Book Review: 52 Loaves by William Alexander
I was provided with the opportunity to read/review this book at no cost to me. I do not accept monetary compensation for writing about my experiences or thoughts. All opinions expressed are my own.
If I were wandering around Borders and I saw a copy of William Alexander's 52 Loaves: One Man's Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust (Algonquin Books - May 4, 2010) on one of the display tables, I'd probably pick it up, flip through it, and put it back down on the table. Of course, I'd be struck by the cover art, prominently featuring a loaf of bread with beams of radiant light emanating from it. What food enthusiast wouldn't stop in their tracks to consider whether the story -- the quest to recreate Alexander's idea of perfection in the form of a humble loaf of peasant bread -- was compelling enough to warrant a purchase? But I'm not a home baker, and number of times I've baked yeast breads can be counted with the fingers of one hand, so I'd ultimately leave the store without buying a copy.
Had it not been for the book's publicist, who offered to send me a review copy, I would have missed the opportunity to learn something about the history of bread, about its components (flour, water, yeast, and salt), and about its cultural significance. The wealth of information about bread offered between the covers of the book was a strength. Unfortunately, for me, the narrative surrounding Alexander's experience throughout his journey, the narrative that was supposed to help me, the reader, relate with the characters and identify with the situations they found themselves in (like dealing with an oven door that has cracked after he owner decided to see just how hot the oven could get after he cranked it up to 550) felt contrived. It was almost as if the story inserted as an afterthought after realizing that the majority of the book consisted of history lessons and chemistry lessons.
I wanted to know more about the logic behind his decision to start growing his own wheat in the yard of his Hudson Valley home or his decision to build a brick oven. Were those undertakings the result of his pursuit for authenticity, his desire to consume food that was not a product of the industrial food chain, his deep-seeded need to make something with his own two hands? Alexander's book focused so much on the logistics behind bread baking that the human story, the story of his meditative relationship with bread and the process of creating it, was all but lost.
Nevertheless, 52 Loaves does present itself as worthwhile reading for baking enthusiasts, offering explanations for baking failures that may have gone undiscovered had it not been for Alexander's self-inflicted challenge of baking one loaf per week for a year. He even offers final versions of recipes that he perfected over the course of his quest in the appendix and a list of go-to references for bakers of every level. If bread baking is your thing, I'd recommend checking the book out... if not, you might want to wait and see if Hollywood buys the rights and turns it into a feature film.