In the increasingly popular food nonfiction genre, William Alexander offers up compulsively readable stories. Never preachy, he poses as an unassuming middle class East Coast professional whose wit and self-deprecating humor, curiosity and willingness to learn lead him into intricate adventures growing his own apples and tomatoes, and making his own peasant bread in his home kitchen.
In his latest, 52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust, he chronicles his education as he makes one loaf a week for a year in hopes of achieving bread perfection. Along the way, he dispenses crumbs of fascinating cultural and scientific trivia. For example, the reader learns early on that Sunni militants in Baghdad drove the Shiites out of targeted neighborhoods by killing the bakers: “To shut down a well-known bakery in a neighborhood, that means you paralyze life there,” one man explained. After months of research and experimentation, Alexander ends up in an ancient French monastery, rigging a sourdough variation that will fit into the regimented schedule of monks who still pray seven times a day, as they have since the 600s. In the pages between, he consults experts like Peter Reinhart and a grain scientist at Bay States Milling for bread-making insight, and goes through the laborious process of raising, threshing and stone-grinding his own wheat.
His first book, The $64 Tomato — subtitled “How one man nearly lost his sanity, spent a fortune, and endured an existential crisis in the quest for the perfect garden” — takes its title from an accounting toward the end of the summer in which he attempts to put a dollar figure to each of his beautiful ripe late summer Brandywine tomatoes. As he meticulously adds them all up, the figures startle him. He easily computes the privilege of growing each palm-sized gem at $64.
“Food is cheap,” Alexander writes, as he muses on his self-imposed accounting exercise. “I actually grew a fair amount of food; it just wasn't worth much. For example, my local green market is selling a ten-pound bag of white potatoes for $1.50 - just 15¢ a pound. A person could probably eat well from that buck-fifty bag for several days. (For this exercise I valued my Yukon Gold and fingerling potatoes at $1.50 per pound.) Every time I'm done picking sugar snap peas or rise from my stoop, aching, from picking green beans, I marvel that I can buy this stuff in the green market for a dollar a pound. How can anyone possibly grow green beans for a dollar a pound? I can't even pick them for a dollar a pound, it takes so long. It's a miracle that any farmer stays in business, but God bless them.”
His good-humored calculations raise a serious point, of course, one which confronts agriculturalists everyday: the difference between what it costs to grow food compared to how it’s priced at the store, in many cases far below a realistic cost for the vagaries of production. For a home gardener (in this case, one who plans to keep his day job at the nearby research institute) it isn’t an issue, but just the number alone exposes a startling gap that is not easily or often explained well, even while we note the obvious: rural towns in decline and family farm business structures that have been forced to change, in some cases, dramatically, to achieve the scale and efficiency to survive economically. This is all happening at the same time as an increasing number of shoppers seem to be demanding a more romantic, sensual, traditional style of food production.
Alexander seems to have inadvertently put his finger on a modern dilemma (Yes, you can have a lovingly raised, lavishly indulged tomato, but it will cost you $64 a pop.) By documenting his own experiences, he reveals the timeless — and time-consuming — nature of the arts of food and agriculture, which are impossible to mass produce without compromising something. Read him to understand why even relatively pricey food is often still a bargain, and find yourself smiling (or chuckling) as you do.