believe is wrong.  If you overtly try to change that wrong you will be punished; if you covertly try to change that wrong and it is discovered you will be chastised; if you do the thing you do not believe in, you will lose integrity.  What do you do?

There are many ways to handle this situation, depending on the intensity of the belief, the amount of trouble you will be in if you disobey, or how you can justify your actions should you capitulate and begin to lose your integrity.  These are differing scales of evaluation, and you will learn to take the path of least resistance.

Let's take a couple of examples so you can see what I'm talking about.
  1. You are asked to run the ovens at a Nazi death camp.  You believe it is wrong to kill anyone, but if you overtly try to change policy, military justice will prevail and you yourself will be executed, imprisoned or dismissed with dishonour.  If you try to covertly oppose the instructions, and continue to feed the inmates and get them medical attention while only pretending to kill them (perhaps by burning only bodies of those who have naturally died), you run the risk of being discovered and punished, even removed from the position.  If you go ahead and do what you are told, justifying it to yourself that it is the best solution in a war when there are dwindling resources, then you lose whatever integrity you had.  What do you do?
    Oven at Buchenwald
    Bread Oven
  2. You are asked to run the oven at a local bakery.  You believe it is wrong to add a certain ingredient you have been told to use (or leave something out), but if you overtly try to change the recipe, you will be dismissed.  If you covertly try to change the recipe, merely providing the appearance of following the recipe, but in actual fact using the best ingredients to your knowledge, you run the risk of being discovered by the owner and you will have no livelihood or your customers may go elsewhere.  If you go ahead and simply supply what you are told to make, justifying to yourself that it is the best you can do in the situation, then you lose whatever integrity you had.  What do you do?
We all know what happened to the German death camp operators who used the defense "I was just following orders" to explain how they could justify the death of so many prisoners in their care.  The defense of "Superior Orders" was summarily denied at the Nuremberg trials.  In every case, this was deemed to be an inadequate defense.  Each person was found responsible for their own actions, and all orders that contravened ethics should have been questioned.  That is the judgement of retrospect history.  But which of us would have done differently?

The history of breadmaking in the Western world follows the ethics of my second example.

There was a time when a feudal lord would demand the whitest bread from his bakers for himself and the "upper crust" nobility.  Black breads (made with not-so-sifted flours) were for the peasants.  But with the rising middle class, everyone wanted white breads.  The pressure was on to provide whiter bread for more people for less money.  Some unscrupulous bakers laced their second-rate flour with whitening ingredients, like alum or chalk.  Some of these ingredients were dangerous.  Eventually, governing bodies punished some of the unscrupulous bakers and created laws to stop the practice of artificially whitening bread.

If you think that this practice was stopped in the middle ages, think again.  Even today, this practice of whitening flour continues: in certain jurisdictions it is still acceptable to sell bleached flour, despite the compelling evidence that some bleaching agents have been found to be carcinogenic.  But even assuming that all flour in a region is now safely regulated, the laws of protection now extend to how flour is processed: if bran and germ are removed, the miller must enhance the flour with some of the lost nutrients before it can be sold.  But the nutrients that are added back are not always from the best source, and they do not replace everything.  And that's just from the milling side of things.   Farmers have been now growing wheat with whiter bran. And bakers have been always looking for a way to get their loaves to ferment quicker, puff up when baked, have a longer shelf life, look whiter, taste better -- and so a whole range of additives and extra ingredients have been selected over the years so that we now have the squishy, chorleywood extruded, gummy, tasteless, puffy white stuff that passes for bread on every supermarket shelf.  The latest artisan breadmaker craze is a sort of reaction to that.  And yet, you still find most artisan bakers will insist that they cannot bake a decent loaf of bread without some of this highly processed flour, or perhaps even a few of the additives that the big bread-supply corporations use.

That is why some of the bakers near me don't get my business.  And a few artisan bakers I've met have told me "you can't make bread without some all purpose or bread flour".  What they mean is, it doesn't sell because there isn't a high demand for it.  I would buy it if they would learn how to make it.  Because they don't, I have to make my own.

