any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink, or that plants absorb, in order to maintain life and growth
Breaking bread mindfully is everyday alchemy.
I come from a family of farmers, which is something I didn’t always appreciate growing up, but for which I am deeply grateful now. As a child, I learned ﬁrsthand where food comes from. My parents grew their own vegetables, and I have many (albeit not always fond) memories of dripping yogurt cloths and mysterious jars of sprouts in dark cabinets. Dad baked bread regularly. The pressure cooker hissed every August when my mom canned beets. Shelling peas and taking out the compost were part of the routine. Being that close to the origin of my food allowed me to witness the everyday alchemy of how simple ingredients and practices, when combined just right, are transformed into lifegiving nourishment.
I took ownership of my own bread making when I was living in a valley nestled between the Red Cloud and Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho. Two summers spent as an assistant cook at a youth wilderness camp, plus twice weekly breadbaking sessions, provided ample opportunity to practice combining water, yeast, ﬂour, oil, honey, molasses, and a bit of salt. I learned how to knead the dough smooth and when to punch it down again. I learned how to form the dough into uniform loaves and how to tell when to take them out of the oven. I also happened to learn how to carry ﬁfty-pound sacks of whole wheat ﬂour down a narrow staircase and how to keep mice from getting into the storage room. We used a bread recipe that made seven loaves at a time, and I eventually became pretty capable of turning out something edible for the camp guests. There’s not much better than homemade bread after spending all day on a mountain trail. All of that kneading strengthened my forearms and being able to provide comfort and energy for others felt a little like magic.
Jacob and Andrew’s organic vegetable farm provides restaurants with locally grown produce. In the summer, they work fifteen-hour days cultivating, weeding, harvesting, washing, packing, and delivering the goods. Once a day they stop, sit down, and enjoy a meal straight from the soil. They eat what they grow. The fruits of their labor nourish thousands.
After those summers of baking bread every day for three months straight, you’d think I would have continued the practice. But I didn’t. Instead I went back to college after each summer, and baking fell promptly oﬀ the radar in the wake of studying, local pubs, and life in a dorm room.
It wasn’t until well after college that I decided to throw some water, yeast, ﬂour, oil, honey, molasses, and a bit of salt into a bowl together again. After mixing up some dough using fragmented memories of that old camp recipe, I kneaded, let the dough rise, punched it down, and formed loaves. I put them in the oven and waited in anticipation for them to be done. They smelled wonderful. The timer went oﬀ, and I gleefully cut into one with a serrated knife. Rather, I tried to cut into one. They were rock hard, suitable for holding the door open in the summer. Heavenly-smelling paperweights.
A few weeks later I tried again, this time with a printed recipe and fresh ingredients. The result was better, but not good. I made it through a few slices before chucking it out to the squirrels. I kept returning to the practice of mixing ﬂour, water, yeast, honey, oil, molasses, and a bit of salt until I didn’t need to follow the recipe point by point anymore, until I could feel the dough coming into a smooth, desirable consistency. The results of my practice became shareable. I have been making a loaf or two a month ever since.
There are rules to follow, but intuition and feel are involved. Mostly I use no-fuss recipes, but every once in a while, I’ll try an intricate scaling technique. Some recipes require lots of kneading. Some require none. No matter what technique is used, the bread that comes into being is well worth the eﬀort. Kneading, the combination of hands in dough, works out the kinks of the day. Waiting for bread to rise oﬀers reason to pause. The yeast or sourdough starter does its magic and takes on a life and story of its own. The alchemy of simple, cheap ingredients coming together to nourish the soul and the body is as elemental as it is profound.
Baking bread invites me to slow down, to savor the entire process of creating something from simple ingredients. When I bake bread regularly, I am more in tune with the part of myself that has the capacity to use my choices in a way that aligns with what matters to me. I feel nourished, and I feel empowered to make the decisions that make me feel rooted in my life.
