Dough as a Lens For Cultural Anthropology


fig.1 Women milling flour with quern stones

fig.2 The Roman Goddess Anona on an ancient coin

fig.3 Baguette Man ~ Captain Khozba

fig.4 Poster for Bread & Puppet

            The starter has been growing for a while now. Multiplying in a Kilner jar. You read somewhere that 16 million yeast cells can be produced in a day. You’re not quite sure if you believe it. But the kilner jar definitely does, as the tide rises up its glass sides. Bubbling.

You take a gooey lump of this yeast between oily fingers. It sags and falls into the water that rests in a ceramic bowl. The starter sinks, then rises. Rises to float on the surface. Like a child in armbands. A refugee in a raft. Fleeing the scarcity of what lies before you on the kitchen counter. You try not to think about the boat. Or the famine, and sink your fingers into this bowl of liquid. The yeast floats, ethereal for a few seconds, then becomes one with its watery home. Beige liquid smoothie. The tranquility only lasts a few seconds while you turn to the scales. Heaped tablespoon after tablespoon of white powder. This was made in a mill; not by your own hands but you pause for and remember that photo of quern stones. The imagined blue dress. Beads of sweat.

You blink and return to the scales, carefully lift the mound of flour and dump it unromantically into the ceramic bowl. Some floats on the water’s surface. Less of a raft, more like leaves, and not for long, as your palms descend on the bubbling mess. Scrape the edges of the bowl. Combine flour, water and yeast into this gloopy mulch. Just as it begins to take hold, you try to detach it from your palms. The dough doesn’t want to let go. Wet between your fingers. Underneath your fingernails. You lay a muslin cloth over the bowl, and wait.

Maybe turn on the radio, sneeze, and remember that image again.fig.1 Women milling flour, before it was done by machines. Hours of physical labour. Meticulously carved stones; the most expensive thing in the household. Rough grain.

You imagine that you are the woman on the left, turning the quern stones. Your mother sits opposite you, grain tumbling through her hands. It might be wheat or rye, or einkorn but you’re not sure how you could tell.

You think that it’s strange how this whole arduous process would disappear in just a few years. Even be banned as Thirlage (or the English equivalent) would be established, and ban the milling of flour at home. Early English Bread Project, 2018 In the near future you would be required to take the grain to the mill. Pay for your flour. And the image shifts; to a walk to the mill; money changing hands. You talk to your mother less now, this is the result of the capitalisation of grain after all. The possession of the entire bread making process is no longer in the hands of community, women kneading together, forging the foundation of society. At least your arms hurt a little less too.

A police car passes. Sirens outside and you’re back in your kitchen. Somewhere in Hackney, maybe in Harrogate. Who am I to judge. The timer tells you that thirty minutes have passed. Blinking fluorescent green. You lift the muslin from over your doughy mess and sigh, nothing has really changed, but you know that patience really is the most important thing.

You upturn the salt shaker six times. Once more for luck. You’re never sure just how much salt is a good idea; nor if it really matters when a slice is slathered in butter and honey.

You sink your hands again into the beige mulch, still gently (she’s only young) The dough is firmer this time, and you fold it all together in a misshapen ball, then remember you should have wet your palms. Somewhat contradictory, it stops the stickiness from sticking to you. Wet forcefield for your fingers. You return to the bowl and keep folding the dough. Not like laundry, far more roughly. Think: a begrudging massage from someone who didn’t want to give you one in the first place. You push the dough to one side of the bowl, then pull it apart, and back together. Collapsing over on itself. The surface is a little smoother now, not quite marble or ivory. It’ll never get that exact sheen. But it does look glossy and light.

This grain ceased to be symbolic of your wealth a few centuries ago. Then, you would have been baking with rye. One bedroom house. Grain of the poor. You think how strange it is that the colour of your dough could mean something about the baker or consumer. Maybe both.

( You pause only to remember the tea towel hanging by the sink, lie it over the dough. Coarse blanket; almost the same colour as the dough. While the yeast sleeps you turn on the radio. Static, then Radio 3. )

Wheat was once solely for the upper class, sifted to this pure white, whilst the lower classes were left with the coarser whole-grains Levinson, 2013. But then again, maybe you would have baked with wheat flour. You’re south of Hadrians' Wall after all (if it really was built at the division between the potential to grow wheat or rye.) Most likely nobody can remember. But it’s still strange, and stranger still, given today’s switch, to white bread beeing seen as of lower class taste, and wholemeal that of the middle class. As we learn that the coarser grains are better for us, white bread became synonymous with blandness and lack of sophistication. Oh, how the tables have turned! In The Commune Cookbook, Crescent Dragonwagon says that “baking as loaf of brown bread in this society is revolutionary, if you know why you’re doing it.” But perhaps that’s imbuing it with too much importance. Back in Ancient Rome (what tends to be the standard reference for all of Western culture) bread was even more of a status symbol. Bread was currency. fig.2 Roman coins bore the symbol of the goddess Annona of the harvest and grain, Brantlinger, 1983 and one of the first systems of taxation was the taxation of grain. Even today, bread and currency are still so intrinsically linked; dough is money. After all, you’ve got to get that bread.

