Seeing Through Bread:
two bakers talk medium and message

Tyler Lee Steinbrenner and Lexie Smith

“Seeing Through Bread,” was published in Active Cultures’ Digest, Issue 11, April 2022 (edited by quori theodor).

Image: Photo by Lexie Smith.


Tyler Lee Steinbrenner founded Anti-Conquest Bread Co. in 2020 where he bakes bread commercially and for mutual aid.

Lexie Smith is a baker and a maker from New York. She uses bread as a vehicle for eternal inquiry and houses her writing and material explorations under the heading Bread on Earth, an art and research project she founded in 2016. Her writing, mostly on bread and grain, has been printed in publications around the world. She currently works on programs and strategy for Sky High Farm, a nonprofit farm in the Hudson Valley, NY, dedicated to diminishing food insecurity and empowering greater food sovereignty. She splits her time between the Hudson Valley and New York City.

Tyler and Lexie respond to niche, arcane prompts about bread and wheat, and the myriad human relationships to both.

1. Imperialist Agriculture and the Body of Christ

Tyler Lee Steinbrenner: I get lost in the idea of how to change our patterns as a species and I wonder if agriculture is the basis of our evolution. Are our morals and feelings decided by how we relate to nature? Has the act of agriculture led us to inevitably participate in contests of land and power? X__X This thought makes me question bread sometimes. Alternatively, I think good bread is a celebration of nature.

Lexie Smith: One of the biggest takeaways I’ve gained through studying bread is the relationship between bread, agriculture— wheat, specifically—and the ongoing project of eurocentric globalization and colonization. I see geopolitics most clearly through the story of bread and grain; it never really stuck before I had them as guides. Follow the grain and you find the story. Take the Spanish conquest of what is now Mexico: the conquistadors brought wheat seeds with them, like many colonists did for their respective occupations (Portuguese, French, Dutch, British, etc.). Wheat was not only what white, male Europeans knew how to grow and turn into food, but it was considered the actual make of the righteous man. There was no arguing it: wheat bread was consummate with the body of Christ. Those who ate it were considered fundamentally—materially and spiritually—different from (superior to) those who ate other grains. Rice and maize were both threats to the colonists’ sense of self. The Portuguese and British influence amongst the breads of India, the Dutch residue in Indonesia, the wheat flour tortillas and bolillos of Mexico, even an attempt to convert Japanese schoolchildren to white bread during the Allied Occupation. Wheat was planted and evangelized as a means of both dominating the food supply and spreading ideology. It was the civilizing force. Evidence of this can be seen as far back as Gilgamesh, wherein the barbarian was turned into a citizen through the consumption of bread and alcohol.

In more modern terms, the spread of hybridized wheat seeds layers atop the colonial evidence of wheat bread that remains around the world. Hybrid wheat and rice varieties were developed in Mexico with, uniquely, the support of both the White House and the Rockefellers, and strategically dispersed throughout Mexico, the Philippines, and the Asian subcontinent— places with large swaths of rural poor and thus considered an increased threat to America’s geopolitical aims. The spread of high-yielding hybridized seed (reliant on intense irrigation and petrochemicals produced by the same laboratories), was dispersed under the guise of aid, with the intention of allaying loyalties to Communist ideals.

Obviously, agricultural systems in America bear the mark of colonizer frameworks to this day, with the majority of farmland owned by white men, and much of it in use for growing commodity grains for fuel, export, animal-feed, and other modes of industrial production unrelated to earth and human health. That power and capital remains concentrated within the same elite that has profited from land and exploited labor for centuries, and systematically undermines the rest. There is truly no separating land use and ownership, seed sovereignty, and food systems development from the colonial project.

T__T: This topic is something that’s on my mind regularly. I sometimes have this stream of concerned thoughts about instances of violence via agriculture. Like the Opium Wars and its effects throughout Asia that still reverberate back to us through drug trade. Also corporate enslavement via land, seed, and chemical loans, like the ones used abusively against banana farmers in the Philippines. Or Norman Borlaug and the global conquest of semi-dwarf wheat. Like Lexie is saying, when we analyze interventions of farming practices, I think it's obvious how our diets can trace stories of ancestry and domination. Tragically we haven’t even changed these methods of colonization but have instead added methods to obscure causal responsibility. To further contemplate these power dynamics I also think about the heir of the Thai Red Bull corporation who used his extreme wealth to flee consequences for murdering a police officer. I view his bizarre act as a moment of concentrated power via food and capitalism. However, despite all this negativity the opposite is also present in the loving practices of essential community-scaled agriculture. My baking consists of strictly localized organic grains in order to signal feelings regarding this ongoing geopolitical tragedy.