Food helps communities root and grow, too. Imagine ﬁve women gathering in a warm kitchen for a food swap, sharing homemade food with each other. The table gets weighed down with peach and apple jams, bulbs of garlic, blueberry scones, sweet dumpling squash, canned corn, sauerkraut, venison sausage, three kinds of honey, maple syrup, dried beans and lentils, caramel sauce, and three types of bread. All homemade, homegrown, or harvested locally. At each monthly gathering of my neighborhood food swap, we take turns choosing one item at a time until everything has a new home. We’ve shared jams, jellies, marmalades, chutneys, relishes, pickles, pestos, spreads, sauces, beverages, wines, a huge variety of preserved fruits and vegetables, granolas, breads, eggs, goat soap, goat cheese, honey, and syrup. Seasonal fresh produce from the garden is a staple. A great soup someone made too much of is a welcome respite from one night of cooking for someone else who has a busy week. Beeswax candles or honey from some local hives are little reminders of what is possible when food is sourced with awareness.
The location changes monthly, and we have become friends. New members are welcomed wholeheartedly. We know each other’s pantries, gardens, and kitchens. The goal of the food swap is to promote and share the energy that builds from making things and then sharing the results with each other. Good conversations are had, and ideas and knowledge are shared. Each month, we celebrate how good it feels to make our own food and share with others instead of buying whatever is on sale at the local big box store.
Alchemy is deﬁned as a seemingly magical process of transformation, creation, or combination. There is a certain magic in sharing food, especially food that was mindfully grown and prepared. To cook and share is deeply human. When we share that process of transformation with others, we’re part of the cycle of life.
Ramps, or wild onions, grow for two months in the Appalachian Mountains, where Carrie grew up. Today, seeing a ramp reminds her of her childhood. She enjoys connecting with the people behind her food by looking at the info tags in the grocery and getting to know the farmers at the farmers market. Being mindful of what and who’s behind her food reminds her who she is and where she comes from.
Staying mindful of the essential gift of food roots us. For me, this means cooking and baking and growing a lot of my own vegetables. Sometimes I cook or bake every single day for weeks on end. When that happens, it’s fantastic. Of course, some weeks it just doesn’t happen like that. Yet, my presence in the process when it happens is more important than the number of times I cook something up from scratch. I try to engage in the act of making something from simple ingredients, paying attention to all aspects of the process. This allows me to see the good that comes from the work of my hands and a little patience. Of course, cooking and growing a garden isn’t everyone’s story, and that’s okay. On the days or weeks when cooking just doesn’t come into play, we still have to eat. There’s always opportunity to do so with intention.
If it’s available to us, we can choose to embrace the beneﬁts of sourcing fruits, vegetables, and other food items from places closer to home. We can try to do the bulk of our shopping at farmers markets and small, locally-owned stores to supplement what is harvested from our gardens. We can experiment with planting our own seeds. We can partner with others in the community to get more fresh produce in the local corner store. We can become members of one of the many CSAs (community supported agriculture) that serve communities all over the country.
It can be easy to get lost in middle class America’s sea of inﬁnite choice. With enough money, you can get anything you want anytime you want it. Yet so many people I’ve met, those who grow, mix, chop, and knead themselves, and eat seasonally, feel better and have a stronger connection to the earth. We can choose with intention what we eat, how we prepare it, and how it is shared. Conscientious cooking helps build a better food system for all.
For a myriad of reasons, many people struggle to put the time, energy, money, and planning into cooking and eating well. Not everyone enjoys (or has the resources for) dreaming up recipes and preparing food with love. Yet food is universal, necessary, and extraordinary in its ordinariness. Food is required for life and growth, so how can folks who struggle with food build a healthy relationship with it? It takes signiﬁcant eﬀort to build a working relationship with how to eat after years of challenge. Even if it doesn’t come easily, anyone can build the capacity to understand food’s profundity, its ability to bind and nurture, its essentialness. We can approach food with humility and surround ourselves with people who are already at peace with food. We can befriend a bread baker. Making peace with food is possible.
