A Feature Review of
By Bread Alone: A Baker’s Reflections on Hunger, Longing, and the Goodness of God
Paperback: Tyndale Momentum, 2023
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Reviewed by Andrew Camp
Bread. The mere mention of bread and gluten inspires a swath of reactions and longings. For who doesn’t love the smell of freshly baked bread and the crackle the crust makes with the first slice? But we also want to push it away, whether it is gluten intolerance or worse, celiac, or we don’t want those extra carbs in our diet. Bread communicates more than just the physical. Bread tells a story—be it an individual, a community, or a whole civilization—of the genius and miracle of transformation. From the knowledge and transformation of an indigestible grain to flour, that is then mixed with water and folded and stretched to just the right consistency, that then has to rest for not too long and not too short, that is then baked via some kind of heat source for just the right of amount of time.
This simplicity and complexity is further compounded for those of us who choose to follow Jesus, as bread– time and time again– shows up as a metaphor for our life with Jesus (Deut. 8:3; Isa. 55:2; Matt. 6:11; Luke 22:19; Luke 24:30). Unfortunately, due to the commercialization of bread in the 20th century, we have chosen willingly and unwillingly to distance ourselves from the process of bread, which has in turn distanced us from the spiritual process and story of bread.
Thankfully the Christian community has people like Kendall Vanderslice, who through her gifts of baking and writing, is helping the church return and remember both our individual and collective story through bread and baking. In her book, By Bread Alone, she kneads together her personal story of coming to grips with daily bread along with historical and theological reflections of bread. She divides her story into four sections, corresponding to the four ingredients of bread—flour, water, yeast, and salt.
Much like flour serves as the foundation for every loaf of bread, Vanderslice recounts those foundational pieces and themes of her childhood that inform the rest of her story in part 1. She writes, “Our experience of the world is shaped through an interweaving of hunger and language and love, through our guttural longing for intimacy and food, out of which we eventually learn to speak” (5). Her experience of the world is shaped by a co-mingling of vastly differing experiences, everything from a Texas Baptist upbringing, to her parents’ Whole Foods shopping, to ballet, to eating disorders and body image. All of these influence the other and force Vanderslice to begin to wrestle with questions that stay with her throughout the book.
When water mixes with flour, transformation begins. There is an unraveling that in time leads to strength. In part 2, Kendall shares with the reader the ebbs and flows of the hopes and losses that accompany growth. Beginning with a year on board a traveling ship called, Africa Mercy, she begins to sense how baking might be a place for her to dream and be part of something bigger. But this dream is unraveled when she is diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which forces her into a specific diet which does not include the baked goods she loved. Through learning to live with PCOS, her physical body is as healthy as it ever was, recovering from the eating disorders that plagued her through ballet, but inside she continues to feel that something is lacking, feeling trapped, unable to improvise and live in freedom. “But a deeper hunger plagued me…. The physical hunger paralleled the spiritual hunger that had hollowed me out in previous years” (97).
Yeast is what causes growth in bread, breathing life through a communal transformation into a loaf of bread. And in part 3, we begin to sense breath in the author’s dream, much like a slow fermentation, there are a series of risings and fallings. “As yeast brings life to dough, I’m reminded of God’s promise of resurrection. The process might be long, slow, and a bit unpredictable. But somehow, by the work of the Spirit, the sting of death makes way for new life to grow” (112). Throughout this section it is the promise of resurrection and not the experience of resurrection that pervades Vanderslice’s story. From dealing with the death of a friend, to wrestling with deep questions of belonging and longings for partnership, she is forced to reckon with the promise. Because as she notes, “The environment most conducive to fermenting bread is also the environment most conducive to breeding harmful bacteria” (139). Throughout this period in her life, this is the dilemma Vanderslice is faced with.
Salt accomplishes two things in bread: slowing the growth of yeast and bringing flavor. In the final part of her book, Vanderslice begins to settle into her life, slowing down and finding the flavor she has been longing for. While it would be nice if she wrapped her book up with a fairy tale ending, living out her dreams; that is just not the story she has been given. Her life continues to be full of ups and downs, dreams met and dreams unrequited, and within her life, she begins to find communion, “It is enough, but by its very nature, leaves us wanting” (203). Vanderslice begins to live out of the truth that not only is her journey enough, but more importantly, that she is enough. It is definitely not perfect, but it is enough…at least for today.
This is a story of beauty and longing. A story filled with incredible joy but also incredible pain. It is a story of what it means to be human, in all of its wonderful and ugly complexity. Through her own wrestling and journey, Vanderslice invites the reader to consider their own journey, to wrestle with their own joy, their own pain, their own longing. But she also leaves us with these words, this promise:
“It’s tempting to look for God at work in big, spectacular ways, to assume that God’s movement involves wild answers to prayer. But often God’s movement is more subtle. Through the people around us, and through the bread we share, God whispers to us, I love you. I’m with you. I care.
This is what it means to pray for daily bread. For daily affirmations of God’s presence, provision, and love.
I’m slowly eating my way into understanding that although those bread crumbs might not be satisfying, for this moment, they’re enough.” (215)
May those daily affirmations be enough for me, for you, for all of us.
Andrew Camp currently serves at Christ’s Church of Flagstaff as the adult ministry pastor. He has an MA in Spiritual Formation and Soul Care from Talbot Seminary, and is also a professionally trained chef, having cooked in southern California and Park City, UT. He is married to Claire, and they have two daughters Hazelle and Hannah.
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