Also just going to plant this dramatic link:

2. Empathy is a taste

T__T: I think I mean to say, “Taste can be an expression of empathy.”

LS: I’m also interested in this idea from a sociological perspective. What is it about bread in particular that allows for the transference of feeling, history, and compassion (if done a certain way)? And what does food taste like if it’s then not made with empathy? Is the absence of empathy as palpable as the presence of empathy? Or, does apathy also have a taste? How does humility, intent, and holding room for imagination in labor play into taste?

T__T: Alan Scott suggests that there are inherent flavors in the most essential forms of bread. Clay baked and wood fired are not just attributes of flavor but also an intuitive way to recognize nutritional and spiritual grounding. Sometimes I think beautifully crafted bread is a way to express connectedness that an apathetic flavor can’t provide. A common burger now uses nitrogen-grown hydroponic greens on bleached commercially risen bread, possibly topped with lab grown meat. The ingredients are uprooted from any natural means of existing (very “un-living flavor”).

I think about empathy-flavor as a form of connection with culinary craft and all of its inherent ancestries, and thus the entire root system of our humanity. I just wonder how well we can develop our depth of understanding/palette. This kind of logic is hardly incentivized by the capitalist model, but it's what I value in my relationship to cooking. Whenever we eat something meaningful to us we form a bond between everyone who created that act of nourishment. For me these emphatic connections in cooking actually include the state of being for bacteria, animals, plants, and fungi as well. Alternatively I often call empathy flavor “living flavor” to better include the complexity and depth of fermented flavors that come from living organisms, like sourdough. With that said, a fresh oyster also falls into my classification of living this whole concept probably needs to be developed :)

LS: I’m with you that there is a literal translation of intention onto taste. I also think about it in terms of how those foods grown for greed or efficiency over nutrients, wellbeing, experiential benefit, community-building, etc. actually affect our bodies. Like is there any way that dwarf wheat developed to be grown literally anywhere in the world, degrading its place and its farmers, would not cause negative effects in those who eat it? It wasn’t grown for people, it was grown for profit. Maybe the reason why this topic is pertinent especially to breadmaking is because bread does literally bear the marks of its makers––not just the grain used for flour but the attention and intuitive care that the baker is putting into the loaves. And, crucially, patience. So, I think patience, or in a certain sense time, is a flavor too, and that it’s tied to empathy. Earth empathy, human empathy. I like to write recipes for bread that draw in the maker and encourage them to consider who will eat it, how it will make them feel. I think with other foods I might feel very twee doing this, but with bread making it feels built into the fabric of the process.

That said, there's something about bread that seems to move people in a much more subterranean way, sometimes regardless of the care that was put into making it. Bread has a punctum, in the Barthian sense: a unique and quiet private point that reaches people, in and outside of larger cultural frameworks. If we’re lucky enough to eat bread made with compassion, we might be able to tell the difference, but I’d argue that of all foods, even the shittiest bread can allow for this personal emotional experience.

T__T: Yes! Some of these ideas I stumbled onto as a fermentationist before I was a baker. Eating a well-nurtured, living food culture involves all of these incredible and complex flavors that are signifiers of time and care. It just takes a little understanding of how a food is made to begin tasting flavors as a history of process and life. Bread is one of our most essential human-made forms of this. Sometimes I like to contrast that heightened compassionate taste with something like an Oreo (maybe because a lot of its marketing had to do with visualizing what we’re describing). I feel a connection to my flavor-memories and nostalgia when I eat those commercially produced cookies. We can develop our own individual relationships with foods regardless of the means of creation.

Looping back to Alan Scott / I have a feeling he was using the hearth oven and bread as a metaphor for a sustainable closed loop society, engaged in the implicit care of its people. I’m only drawing dots here and I have a lot of reading to do, but I think about how he helped create Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen and how independently sustained small scale communities must be his motivation for revival work around deep-rooted agrarian bread culture. I think his ideas compliment your thoughts about the “fabric of the process,” and include the hearth as another element similar to patience.

3. What makes a wheat seed

T__T: I like discussing ancient grain and heirlooms since I feel like they are misunderstood. Using ancient grain is a visceral connection to ancient history. It’s literally a way to activate all of our ancestry.

LS: Agree a worthwhile topic to explore more. We've talked about the explicit difference between heirloom grains and hybrid wheats, and the biological and technical pros of working with wheat that doesn't belong to a company. There’s also the angle some take of hybridization as a mode of biosecurity, which creates a spectrum of possibilities from nefarious to world-saving to world-making (like teosinte).

T__T: Also bio-security as a justification for colonizers? Just looping back to how insanely fast CRISPR research is advancing the modification of wheat / how that research is not publicly accessible to many countries and how the results will certainly be privatized.

