The Mystery of Bread

As we turn the Wheel of the Year once again, we arrive at Lammas, the first of the three harvest festivals. To celebrate the first cut of wheat Kurt Hunter brings us his unique thoughts on bread. While written during Imbolc his piece connects us with the fruits of the Lammas harvest.

Elemental Cooking: Mysteries that Become Mysteries

by Kurt Hunter

If anyone has been following my Facebook page in recent days then you likely know I’ve been delving into the strange and arcane world of cooking, specifically, baking–even more than that, of baking breads. Quick breads, sweet breads, yeast breads especially because those always seemed the most unfathomable. Now I have experienced the chemistry of it and, as the Ancients knew, the art of alchemy is strongly related to the science of chemistry. Many of our spiritual practices and traditions can be linked to the operations of preparing food, because food is life, life is chemistry but—more than that—life is alchemy. The spark of life that happens when inorganic compounds become organic compounds and then living organic compounds is still unknown to science. It has something to do with energy, and maintaining structure in the midst of a decaying universe while promoting diversity, and being able to duplicate its own pattern so the process can continue. We understand the definitions but I am not sure how much closer we are to understanding the ineffable stuff of life itself–at least not in the sense of our relatively modern definitions of “science”.

Shamans, mystics, alchemists, magicians, and all our hoary ilk have been pondering this very question for thousands of years. Life might be considered the infusion of spirit into matter. All sorts of mystical principles are bound to this idea. Before there was the written language the shaman understood it. They carried it to us from the spirit world. Before we made a systematic study of it, the priests knew it, for the gods told them. Apparently it was important we learn to ask these questions. With the asking and the exploring came the discovery of many an edifice of scholarly thought on the very topic of life itself. At some point mysticism and science diverged for much of Western civilization. That’s too bad. It’s fairly commonplace amongst occultists to blame the Christian Church for this suppression of knowledge despite the irony that monks and scribes from that same church served as the only source of many magickal teachings that we are resurrecting today. I do often wonder what life would be like in this world if that hadn’t happened. Some say it would have been as though Atlantis never sank below the waves. But if that had happened then, likely, I would never have embarked on my culinary adventure.

The Pagan community is driven by big larger-than-life images: Myths. Stories. Fables. One of my favorite old-time horror flicks is Frankenstein, based on the novel by Mary Shelley almost 200 years ago (that long?) A part of our popular culture is that particular scene, that particular line, where Dr. Frankenstein is hovering beside his greatest creation, shouting “It’s ALIVE!” This is obviously a cautionary tale about the pursuit of knowledge going where it has no business to be. Essentially, life is best left up to the gods. This isn’t a particularly new notion however. Just delve back into history about the story of Prometheus, he who dared to steal fire (life) from Them. Fast forward centuries to the biblical tale of Adam and Eve– Yahweh is rather ticked that Man went and stole a bit of His divine prerogative. It would only have been so much better for you if you’d just remained in the lovely paradise of ignorance. Do as your told and your parents will see to it that you’re kept safe. But we are incapable of that. Because we have that blend of living curious humanity, ipso facto, we have that blend of living curious humanity. Blame the gods. They did it, so in essence, they made us into Them. Is it any surprise that we keep trying to be Them?

But we aren’t ready to understand these secrets!
We will destroy everything with hidden knowledge!
God(s) know best, just follow Them!

Yeah. Whatever.

I loved my parents deeply. Did I always do what they said? No. Seriously, show me an adult who didn’t get into trouble. Did I get burned sometimes? I think that is essentially the point. We’re going to explore. We’re going to make a mess. We’re going to turn the kitchen into a disaster area. We’re going to tip over the cosmic apple cart with our gods-be-damned curiosity because that’s how we’re made. And, most importantly, we’re going to make mistakes.

And so, many lines later, exactly what in the hell does this have to do with baking bread? Do I digress? A little. It’s an intellectual tangent but life is, really, a meandering foray into the conceptual dough of un-being.

Any kitchen witch knows this truth: cooking is all about the Elements. It’s all about balancing the Elements appropriately. There are various excellent books on this very profound Mystery. The cunning art of the place where we cook is an absolute favorite in many a book of shadows, grimoire and tome. This seems like an excellent time to plug author Dawn Hunt and her magickal recipe compendium (this is a fancy phrase for “cookbook”) Cuchina Aurora. While you’re salivating also grab Tastes from the Temple, a collection of wonderful stories and concoctions from my magickal alma mater The Temple of Witchcraft. I get double entendre word score here; the Latin phrase “alma mater” also means “Nourishing Mother”. You’d think that it was Demeter/Ceres who vouchsafed these mysteries to me, but no, at least not directly. Honour She whose Mystery brings the grain, but it wasn’t Her who hit me upside the head tonight. That happens at Lammas.