So let's say you are a baker of artisan breads, and you want to make a pan integral, a 100% whole grain bread, with no other additive other than salt and water and wild yeast starter.  But there is no demand for your bread.  The public wants a whiter, squishier loaf.  You know that you can get this kind of loaf by removing bran and germ, and adding ingredients like the kind you read on a supermarket bread package.  But to do so defeats the ethics of what you originally set out to do, which is to make a bread with integrity.

You know that if you refuse to add the ingredients, you will likely go out of business because there is not enough demand for the kind of bread you want to bake.  You might settle on a compromise -- adding some ingredients, but not the most dangerous ones, knowing that if you get caught, you are not really pleasing anyone.  Finally, you know that if you add all the dangerous ingredients, you are no longer true to your original vision, and your breads are no better in any way than the supermarket bread. 

What do you do?

Should and Shouldn't: Finding the moral norm

Fast on the heels of reading George Ainslie's book, "Breakdown of Will" (which I blogged about here), I skim-read another book that was far less cerebral but equally interesting: Jennifer Reese's "Make the Bread, Buy the Butter: What you Should and Shouldn't  Cook from Scratch - Over 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods."  The title hooked me.  I wanted to know what criteria she would use to determine what foods we "should and shouldn't" make ourselves, rather than entrusting some corporation to make for us.  "Should and shouldn't" are moral terms.  How does anyone evaluate cost, time, convenience, lifestyle, taste, health benefits of each food item, when many of these hyperbolic scales are intersecting, often arbitrary, and occasionally at odds with each other? 

You see, when I set the Ainslie book aside, I was still curious about why I prefer sourdough whole wheat bread, despite its long fermentation, when I could just as easily use yeast and a recipe from "artisan bread in 5 minutes a day", or even more quickly gratifying, buy a loaf at the store.  Ainslie's research suggests that most of us will not value things in the future as much as we do things that provide more instant gratification: therefore, my actions regarding bread make no sense at all (unless you realize that I am a complete and utter exorphin junkie).  So again, when I picked up Reese's book, I wanted to see by what criteria she made her own determinations.

Reese lumps all intersecting scales of reference into one word regarding each recipe: "hassle".  From her own experience, she reports on how much of a hassle each particular food is to make herself.  She does, in her (very interesting) preamble to each recipe, count things like cost, freshness, taste, artificial ingredients, availability of ingredients, miles it takes to come to us, the time it takes to make, the ease of the recipe, the healthiness of homemade vs processed, etc. -- but she doesn't dwell obsessively over these things.  Instead, she makes her own value judgement, unapologetic and certain that we all would arrive at a similar conclusion for ourselves, given what she knows now.  And it all fits under the single purview of the word "hassle".  Well done, Jennifer.

Somewhere in the book she talks briefly about how we make a determination whether something is a hassle for us.  She asks, "is fishing a hassle?  Is golf a hassle?"  And that is it in a nutshell.  If cooking anything is a hassle for you, then anything short of eating in a restaurant is going to be a hassle.  But is it more of a hassle to get in the car and drive to a restaurant and sit there while they make your food, or is it less hassle to just make something that takes less time and tastes better at home?  How do we define hassle for ourselves?

I guess that, for myself, I've answered that bread-baking is not a hassle.  Things that are not a hassle become accepted into our lifestyle, perhaps in the beginning as an interest, or a hobby, with the possibility that the time we spend doing them eventually begins to define the person we are.  But all of this is once again getting too cerebral for Reese's book.  I like her writing, it is anecdotal, personal, and although she has thought things through carefully, its not about being deep.

Reese's first chapter is all about breads and spreads.  As you can tell from the title of the book itself, Reese says that most breads are far better made from scratch.  Mind you, she does already own a mixer with a dough hook and assumes we all do (I don't).  I probably will try a couple of her bread recipes, but of course, they contain all purpose flour, or bread flour, mostly, and in my blog I've been trying to steer myself back to whole grains.

