Edible Research: Material Musings on a Loaf of Bread
By Kelly Fu, ’22
These strange times are turning our relationship with things upside down. Many of us have not stepped foot inside a museum for months. Even for fellows in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture, it is a rare treat to roam the museum house and its collections.
As a result, we are growing increasingly familiar with the things in our immediate domestic environs: that chip in the same mug we drink from daily, those familiar cracks in the floor we wipe with disinfectant, that favorite shirt grown discolored from having been washed too many times…The pandemic has brought us further from museum “stuff,” the objects that impress us because of their beauty, their preciousness, their age, or simply because a museum label told us that they matter. The current situation reminds us that we live our lives embedded in objects not so different from those we study in our classes, cite in papers, and visit in museums.
This post is dedicated to an ephemeral material symbol of the pandemic era: the homemade loaf of bread. Although the sourdough craze may be primarily associated with our lockdown boredom or (in a slightly earlier era) with Brooklyn hipster culture, bread played a fundamental, albeit unlikely, role in artisanal workshops in Renaissance Europe. The BnF Ms Fr. 640, a French manuscript collection of artisanal craft secrets currently housed in the Bibliotheque nationale Francaise, records a method of casting objects in wax with bread. The method involves impressing the object in freshly baked bread and pouring hot wax into the indented loaf to create a replica of the object. The waxen replica was then used in metal casting. The role of bread in this process has been largely invisible: the bread mold was discarded as an intermediary and did not show up at all in the finished metal object.
How did all this work? Could it still work in the 21st century?
While in the UK last February, I reconstructed the bread-molding experiment with a few friends. We baked a loaf of white bread with commercial yeast from BBC Good Foods. I should note that our recipe was not the most historically faithful: the bread used in the Ms Fr.640 experiment, like most bread not specifically labeled “white bread,” would have been made from whole-grain flour and a sourdough-type starter. Had we used these ingredients, our replica bread would have been closer in texture, resulting in a more fine-grained molding material. Following the manuscript instructions, we slightly under-baked the bread and impressed our object as soon as the bread came out of the oven so the mold would be as malleable as possible. When the process was complete, we were pleasantly surprised to discover that we had made a fairly refined wax mold of a scallop shell.
The reconstruction experiment left us with several further questions.
First, why use bread for this process? Cost and availability come to mind: while food was never to be willfully squandered, the sacrifice of a loaf to cast a detailed statuette in silver seems like a good trade-off for artisans. Or perhaps the choice of bread for this generative artisanal process was a reference to leavened bread’s mythical relationship with fertility and birth? This begs further questions about female involvement in the artisanal workshops that we have too frequently assumed to be male-dominated. After all, women were prominently identified with bread and baking since Medieval times: think about the farm woman who chastised Alfred the Great for burning bread! Who would have been responsible for baking the bread needed for molding? Would it have been the artisan himself, or his female relatives? Who would have discovered that hot and slightly under-baked bread worked best for casting? Despite the detailed documentation of other aspects of the bread-casting process, the manuscript recipe included little information about the bread itself. Was the knowledge of bread baking for craft purposes a part of the “tacit knowledge” that is passed down from demonstration and haptic repetition, rather than through the written word?
The choice of bread for casting also prompts us to consider how craftspeople may have understood their crafts through the lens of raw materials. In addition to being a life-giving, staple food, bread is closely associated in Christian theology with the body of Christ. Seventeenth-century practical jokes prominently fixated on tricks that make a loaf of bread roll around autonomously as if it has come to life (this involved putting highly toxic and volatile mercury in fresh bread: I don’t recommend trying it at home). And the artisan-practitioner who compiled the Ms Fr. 640 used the process of bread molding to make metal casts of small, dead animals, transforming detritus into immortal metal statuettes. Bread, in other words, was closely associated with life itself. An early modern craftsperson may have thought about bread’s life-giving properties as he pondered his own artistic creation.
What about the timing? Since February, my own quarantine baking has alerted me to the challenges of timing my loaves’ proof times within a structured daily schedule: too long or too short of a proof can ruin the crumb texture. While flavor was likely not an element of consideration for the bread mold, the inconsistent texture of an over- or under-proved bread mold could still affect the finer details of a cast object. Hot bread is more impressionable than cold hard bread, so the timing of the loaves must have been an important part of the crafting process. How did the integration of bread-baking into the crafting process affect the rhythm of production?
Finally, what about the space of the workshop? Prior to my reconstruction experiment, I had never imagined a bread oven and the scent of a freshly baked loaf to be fundamental elements of an artisanal metal workshop. While it is possible that craftspeople purchased bread for the purposes of casting, our reconstruction revealed that freshly baked bread would have yielded the best results. The artisan responsible for the Ms. Fr. 640 manuscript included bread as an ingredient in many of his other secret recipes, from varnish-making to horse-taming. Clearly fresh bread was simply a material he took for granted, assuming that those replicating his recipes would have it on hand. Was the bread kiln more central to crafting workshops than we previously believed? What does this say about the relationship, geographical and functional, between the kitchen and the crafting workshop?
For further reading, check out this article by Ken Albala, which describes the process of recreating medieval bread from the growing of the wheat to the building of the bread kiln. You might also be interested in the Making and Knowing Project at Columbia University: their close study of the Ms. Fr. 640 manuscript inspired our bread molding experiment!