Through my work as a wellness coach, I’ve come into contact with many people who have a complicated relationship with nourishing themselves. Some athletes are required to eat more and gain weight. Other athletes are required to eat less and lose weight. Some folks overeat when they are bored, others when they are sad, still others when they are stressed or happy. Food is a reward and is often used to celebrate. Fast food is cheap and organic food is expensive. Food deserts are real, and many people are hungry.
Whether we are lovers of or intimidated by food, the invitation to alchemy is realistic. It is accessible and within each individual’s control. Mindfully eating can be a ﬁrst step toward healing. When we taste our food intentionally, we learn to savor, and to associate the food more with how it makes us feel than how it tastes. When we chew slowly, our bodies are smart enough to want the good stuﬀ in the amounts that serve best. We can look beyond the calories to the laughter at the table. We can develop new preferences, even after years of the same patterns. We can stop labeling food as “good” or “bad” and simply see it as food. Food can function beyond necessity.
Natalie started paying closer attention to the labels on nut butters in the grocery store. Struck by the number of additives, she decided to grind her own peanut butter. It was easy, cheap, and tasty. Experimenting, she can customize her peanut butter to her tastes and save money at the same time.
Ellie has shared with me that she is one of those folks who has a complicated relationship with food. For her, every meal is an opportunity to re-engage and do food better. She says that when food is going well, she feels more connected to her body and the earth. There is a sense of belonging to herself. She can get creative about how food is grown and shared. Rituals around food, like inviting newly-engaged couples over to roll homemade sushi or baking twenty pies each year to share with her friends and family on Thanksgiving morning, help. She nurtures the love of food for her children, inviting them into the kitchen and garden.
Being head chef isn’t necessary to be part of the alchemy. We can engage in the experience of food, see our role in the transformation, the sharing, the magic that happens around meals. Some mothers use their bodies to feed and nourish babies, but don’t go on to make bespoke toddler meals. Others might stay out of the kitchen entirely, but use their gifts to pick the music, light the candles, pair the wine, set the table, and feed the conversation. Inviting people over to share in the bounty, laughing and swapping stories at the table, helps create something from scratch that feeds us holistically.
The goal to break bread mindfully is deeply good. The process of tasting food and adding intention to every step of the food process adds health and spice to life while tending to the earth with gentle compassion. Mindfulness is a challenge, one that requires daily practice. Alchemy is an invitation.
Sourcing, making, sharing, and eating food can be magical. It builds community. It deepens family. It celebrates culture. It changes our lives and the lives of others. We have an opportunity to be a partner in the food system, not just a consumer. Whether it’s by baking bread, canning tomatoes, accepting a cucumber from a neighbor, advocating for a more robust produce section in a local supermarket, or simply tasting food fully, when we use the choice that we have to engage with our food with intention, that’s when the magic happens.
THE TINY THING
An invitation to alchemy
Choose one meal or snack to eat while fully engaged in the act. Prepare the food with intention and think about how this food came to be in front of you, right now. Who grew it? How did it get to you? Who cooked or baked or mixed it? With whom are you sharing the experience? Tune into the food on your plate and notice the way it looks and smells. How do you feel prior to the ﬁrst bite? Explore the ﬂavors that pop in your mouth, the various textures, how you feel as you eat it, and how it satisﬁes your hunger. Slow down. Eat one piece of food at a time and pause in between bites. Notice how full awareness impacts the act of eating. Break bread, mindfully. This is everyday alchemy in practice.
Once a day, notice the position of your tongue in your mouth. Pull it away from the roof of your mouth or the back of your teeth and invite it to relax. Recognize if doing this also helps release tension in your face, jaw and throat as well. Allow your calm tongue to model surrender in the rest of your body and being.
Click here to learn more about 12 Tiny Things by Heidi Barr and Ellie Roscher.