'52 Loaves' A Quest For The Holy Grain

William Alexander spent a year baking a loaf of bread each week in an attempt to replicate a loaf of peasant bread he once tasted. Host Liane Hansen speaks with Alexander about his new book, 52 Loaves: One Man's Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

William Alexander can be compared to a crusader, a man on a quest for the holy green. The acclaimed author of "The $64 Tomato" decided that for one year he would bake a loaf of bread a week. Not just any bread, no croissant, nor dinner rolls, Alexander wanted to perfect a peasant bread he once tasted. In the course of his odyssey, he grows and grinds his own wheat, wins second place in a New York State Fair bread contest and revised the art of bread making in a 1,300-year-old monastery in Normandy.

The results and recipes are in his new book about the experience, "52 Loaves: One Man's Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning and the Perfect Crust." William Alexander is in our New York studio. Welcome to the program.

Mr. WILLIAM ALEXANDER (Author, "52 Loaves: One Man's Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning and the Perfect Crust"): Thank you.

HANSEN: Tell us about that marvelous bread that you tasted and tried to duplicate.

Mr. ALEXANDER: I must've been close to, I don't know, 50 when I first tasted really good artisan bread. And it was just an eye-opener, the first bite into the crust, which managed to be both crispy and chewy at the same time and had a natural sweetness from the sugars that had developed during baking. And the crumb, which is the word that bakeries use to describe the interior of the bread, the crumb had some bite back when you bit into it.

And as Anne and I left the table, I can recall saying to her, you know, I've got to learn to bake that bread if it kills me.

HANSEN: Anne is your wife, and she stood by you during this whole process.

But the bread that you're making, the ingredients, four: water, yeast, flour, salt, with such simple ingredients, why isn't baking this bread a simple process?

Mr. ALEXANDER: You would think it would be. I was thrilled to see that no less a cook than Julia Child asked that same question and what she said is, you know, there are four ingredients, but there seem to be 10,000 ways to use them and that is precisely the problem with baking bread.

HANSEN: Did you eat all the loaves you baked?

Mr. ALEXANDER: Every single one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALEXANDER: And my wife and my kids. And they were all real troopers. And they never complained once, even when the bread was lousy. And I baked a lot of lousy bread, let me tell you.

HANSEN: Yeah, but was your definition of lousy different from your family's?

Mr. ALEXANDER: Yes.

HANSEN: I mean, you were looking for this diamond, right? So...

Mr. ALEXANDER: I was looking for the diamond and, you know, I had a very specific notion of what I wanted this bread to be. And I remember at one point, you know, having bread with the family and saying, oh, once again, no holes in the bread and my daughter Katie, she was so exasperated, she goes, dad, what's with you and the air holes? I think this bread is great now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALEXANDER: You know, it wasn't bad bread, but it wasn't perfect bread. I was trying to bake the perfect loaf of bread.

HANSEN: Yeah. You decided to grow wheat. Now, you live in the Catskills, the Valley, in the Hudson Valley. I mean, did at any time in that process from seed to flour, spelled F-L-O-U-R, flour, did you question your sanity?

Mr. ALEXANDER: Oh my goodness. I am convinced that if we all had to grow and thresh and winnow and grind our own wheat, we'd be a nation of rice eaters today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALEXANDER: I mean, a threshing of the wheat is - today that will not long be forgotten in our family. Threshing is a process of separating the wheat berries from the seed head. And nature wants them to stay on the seed head and so you have to basically beat the living daylights out of the wheat to get this out.

So not knowing how to thresh wheat, I went to a venerable source, Pliny the Elder, writing in A.D. 77. And Pliny talked about two ways in fashion at the time - having a team of oxen trample and using a flail. And having lent out my oxen for the weekend...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALEXANDER: And my wife took one look at the flail, which if you can try to picture this, two heavy wooden sticks connected by a short length of heavy chain, she took one look at that and wondered where and with whom I'd been hanging out. It really looks something more likely to be found smacking in the buttocks of a member of parliament in a London S&M den than used in the preparation of food.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALEXANDER: So we put that aside and after starting first with a broom, which got destroyed in the first five minutes and then we went to shovels, we ended up doing 20 pounds of wheat just holding a few stays at a time taking turns pounding it with one of my woodworking mallets. And after, like, eight hours of that, I can still see Anne just lying on the back lawn just exhausted and sunburned and looking every bit as threshed as the wheat.

And she said, promise me just one thing. I said, what's that, dear? She said, next year you won't grow cotton.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: I'm speaking with William Alexander, author of "52 Loaves: One Man's Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning and a Perfect Crust." So, did you find truth?

Mr. ALEXANDER: I found lots of truths. I have to honest, I really started out just wanting to bake a decent loaf of bread. You know, as I was baking my last loaf of bread and it's the middle of winter and actually had started to snow and I was baking a loaf that I had made from my own wheat that I had threshed and then ground into flour and it was leavened with my own yeast that I had cultured from the wild yeast that was sitting on apples in my backyard, baking it in an oven that I had built from the earth in my yard, and I was thinking about, you know, had I baked the perfect loaf, I thought of story I thought of in years.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Birthmark," which is about a man who has a perfect wife, except for one small flaw, the birthmark on her cheek. And he actually ends up killing her trying to go from almost perfect to perfect. And he has a wonderful line about how his character was failing to find the perfect future in the present.

And I thought, you know, the question isn't to ask, did I bake the perfect loaf? I think it was more about learning to find the perfect future in the present.

HANSEN: William Alexander is the author of "52 Loaves: One Man's Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust." He joined us from New York. Thanks so much.

Mr. ALEXANDER: Thank you, Liane.

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