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The art of bread
As it emerges, bruised and battered from nearly a decade of belittlement, the art of bread making is returning to the center of the nation’s quest for nourishment. Michael Ames investigates the ongoing fight to bring honor back to an ancient food. Photos by Paulette Phlipot.

Of all foods to be demonized, bread seemed an unlikely target. But, following the low-fat craze and the whole grains craze, Americans discovered that many of them were still fat. And so a new scapegoat was needed. Bread, the food of the ancient Egyptians, the food and body of Christ, the bread of life, was framed.

The surreal genius of Dr. Atkins’ low-carb craze led health-seekers into a dietary Twilight Zone, the lingering side affects of which have yet to vanish. Low-carb menu options gave way to low-carb food brands. A double-bacon-cheeseburger, hold the bun, was suddenly the healthy option. Fields of wheat? The nation’s breadbasket? Forget it, the diet gurus said. Bread is dead.

For many, the notion was foolish from the start. While pasta and bread companies scrambled to survive, artisanal bakers persevered, confident in their product.

In the Wood River Valley, where long, cold winters require consistent energy loading, bread bowls did not disappear from under chili or chowder. Here, where many people consider nutrition a hobby, wheat and grain never died. In fact, this cozy small town harbored and fed those bakers, and, as the low-carb fad dies its well-deserved death, bread making is enjoying the renaissance of the perfect loaf.

A belief in bread
Art Wallace believes in bread. Do not trifle with him on the subject. Don’t try jokes or word play—his mood will not rise. He is a bread fundamentalist. As owner and founder of Ketchum’s Bigwood Bread, Wallace believes bread, when made properly, is good and right and necessary; and bread, when misunderstood, is an abomination.

He fell for bread in the south of France. He was baking organic pain au levain in a wood-fired oven and became enchanted by the purist ethic of artisan bread. Today, he doesn’t consider his breads specifically European or even derivational. “People come in and ask me if we make French bread, and I say, ‘We make Idaho bread.’” The bakery’s Idaho bread is crusty, not doughy. It is simple bread, made from ancient methods. There is flour, there is water and there is salt. “If there is anything more than that, it better have a purpose—maybe an olive, or some nuts or seeds,” said Wallace. “Anything more and you are pushing it to something that isn’t bread. It’s gross.”

This bread looks, feels and smells different. A sandwich on it is an altered entity. Not tidy or even square. It’s a game of chance: messy, risky and to-tally worth the payoff.

Wallace and his bakery manager, Jason Pitek, point to the industrial revolution as the culprit in bread’s modern ruin. Today, whether it’s the prevalence of wheat intolerance or the inanity of the low-carb confusion, these bakers can trace a line back to the mechanization of bread making.

With the advent of railroad travel, it was suddenly possible for breadmakers to ship high quantities of loaves around the country. The Pullman Loaf was the first of these pan breads; easily stacked, the rectangular loaves were perfect for feeding the expanding country by rail.

But pan bread led to an abandonment of thousands of years of leavening history. Using more refined and even bleached flour, oxidizing the dough through extensive mixing, and adding sugar and yeast, factory bakeries created easily transportable, longer lasting sandwich bread. The bread with smaller “crumb” and sweeter flavor did not turn stale so quickly. For a young, hungry country, this was progress. From the hindsight of a food purist, it was shifting into reverse. The tragic result of the Pullman Loaf was Wonder Bread.

The Baker’s Oven
Pitek is Bigwood’s mad scientist of bread. His chemistry was ingrained as a child in Grants Pass, Oregon, where his parents owned a bakery for 22 years. In Ketchum, he has found a home for his own bread philosophies. “You can’t get better than this. I have no desire to make any other sort of bread than this,” he says while sliding a fresh vat of dough onto a large butcher’s table for cutting and weighing. The glutinous mass—about two square feet—of raw, wet dough has a life-like quality. As Pitek pulls and saws hunks, the mass stretches slowly, then retracts with a quick pullback. “The bread is both extensible and elastic,” he casually observes.

Once cut and weighed, the dough is ready for the oven. Wallace feels that, in any bakery, the oven serves more than a mere utilitarian purpose. More than the fridge where raw dough is set to ferment, more than the endless rows of cooling racks, the oven defines a bakery. The oven is the centerpiece not just of the business, but also of the baker’s role in the community. In many towns and cities across the world, both today and throughout history, when the rolls emerge from the ovens, the lines quickly form. Bread serves as a comfort food, the sticky gluten literally a conduit for sharing, meeting and eating together.

But for countless Americans today, ask them where their bread comes from, and they will answer “the supermarket.” Today’s industrial food system does not resemble Bigwood Bread any more than it resembles a stone oven in a North African village. And in the face of overwhelming competition from companies like Pepperidge Farms, Wallace feels bakeries like his are fighting the good, ethical fight against this country’s mechanized system of food creation, distribution and consumption.

Many artisanal breadmakers believe that today’s prevalence of wheat and gluten intolerance is a result of industrialized processing of wheat and grain. Whole-wheat flour is refined and bleached, and with each step, the nutritional value of the wheat berry is reduced. “Enriched flour” used in many supermarket brands is simply flour with nutrients added to replace those extracted during processing. In retrospect, it’s easy to see the subtle follies of progress.

A simple loaf
Locally, the low-carb movement was never more than a peripheral fad. There is simply too much calorie-burning going on in these mountains. Without a compact, dense loaf of Simple Kneads black bread in your pack, the hiker’s triumphant mountain top meal wouldn’t be the same. Mari Wania is the baker behind Simple Kneads, another mainstay of the Wood River Valley’s carb culture. Her dense, calorie-rich breads are perfect for pocket sandwiches on the ski lift, or just tearing into at the dinner table. And with options ranging from spelt to Austrian peasant bread, Wania’s selections are varied and constantly changing.

For many here, connection to the land is more than an empty slogan. It’s one of the unique attributes of living in this valley, and is part of what draws talented artisan foodies like Wania, Wallace and Pitek. Neighbors like them turn food philosophies into reality and one of man’s ancient foods back into a daily rite.