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Homebaking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Tradition Around the World

by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid

The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss taught us that food not only keeps people alive, but with all the associated rituals and myths of preparation and consumption, it also keeps peoples alive – that is, food is a repository of culture. “Food is life,” said Julia Child; it is also living.

What then to say of people who abandon their culinary heritage in favour of products like Wonder Bread, Pop Tarts, and frozen pizza? The answer lies, in part, in books like Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid’s HomeBaking. “In many parts of North America, home baking has taken a back seat to professional baking,” state the authors in the book’s introductory comments. “Here in [Toronto], we don’t know of a single household where someone bakes on a regular basis.”

Toronto, as Alford and Duguid go on to show, is not the world norm. And they should know. In an interview last spring, they indicated that HomeBaking represents visits to households on every continent on Earth except Antarctica. Indeed, their book is the product of decades of organized wanderlust. Organized because the husband and wife team came to cookbook writing through professional travel photography. While journeying the world taking pictures for their stock-photo agency, they also collected recipes. The photo agency has provided most of the images in not only HomeBaking, but also their three prior, award-winning cookbooks.

Like those earlier books, HomeBaking is a tribute. Flatbreads and Flavors and Seductions of Rice each celebrated the international recipes and cultures of their titles’ subjects. Hot Sour Salty Sweet was an exploration of the culinary palate of the peoples of the Mekong River. HomeBaking pays homage to flour as used by non-professional bakers around the world.

“A home baker,” they write, “makes a pie in a particular way ‘because that’s the way my grandmother made it.’” Out of context, that homey tone is a bit misleading. To the average non-baking North American, this book may actually seem more like a museum catalogue than a cookbook. HomeBaking is as gorgeous as any fine-art monograph, and, just like a museum door, open its enormous covers and we see the sort of rich cultural life many North American have surrendered to “progress.”

Portuguese mountain rye bread comes from the village of Sabugueiro, where Duguid learned the recipe from local women who, in multi-generational family groups, baked loaves by the dozen in a communal stone oven. Irish curd pie is a culinary treasure from Dingle, in County Kerry, discovered by Alford upon his return to that place after a 30-year absence.

Paklama, a Uzbek layered walnut confection traditionally offered to house guests, is “like a very hearty baklava, but instead of phyllo [pastry], the layers are made of egg-rich flatbreads, rolled into thin rounds and layers with crushed walnuts and sugar.” Brazilian kisses, or beiju, are popular “skillet flatbreads made with only tapioca starch and a little water” that Duguid found being made by street vendors in Cachoeira, a town about a thousand miles south of Rio.

The four large chapters – Pastry, Bread, Smaller Breads, and Cakes and Cookies – offer dozens of such recipes, from truck-stop cinnamon buns and Montreal bagels to Bangkok waffles and Jamaican coconut pie.

And then there’s the photography. While the studio pictures here are splendid, if occasionally precious, Alford and Duguid’s travel shots (which make up the bulk of the book’s images) are exquisite, finding earthy beauty in everything from a tray of New York street pretzels to an old Ontario farmhouse to a Tibetan herder’s tanned and wrinkled face.

Lévi-Strauss wondered if industrialized humanity’s abandonment of the cultural structures found in such things as food would lead to unreason. North Americans are the diaspora of the world. Is it progress or madness to give up, say, Gotland Island rye bread for Wonder Bread, or Moroccan biscotti for Pop Tarts, or Himalayan steamed dumplings for frozen pizza? The answer seems obvious. Yes, HomeBaking may appear like an art monograph, but there’s a common misconception that when you put something in a museum, it dies. Truth is, it’s often the viewers who are dead. Thankfully, Home Baking might inspire some back to life.