I’m writing this whole convoluted morass of ingredients to illustrate a point that was given to me quite elegantly by Brigid this past week. Specifically tonight, on Imbolc, as I was cooking my final Great Loaf Offering Unto Her as the culmination of a week’s worth of solemn observation. You see, despite my love of attempting to cook, I have a rather irrational fear of putting things in the oven (because I invariably forget they’re even there and the imp of the perverse haunts the timer on my stove). I cannot begin to tell you how many times I have thought “What’s that smell?” to be immediately followed by the “Oh Shit” moment of realizing you don’t have nearly enough air flow in your apartment and your smoke detector is going to throw yet another conniption fit. So baking bread is really a serious leap for me. I enjoy the steps of it, so long as someone else is fundamentally in charge. I have been educated in just how, elementally speaking, a sensitive process it is. It’s like creating life, a little too much of one thing or too little too much of another thing, and you’ve got something that isn’t fit for human consumption, much less a divine offering. Fortunately for me, Brigid has a lovely sense of humor.

Which goes to say, I learned a lot more from my failures than my successes this past week. We’re supposed to fail. Life is designed to fail. It perfects itself, incrementally, upon its path to perfection. But it really has to blow it all up, and spectacularly is better because nothing serves to focus the attention like a ceiling full of smoke. Here is what She behest me to say about these lessons.

EARTH: Yah. Ingredients. I tasted some pretty foul stuff. Who knew that a pinch of salt was so bloody important? Well, as you read this may have and are laughing, but I certainly didn’t. Corn starch also makes a poor substitute for baking powder (but it looks the same Mom!) Also if you put too much fruit of the Earth into your recipe without allowing for something to balance it, like a bigger loaf, then bad things happen. What’s that smell?

AIR: It’s good to know what you’re doing. It’s great to be able to understand the simple causality of “If X, then Y, if not X, then not Y”. A statement of Boolean logic. All sorts of strange things occur if you ignore this simple truth. The written word also rules recipes. I don’t know enough yet to violate the rules when I think I do. Smoke is also ruled by Air, which is a good thing otherwise I’d be a crisped hunk about now.

FIRE: Obviously this is going into the oven. That sacred Element of the forge and hearth that so compelled me to try to honor Her right and proper that I’d make repeated stabs at it. It approached the level of irrational compulsion and an expanded waistline because I made more bread than I can realistically consume. (But damn homemade bread that turns out is good!) I needed a bigger freezer. Thank goodness I have tolerant coven mates. I had to bake something with grain in it every day for the past week or so. They didn’t all fail, but enough did to recognize that my temperature gauge likely needs some adjusting.

WATER: You know what happens when you accidentally read ¼ cup to mean ½ cup? A soppy, blobby mess that simply did not have the nice puffy consistency of a good sourdough but didn’t even take to slicing it crosswise with a knife before baking. It simply refused the decency to tolerate a little human error in this regard. Why aren’t you folding out of the bowl now? I cannot get enough flour on my hands to make you-come-loose! Too little and you just crack and crumble. I’m a water sign yet this seems to have been my most frequent nemesis.

SPIRIT: I’ve been talking about life. What part of bread yet retains the spark of life before you put it together? The yeast! I have grown to adore yeast. The smell. The funny little bubbles and swirling, expanding foam it makes in the water. I would simply stare into the water, willing the bread to live! I’m sure an entire form of divination can come out of this. (Yeast-o-mancy?) More than anything it was the thing that made me feel truly like Dr. Frankenstein, going “Mwa ha haaaaa!” I don’t seem to have forgotten any recipes that called for it, or added it to any that said “don’t do it for the luv of God!” I would have liked to have seen if I added too much. I might end up summoning Cthulhu. Perhaps next Imbolc.

Bread is like a fussy kitty who refuses to eat what you put in its dish. It’s also a fascinating study on the human capacity for divine error, the Elements, balance, and most importantly, the ability to laugh and learn from your mistakes.

Yay bread!

Kurt Hunter is Georgian elder and NROOGD red cord who has been working in the Craft for over 25 years. He is High Priest of ElvenOak Coven in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and is currently a student in the ministerial seminary of the Temple of Witchcraft. Kurt works as a professional counselor and clinical supervisor and enjoys stone collecting, gardening, photography and gaming. He lives in Portland, OR and can be reached at [email protected]

Temple of Witchcraft