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Wise Women: Baking Bread, Wisdom & Revolution

By Marie Campbell

 “Fifth Avenue is laid in gold, every mansion a citadel of money and power. Yet here you stand, a giant, starved and fettered… You too will have to learn that you have a right to share your neighbors’ bread… Well, then, demonstrate before the palaces of the rich; demand work. If they do not give you work, demand bread. If they deny you both, take bread. It is your sacred right.” Emma Goldman, Union Square, New York, 21 August 1893

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Unlikely as it may seem, the history of bread is basically a history of politics. Then again, if you understand history the way I do, that most of history is the history of economic struggle (thanks, Karl Marx and friends), then this might not seem so odd after all. If anything, people need sustenance and a just society might be defined, at the very least, as one in which all people have equitable access to sustenance needed for the flourishing of life. Having access to the means of sustenance, even at its most basic level, has always been about struggles for power and the various kinds of oppression that are produced and reproduced. Bread, one of the worlds most basic forms of nutrition, is one such means by which sustenance is gained. And so, throughout the history of economic struggle: bread has been given, demanded, withheld, etc. (see, for example, Egyptian ‘Bread riots’ of 1977).

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Ruth Potts and Molly Conisbee, co-founders of Bread, Print & Roses, published “The politics of bread” in January 2014 in Red Pepper, a nonprofit, bi-monthly magazine and self-proclaimed “website of left politics and culture.” In this essay, they outline the political dimensions of bread. They explain, “Bread represents politics and class like almost no other foodstuff. Its cost and availability has been a factor in most major revolutions and social upheavals in history. It embodies some of the worst aspects of exploitation in the food chain (it is easily adulterated – contemporary industrially produced bread is only the latest example). And the language of bread permeates our political consciousness: dole, daily bread, breadline, bread and circuses. In Egyptian Arabic, the word for bread, aish, means simply ‘life.’”

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In our time, the weakening of the people’s sustenance can be seen in the industrialization of breadmaking in the early 20th century and especially in 1961 when the Chorleywood bread process was developed. This process used the intense mechanical working of dough to dramatically reduce the fermentation period and the time taken to produce a loaf. The process, whose high-energy mixing allows for the use of lower protein grain, is now widely used around the world in large factories. As a result, bread can be produced very quickly and at low costs to the manufacturer and the consumer (Chorleywood Industrial Bread Making Process. allotment.org.uk). Through capitalist-inspired food tampering, then, we see the introduction of chemicals and the reduction of nutritional value all for the sake of speeding up the process of production and the hope of mass commercial sale.

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What’s more, we’ve also seen the rise of food costs in the U.S. and worldwide, due in part to the growing number of climate change-related agricultural failures. One of the most pervasive and threatening impacts of global environmental destruction is the decrease in crop production, including crops like wheat.

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Though this extremely brief exploration fails to convey the vast manner by which bread is political, Potts and Conisbee recount the importance of recognizing bread as such this way: “Getting bread ‘right’ means addressing everything from access to land, food production systems, methods (and therefore relationships) of production, national diets (and their increasing impacts on health outcomes, particularly for those on the lowest incomes) and the way we spend our time.”

“The rallying cry of the 2011 Egyptian revolution was

‘Bread, freedom and social justice.’”

(See: Cox, Stan. “The politics of bread in Egypt.” Al Jazeera, 2012. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/03/201237104725536741.html and Mittermaier, Amira. “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: The Egyptian Uprising and a Sufi Khidma.” Cultural Anthropology 29, no. 1 (2014): 54-79. http://dx.doi.org/10.14506/ca29.1.05)

Here’s the thing, say Potts and Conisbee, “Taking back the production of our daily bread is not only metaphorically powerful; it is a practical step towards far more wide-reaching change. Bake our own bread – together – and it becomes clear how much more we can do for ourselves… by baking and sharing bread we take back our time, the means of production and ferment the potential for lasting transformation.”

Speaking of baking bread together, on October 9, nearly fifteen women gathered at Penuel Ridge Retreat Center for the first installation of our “Wise Women: Skillshare & Dialogue” series: Kneading the Traditions of Bread making, presented by Laura Valentine, Penuel Ridge’s Executive Director.

