On Friday it was a loaf of bread—or, rather, eight loaves of bread—and an opportunity to spend the day doing something I loved. Today it is a moral dilemma, and possibly an exercise in decadence. Of course, it was a moral dilemma, and possibly an exercise in decadence, long before this weekend. It was only this weekend that my conscience finally caught up to reality. I realize fully that my conscience is a little slow on the uptake.
The plan had been simple: Make a batch of pain brié as I’d been taught to make it in culinary school. Tell an amusing story about how, back in school, I had beaten that damn dough for half an hour and it had never, ever smoothed out. Discover that the first batch I’d made in ten years was spoiled by an overproofed sponge and a surfeit of flour (I had forgotten that my instructors who had written our bread curriculum had built 10% additional flour into the base recipes, and I had forgotten to leave it out). Make another batch, then decide to make a control batch with a lower-protein flour, to see if I could achieve a smoother dough. Spend a day in the kitchen, rediscovering how malty and clean is the scent of flour and water being mixed together; how satisfying is the whole shaping process, turning par-shaped loaves into bâtards, feeling air bubbles pop under gentle pressure, how thrilling it is to draw a razor blade against the top of an oven-bound loaf and get it right on the first whoosh. Bake the breads. Pull them out of the oven. Love the way the hot crust crackles in the cool air. Note ruefully that the bottoms are burned thanks to one of the oven racks being placed too closely to the bottom of the oven. Let it cool. Let it rest. Taste it. Discover, sadly, that the loaves made with bread flour taste like nothing, while the loaves made with all-purpose flour taste only marginally better than nothing. They’re definitely not reflective of the work I put into them. Still, there’s nothing shabby about having a freezer full of sandwich-suitable bread, and a story to tell about it. Vow to try again with an overnight-risen dough. Tell the story, all of it.
Now, I realize I’m talking about all of this as if it has occurred in a vacuum. It has not. Long before I decided to embark on this little baking adventure, the price of flour was increasing, and I knew this. I confess now—and I’m embarrassed to confess this—that I didn’t pay too much attention to root causes. Ever since oil prices began to climb, I took it for granted that eventually these increases would result in higher prices for food. When the price of milk began to climb, I knew that it was due to a combination of increased fuel costs and increased feed costs: as more corn is being used to produce ethanol, less of it is available for animal feed. I started seeing a news story here, an email from my flour company of choice there, an occasional news report in between: the price of flour is going up. I didn’t pay too much attention. I would be still be buying all the flour I needed; I’d just be paying more for it. It’s all about the fuel. Nothing to see here.
It’s not all about the fuel. Thanks to this article in Sunday’s New York Times, I know just how wrong I was. Fuel pricing is a factor, of course. So is the diversion of land from wheat crops to corn crops to feed the growing market for biofuels. So is the weak dollar. So is the drought in Australia, which has proven devastating for Australian wheat crops, and which has sent the buyers of Australian wheat to look to the U.S. for exports. So is the growing global demand for wheat-based foods like bread and noodles, even—especially—in countries where they have not historically been staples. All of these factors have made wheat a dear commodity, growing dearer by the day, and have plunged the U.S. grain reserve to its lowest level since 1947.
I went to bed on Sunday, contemplating all of this. On Monday morning, I walked past the bakery around the corner on my way to the laundromat and found this article, laminated, hanging in the front window. It was then that I realized just how dire the situation has become. We now have 30-year-old and 50-year-old bakeries in the city, pleading with their customers to remain patient, and to understand that nobody is getting rich off that extra 40 cents being charged for bread. We have decades-old businesses, well established in the community, facing closure because they can’t continue to absorb these increases indefinitely, and there does not seem to be any end in sight.
Dear friends, I am confounded. I do not know whether I am part of the problem or part of the solution. Is it better to keep buying flour, to continue patronizing a company whose product I really like, to help keep them afloat through the rough waters of a grain shortage? Or should I realize that I am part of that insistent global demand for wheat and wheat products, and modify my flour purchases accordingly? Do home bakers use enough flour to even register as a blip on the radar of world commodity markets? Is this all, in fact, an exercise in decadence?