Vivaldi fades into Handel, and you guess that your dough’s nap is likely over. More precise timings would perhaps yield a better loaf, but forgiveness is important too. You lift the blanket (lying over the bowl), then dash to the sink and back. Wet palms dripping on the tiles. Forcefield reestablished, you fold it again

And again

And again,

It's getting stronger. Entering adolescence. you take a chunk out of its middle and try to roll it between your palms. Then stretch it out between both your forefingers. It tears. Not having learned how to blow glass quite yet. You’re looking for the transparent window of dough, that means that its gluten structure has formed. The so-called gluten free epidemic was on the radio a second ago, then on your screen (lit up in blue) seconds later. You sigh, and recognise that you should be baking with a more ancient grain.

Eikorn has half the chromosomes of modern wheat, Smith, 2018 and so far less gluten. But it's not just gluten that’s a problem. Hybrid genetically engineered grains, farmed for mass-production of bread, have a much higher gluten content, making them harder to digest. Mass produced bread (regardless of the grain used) is still problematic for those sensitive to gluten. The fast rise means that your white sliced loaf doesn’t have the time to produce the enzymes that break down Phytic acid (one of the main contributors to gas production for those with IBS) at the point of consumption, whereas the slower proving period used in sourdough bread, allows for some of those acid digesting enzymes to be produced Wiginton, 2018. So maybe its not the gluten that’s a problem, but the bread itself, and its effective removal from public hands and into that of fast moving corporations…. Or maybe that’s all nonsense really.

You splat the dough unceremoniously into the bowl and keep folding. Scraping sides of the bowl with a dough scraper, that was also your grandmother’s. Then fold it all under itself again. Another lumpy ball. It’s smoother than last time, so you place the tea towel over its bowed head again.

You tune the radio to DAB. Radio 6, A Tribe Called Quest and now you remember a book about the Tunisian bread riots in 2011 Kraidy, 2016. A photograph of a man fig.4 standing facing riot police, baguette shotgun poised as if taking aim. Bread has been a historically consistent object of rioting and revolution. Again, all the way back to ancient Rome, grain prices have been used as platforms for populist politics. Perhaps even the first examples of a real free market was that of ancient Roman grain. A dietary staple, the ability to give or withhold bread lies in the bloodied hands of those in power. Tunisian Political scientist Larry Sadiki argued that ‘Arab citizens in the 1980s… extracted the right to vote by clamouring for bread.’, referring to 1980s austerity that caused hikes in the prices of bread and grain; and the riots that followed. But it seems that a shift has taken place in the connections between bread and revolution. The tables have turned, and in Tunisia khubz-ist (bread-seekers) becomes a dismissive term referring to subjects who obey rulers as long as bread is provided. As if those in power say “but we give you bread, you are not starving; so we must be on your side”. The Baguette Man in the photograph stares ahead, baguette-gun pointed at riot police, and the message is clear; the bread riots are no longer a fight for subsistence; but for dignity.

Three hours pass by the time you return to the bowl. Strip its bed. This time you’ve wet your palms already, and the dough looks calmer. You scoop it up into your hands, run your thumb over its surface. It resembles a lover now. You knead it gently for a while, then take a small amount between forefingers, and streeeeeeeeeeetch. The dough thins, almost filmic quality, and, closing one eye, you can see light through the dough’s paned glass. The gluten structure has been formed. Stained glass in the so-called body of christ. This definitely isn’t why bread is so vital to so many religions. But it does seem fitting.

Stained glass aside, Bread sustains this fantastic quality as an artistic medium. It’s tactile, yet sculptural when baked, and seeped in culture (as any artistic medium fervently hopes to be). Perhaps the most attractive thing about bread as artistic medium, is that it can be consumed. Bread is to be eaten. In New York’s Lower East Side, Bread and Puppet was formed on this very principle. The art collective, today based in Vermont, centres around making puppets from bread, that the audience are invited to share, after the performance. In an ever-capitalised world where components for our art pieces are pre-made for us and there is ‘no need to get our hands into the dough’ Albers, 1965, Bread and Puppet turns everything on it’s head.