Penuel Ridge and Scarritt Bennett have a lot of history and a shared heart: we both care about contemplation, hospitality, rest, social justice and communion with nature; nurturing the journey inward to strengthen the journey outward. Laura and I thought it might be cool to partner together – an urban retreat center and a rural retreat center joining creative forces! When Laura and I met at Penuel Ridge months ago to brainstorm, eventually we began sharing about the powerful women in our lives – women with whom we have grown and created better worlds – mentors, teachers, grandparents, parents, sisters, friends. We also shared about memories we have from childhood that have carried us into adulthood – memories about our mothers and grandmothers making biscuits and canning tomatoes, for example. For Laura, baking bread is something that connects her to a slower pace, to her female ancestors.  As soon as Laura could see over the top of a kitchen counter, she was welcomed into the wisdom circle of women in her family. Three generations of women instilled in her the joy and responsibility of feeding the family, both physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Laura and I began to dream about ways to gather women together, welcoming one another into wisdom circles, to share knowledgeabout how to feed ourselves – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We both care deeply about the environment and believe that sustainability movements that are truly sustainable will require us to re-learn some of the folk skills and traditions of our ancestors. Re-learning these kinds of skills is a way to reclaim pre-industrial-and-capitalist-loving ways of being. So, we thought that gathering women to share knowledge about self-reliance and sustainability-related skills might be a good place to start. Wise Women – sharing know-how about how to take our own spiritual, emotional, and physical health into our own powerful communal hands! So, we planned our first skillshare – baking bread!

This series was created to provide space for women of all ages and backgrounds to gather and exchange stories and information. To me, this is a subversive act. Sure, it’s no picket line… it’s no protest, not necessarily, but it is a way of saying, “Hey. In this fast-paced, chemical-obsessed world of ours, we need to slow down, learn from each other, and learn how to survive on our own resources.” Our society is over-dependent on dwindling natural resources and uses “convenience” as the measure of goodness. In such a society, it’s important for women to empower ourselves toward self-reliance and to support each other as we learn new ways of being healthy and whole. For starters, we can bake our own bread… free of unnecessary and damaging chemicals. It’s cheap and it’s good, for body and soul.

At the skillshare, Laura taught us how to bake bread using only four ingredients (see the recipe here: http://leitesculinaria.com/93789). By baking bread together, using only four basic ingredients, I think we realized just how much we can actually do for ourselves, how to take back our time and infuse value into the work of our own hands for our own sustenance. Was our gathering such a far cry from the “Bread, freedom, and social justice!”of Egyptian protesters? I don’t think so. In our baking bread together, I think we were embodying this sentiment: we will not be poisoned, our bodies will not suffer the detrimental realities of corrupt capitalist production; inasmuch as we are able, we will take matters of our well-being into our own hands, thank you very much, and we’ll teach each other everything.

 My prayer for these gatherings is this: May every woman know the value of her knowledge, may she share with future generations, so that we might bring about a more just society – one in which all people have access to sustenance. May we join our labor for sustenance with global movements for justice. MAY WE KNOW THE SPIRIT OF RESISTANCE, JUSTICE, & FREEDOM… IN THE BAKING OF BREAD, AMEN.

Join us at the next skillshare – and bring ideas about what other kinds of skills you might want to share as we plan for the future of these gatherings!

Upcoming Wise Women: Nov. 6 – The Harvest Among Us, presented by Samantha Hamernick Williams, Owner of My Friend Who Loves to Cook

Samantha Williams never, EVER thought she would be a stay-at-home mom or a small-business owner. After earning a bachelors in physics and masters of theological studies, she found her multifaceted vocation as a mother, lover of justice and miller of pancakes, among other things. She has spent the last few years digging back into grandmothers’ recipes and reclaiming the kitchen as a place for a modern millennial mom. You’ll leave with fresh ideas, recipes, and the techniques to duplicate in your own home.

$15 (space limited). Payment will be taken in person at the event but RSVP’s are appreciated.

TO RSVP call (615) 340-8804, email emcampbell@scarrittbennett.org or online at conta.cc/1s3Ru3N.

Penuel Ridge is a contemplative interfaith retreat center. We are a spiritual retreat center in Middle Tennessee, honoring our heritage and fostering values of contemplation, silence, hospitality, rest, social justice and communion with nature; nurturing the journey inward to strengthen the journey outward. Our Heritage Statement: To call people apart in a natural setting, to encounter in deep ways the love of God, neighbor and self and to experience the integrity of all creation.

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Marie Campbell is currently Assistant Director of Education, Programs, & Connections at Scarritt-Bennett Center.  In her current position, Marie coordinates the Belle H. Bennett House, a 10-month fellowship program for young women discerning vocation at the intersection of radical social justice and spirituality. She holds a Masters of Divinity from Vanderbilt Divinity School and a B.A. in Sociology from Belmont University. Marie is passionate about environmental justice, liberatory education, and bold, intersectional feminism.