Two new books
Two new books to tell you about.
The first is The Art of Baking Bread: What You Really Need to Know to Make Great Bread  by Matt Pellegrini.
This book actually reminds me a lot of The Fresh Loaf Pocket Book of Bread Baking  I put together last year. By that I mean that the majority of the book is taken up with a description of what he calls "the eight essential steps of bread baking." The focus is on learning the process and how the basic ingredients in bread interact with each other rather than with mastering any particular recipes. In the end he does include master formulas for a straight dough, a prefermented dough, an enriched dough, and a sourdough and with each a few recommended variations.
His book has a lot more photos than mine does, including some good step-by-step instructions on shaping or scoring. This book is probably on the basic side for many of the folks who frequent here, but if you are looking to give someone a good introduction to baking this one is worth perusing.
The next book is White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf  by professor of politics at Washington's Whitman College Aaron Bobrow-Strain.
The title and cover of this one set the expectation in me that it was going to be one of those "histories of the mundane." You know, one of those books in which the author picks something that we take for granted like a particular spice, food item, or household object and explains how it played a pivotal role in history. Those books tend to be cute and clever and supply you with all sorts of trivia to share at the next party you attend ("Did you know that nutmeg and mace are native to the Banda Islands of Indonesia and come from the same tree?") but not terribly substantial or thought-provoking.
This book isn't that. White Bread is extremely thought-provoking. If there was a Fresh Loaf Book Club, this would be a great one to discuss.
Though a decent history of the industrialized white loaf is in here, that isn't really what the book is about. It's about American society and how our theories and beliefs have shaped our food system and what we eat. White bread is a product of those theories and beliefs, as are the anti-industrial food movements of more recent times.
Unlike the vast majority of contemporary food books, Bobrow-Strain doesn't endorse a particular orthodoxy like "local = good, global = bad," or "organic = good, gmo = bad" or "gluten/carbs/meat/whatever else = bad." He doesn't entirely discount those movements either, as most of them are held in good faith for the most "benevolent of reasons." But Bobrow-Strain shows how frequently in our past those sorts of innocuous dietary creeds have masked less noble sentiments, such as the association of immigrants' dark breads with "impurity" and white bread as "Americanized" and "pure." In a current example, Bobrow-Strain is sympathic to gluten-free diets and locavore-ism, but points out things like that when Michael Pollan calls for folks to not "eat anything your grandmother wouldn't recognize as food," it likely was your grandmother who started purchasing factory-baked bread and prepared foods in the first place so she could be relieved of hours of labor every day. Was her decision immoral? Hardly.
For the bread crowd, White Bread contains an interesting section where he visits La Brea Bakery's massive "artisan" bakery. Some of these I've thought of before, but it made me again ponder questions like: What is artisan bread? Does artisan bread have to be made by an individual artisan? Or can it be scaled up to factory-scale bakery if the same commitment to high-quality ingredients and slow fermentation is there? In a locavore's dream world everyone would have high-quality, fresh, local foods to shop for. But what if the options are overpriced local food only available to a few or a mass-produced, inexpensive, high-quality product that could be available to many? Which is better? I don't have pat answers to these questions, my point is simply that this book will make you think and would be great fodder for a group discussion.