Suddenly the art piece is truly in our hands, from its conception from constituent parts, right down to its consumption. ‘The puppet show is not only a puppet show, but an eating-bread-together event’. Art and culture and community are intrinsically linked; as are bread and culture and community, it makes sense that the two should collide. It seems that bread is the true socialist artistic medium; cheap, widely available, forged by communities; and consumed and shared. In the words of Peter Schumann, (founder of Bread and Puppet) ‘All art is faced with starving children and apocalyptic politics. All art is ashamed, angry and desolate because of its impotence in the face of reality… to put bread and puppets together… seemed like a correct first step in the fight for the immediate elimination of evil.’ Schumann, n.d.

At the cue of this holy single-glazing, you knead once, twice more, then dump the dough on the worktop. Wet palms shift it, left and right, slowly tucking underneath. Your dough becomes smoother and smoother.

You reach for a basket, and coat its cosy interior with flour. Maybe semolina. Then gently flip the dough into the basket, all tucked in on top, not underneath. Cover with tea towel duvet one last time, and leave it to sleep. Not just a nap, this time it's an all night affair. Sleep is important, especially for dough. You should rest too.

You dream of words when you sleep, and still about bread; as ever. You contemplate; half conscious, how bread is ingrained in almost every language the Old English word for bread is hlaf, which became loaf in modern english. Men guarded bread and women made it (why of course!). Hlaf-ward and hlaf-dige became hlaford and hlafdi then in turn, lavord and lavedi, to eventually be spat out on modern tongues, as lord and lady Forsyth, 2011. Companionship comes from the latin cum-panem, bread and society are one. Down to our very etymology. Even idioms today; in a world in which bread seemingly holds far less significance, yet we still earn our daily bread. Perhaps this loaf is more significant than you thought.  

When you awake, your dough will likely have doubled in size; overflowing its basket cradle. Daily bread is ripe for the taking. You turn on the oven, you fill a metal dish with water and place it in a metal dish on the bottom shelf of the oven. Let it boil. Fill the oven with steam. Then you can turn your dough out onto a piece of baking parchment, and slash its sides. Think not that you’re trying to harm it. More unzipping its coat, so it can breathe easier in the equatorial heat of the oven. Then comes a manoeuvre that’s never gone all that well, the shift of dough into dutch oven, usually causing its sides to be distorted, from the perfect circle they once were.

You leave the dough for twenty minutes, or thereabouts, then turn the oven down a few degrees. Blaring sun sinks a little, and you remove the lid from your bread’s little home. Sneak a peek at how it’s rising, then leave it another twenty.

The timer beeps and you look through the murky glass in the front of the oven. Open the door and get hit with a bast of steam. Your eyes clear to see the newborn sat in your palms. Golden brown crust stares back, like a great eye.  

After half an hour on a cooling rack, you can’t wait any longer, and cut a slice. Honey (culture and etymology and history) drip through the holes and down your wrist. This slice in your hand, so seeped in cultural, political and social significance. This slice is everything. It wasn’t too much salt after all.


Albers, A., Weber, N., Cirauqui, M. and Smith, T. (2017). On Weaving.

Bratlinger, P. (1983). Bread & Circuses: Theories of Mass Culture as Social Decay (2020). Bread and Puppet Theater | Puppeteers and Sourdough Bakers of Glover. Online at: [Accessed 13 Jan. 2020].

Dragonwagon, C. (1972). The commune cookbook.

Kraidy, M. (2017). The naked blogger of Cairo.

Forsyth, M. (2011). The Etymologicon.

Levinson Ph.D., K. (2020). Social Class and Bread. Online at: [Accessed 13 Jan. 2020].

Smith, L. (2020). Bread and Puppet — Bread on Earth. Online at: [Accessed 13 Jan. 2020].

Smith, L. (2020). Einkorn, Unlikely Beneficiary of the Gluten Persecution (Recipe) — Bread on Earth. [online] Available at: [Accessed 13 Jan. 2020].

The Early English Bread Project. (2020). The Early English Bread Project. Online at: [Accessed 13 Jan. 2020].

Wiginton, K. (2020). Why Some Gluten-Sensitive People Can Still Eat Sourdough Bread. Bon Appétit. Online at: [Accessed 13 Jan. 2020].

Copyright, Elysia Cotton, January 2020