LS: Yeah, I mean, colonizer mentality will use literally anything to justify itself. I think of heirloom seeds as useful for biosecurity so long as they are, as in centuries past, kept in the hands of growers and seed-keepers and communities that know them. People who know where they come from, how to use them, and keep them close to the ground. When we spoke before, we touched on this specific difference between GMO and heirloom: one is owned, the other is not. Even the term hybrid can fit into this latter category––technically most wheats on the planet have been organically hybridized over millennia to get us where we are now, with some robust landraces, hybrids, heirlooms, ancient varieties, what have you (so much of the terminology is semantic excess, IMHO), which have withstood the test of time. It is the drought-resistant varieties that we will soon look to for guidance, and those who know how to grow them. Of course technologists will do this too, but all the more reason why the actual expertise of agriculture is so vital to keep in the hands of the workers, the farmers, the individual and the community, not the corporations. Also a note that bakers with the expertise of using non-commercial wheats are as vital to this future. We both know flours have character, and require different skills to use. Commercial projects have overwhelmed the production of bread in the last hundred years, and I don’t mind that baking with non-commodity grain is trendy if it means that more and more people will be equipped with the skills to do it, and thus, hopefully, up the demand and drive down the prices of these grains so that they become more accessible to everyone and upend the status-quo.

T__T: I also worry a lot about how the goals of commercialized foods vs. craft foods require divergent evolution in societal forms. Though I endorse craft as a way to understand the significance of sustainable farming practice, I also know that many of the genetically modified foods and widespread hybrids we consume effectively feed more people. We will have to radically change how we receive and use information and resources on a community oriented small-farm scale.

Speaking from the perspective of the bakery, something extremely curious is happening already where the price of commercial wheat has ballooned due to our weakened ability to conduct global trade throughout COVID. Now more than ever in modern agriculture we are HIGHLY incentivized to understand and rebuild small-scale localized agriculture as a way to access higher quality foods at affordable prices, relative to commercial produce, because the cost and impact of international freight has become untenable. Truly, on a wholesale level the percentage of cost that goes to moving shit around is startling. On a retail level, the cost of packaging is startling. The more I see these things from the standpoint of a business the scarier it we create value in our currencies just to fool ourselves into thinking we can afford all of this waste. How our banks are linked implicitly to oil and guns and thus we perpetually breed tragic waste. These thoughts always circle back to farms for me, when I see produce traded for money to pay off a land-loan or a credit card despite farmers’ work being absolutely essential. Then I remember that our colonial machine has always treated food growers as tools and not nurturers.

LS: Worth mentioning that the global commodity market makes it nearly impossible for small-scale producers to make their products accessible to everyday people because the prices of commodity flour, for example, are basically impossible to compete with. It is cheaper for customers to pay for the stuff made in massive industrial operations because subsidies and the “efficiencies'' of the processes (which obviously don’t account for their own externalities—we pay for that too) drive the prices to an unbeatable rate. Even as small scale regional producers grow—which I do believe is happening and will continue to happen—there have to be incentives and policies that support them and allow the food they’re producing to make it to an equitable market. Cutting out the freight cost isn’t enough to make non-industrial food affordable.

4. Breadmaking as praxis

LS: Even though I believe in and can speak to this idea, I’m still shy about saying it out loud too often and especially in writing. But I’ve been thinking a lot about how I believe in these two ideologies that are maybe at odds with each other, except, somehow, when I think about them in terms of bread: animism and materialism. I read this interview with the artist Tai Schani where she talked about needing both. I am also reading a book called The Return of Nature, which is about ecological socialism, and I keep coming back to this idea of bread being evidence of the necessity for material grounding in political AND metaphysical frameworks (or the ability to ground them in material?), and also evidence of the aliveness of things—be it microbes or rusk or the story that carries one through to the other—and how that animism is what gives the material anchor the weight it needs for me to accept materialism. ??!! Bread is just this spectrum: the foundational utility and also the broadest symbol, representative of everything, from the body of god to the fuel of the peasant masses to the bellwether of economic and political upheaval. So making it I can’t help but feel, for me at least, like playing a part in this very spectral and vital process. There are lots of ways to do it, but to build values, for lack of a better word, into it feels like turning myth or ideology into something tangible and necessary.

T__T: This aspect of anchoring political and metaphysical frameworks is everything! Some days at the bakery feel like a small microcosm celebrating that dynamic. A personal regrounding in the self-evident value of aliveness that I get to share through bread, on a good day at least :)

Interview excerpted from a longer conversation and edited for clarity.

Active Cultures is a cultural organization that explores the convergence of food and art in contemporary life.