Curiously, Reese didn't consider whether to buy or make her own flour from scratch.  She probably merely assumed no one would make their own flour.  But this assumption is rather strange, considering she tried so many other more difficult things.  Like making sausage.

I loved the book, not only for its evaluation of bread, but also for the (highly enjoyable) chapter on keeping chickens for eggs, the chapter on keeping bees, and especially the chapter on making cheese.  This is something I've been thinking about for ages now.  I've accumulated books on cheesemaking, and have simply not yet taken the next step.  Reese makes it look easy.

And that really is the beauty of the book.  Have you ever picked up a recipe book that was put out by a charity, or a lady's church group, or one that was compiled by a multigenerational family?  There are often a lot of shortcuts, and the use of at-hand ingredients like canned things (canned beans for instance), or other processed foods, rather than insistence on starting completely from scratch (again: beans for instance).  These home-grown recipe books have a kind of "get 'er done" attitude.  They are not afraid to use some processed foods for convenience and make no apology in doing so.  Reese's book is a little like that.  These recipes are her tried-and-true recipes, like the ones in those home-grown recipe books that I've been describing.  She's scoured the ingredients and methodology of many different recipes and has streamlined it for us.  There seems to be an emphasis on KISS and possibility here.

And so I may decide to try my hand at making some things she says are worth it, even if I never considered making them before now.  Things like cheese, and peanut butter, almond butter, and of course, more -- and different kinds of -- bread.

Today's Bread: my Moral Challenge
Perhaps because I had been considering these many things -- why do I bake bread, rather than buy it, why do I value sourdough, whole grain bread over all others, etc. -- I began to open my eyes and realize that although I no longer eat supermarket bread, I noticed that my wife continues to buy it and eat it, occasionally.  And I asked myself, why is that?  If I am not making a bread that she likes, perhaps I should.  If there is value in a loaf made versus a loaf bought (for that reason alone, as Reese said), then even though it might not be up to my own standard, shouldn't I still be baking one of Reese's bread recipes, or at least, something for my wife that would include some all purpose flour?  Shouldn't I try to wean her off the supermarket bread by giving her something homemade that is better tasting and better for her?

Yet it still sticks in my craw a bit: it violates my ethics and integrity.  If you want bread with all purpose flour, you can buy that anywhere.  Why bother making it?  Especially since I don't value it.  But she values it.  Should I make it for her, even though I don't like it?  And if I don't believe it is good for her (even though, if I make it, it will likely be a little bit better for her than what she might buy...)?

Grudgingly, I decided to make some bread for her with some all-purpose flour.  I didn't know if she'd even like it.  But in any case, I made some bread for her that contained 50% all purpose flour (and 50% whole wheat, of course).  I had this 50:50 mixture made up from when I was still using it for the Tartine Starter (now I use exclusively whole wheat or whole grain starters).  I wanted to use it up, so I could use the container the flour was in.  So mine wasn't entirely the noble motive of trying to reach my wife by making these tainted, hybrid all purpose loaves.

And I ate some of this half-pan-integral, this relaxed ethics bread, this debased loaf that destroys my integrity.  She ate some of it too.

Not bad -- although I'm so used to my own whole grain breads now, it tasted a bit insipid to me.  Not as much "oomph".

So I made some whole wheat bread, too.  For me.  Just for me.  All for me.


Notes to Myself
  • As usual, I am writing about bread rather than reporting on what I do at work, about which I can say nothing.  There I am facing a similar ethical dilemma. 

    Nice to know that I can work it out in my bread before applying it to my professional practice.
  • I have no doubt that this blog post will upset some people, for the image of the Buchenwald ovens alone, or for the juxtaposition of them with the bread ovens. 

    But for me, death and bread are two sides of the same coin.
  • The 50:50 loaf underwent a much longer proof than I intended because we had to go away.  So it goes.  It flattened out.  Didn't really affect the taste much, just the appearance.

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