MARCH 26, 2021
WE LIVE IN a world that thrives on transience and disposability, a world of self-centered inwardness and collective atomization. To forget how to be human is easy, but luckily, there are books that still remind us of the mystery, sorrow, and beauty of the world we inhabit. Yugoslav scholar Predrag Matvejević’s Our Daily Bread: A Meditation on the Cultural and Symbolic Significance of Bread Throughout History, now available from Istros Books in a fine English translation by Christina Pribićević-Zorić, awakens us to the connection we have to each other by examining the way the bread we eat becomes a vehicle for human relations.
Matvejević (1932–2017) was one of the great European intellectuals. Having grown up in Yugoslavia, he was witness to constant cultural shifts and the often-strange blending and mutual influence of different cultures. The majority of his work was concerned with how cultures influence each other (for better or worse) and how the singular human being fits into the larger society. This, and much more, is the subject of Our Daily Bread.
Unless we are on the keto diet, all of us eat bread. But do we really give it a deeper thought? Do we ask where it comes from? Who makes it? What is used to make it? What are its sociological, economic, anthropological, religious, and cultural aspects? Do we feel close to it, or are we indifferent? Does it bring good memories of family life, of convivial meals with friends and loved ones?
For Matvejević, bread is an unbroken thread that binds civilizations of the far past to the present day. “The origins of bread,” he writes, “go back to the times when nomads became settlers, hunters became shepherds and both farmed. Some moved from hunting-ground to hunting-ground and from pasture to pasture; others cleared and worked the land: the vocation of Cain versus that of Abel.” The history of bread is the history of humanity itself. In many cultures (not only Christian), bread is a symbol of holiness and respect, serving as a vehicle for the sacred. As Matvejević writes, “Bread is the product of both nature and culture. It was the condition for peace and the cause of war, the promise of hope and the reason for despair. Religions blessed it. People swore by it.”
There is something universal about bread. It spans the boundaries that, as human beings, we tend to create, for better or worse. Our essence can reveal itself in the way we handle bread, whether we eat it alone or share it. We have fond memories of bread because it reminds us of something mysterious. Matvejević writes that “[t]he touch of bread is not something one forgets either. Is the crust smooth or crisp, is the middle soft or already stale? How do the hand, palm and fingers pick it up, hold it, break it? To whom do we offer and give it? How, when and where?”
Matvejević’s style is consistently poetic, yet he does not sacrifice historical fact. He traces the “depictions of different grains […] on clay tablets from the ancient cities of Uruk and Ebla, as well as in the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics of Memphis and Thebes.” Classic works, such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, not only mention but elevate bread. Additionally,
Psalm 104 blesses the bread, […] [A]ncient Greek choruses sang the praises of bread in dramas, tragedies, and comedies. […] Aristotle distinguishes between “soft and hard bread” in life and morals. […] Plato’s The Republic does not forget those who have only dry bread, yet still celebrate.
Studying the physical makeup of the breads people ate allows us to follow their migration patterns. Matvejević writes,
[b]read followed paths that took it through space and time, memory and oblivion. It is hard to say where these journeys begin and where they end. […] Sometimes the paths returned the same way, at others they took a different route, all the while crossing the plains, scaling mountains, roaming deserts. Grain was transported across seas and along rivers by ship, and on land by carts and packhorses, and even on shoulders of men and women.
Matvejević’s illuminating words call on us not to forget our ancestors, all those men and women who toiled in similar ways to us. This is an incredibly important reminder in a culture that appears to crave nothing but endless distraction and shallow “entertainment.” Bread can remind us of our physical and metaphysical connection to others. As Matvejević writes, “Bread has forged many trails, old and new, past and present. […] Those who depart on a journey and those who return seldom eat the same bread.”
Matvejević masterfully explores the significance of bread in the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He shows that there are more things that bind us together as a human family than divide us and lead us into conflict. For the ancient Jews, making matzah was done according to strict rules, to make sure the dough did not ferment. All of these customs have spiritual connotations, and they are “a reminder of both the poverty of slavery and liberation after the exodus. The Pesach Haggadah notes that ‘This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt.’”
Christians naturally and inevitably drew from the Hebrew Bible, but the meaning of bread was taken even further theologically and liturgically. As Matvejević notes, “communion, the Eucharist host and monstrance, the tabernacle, the chalice, the Eucharistic transubstantiation and consubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, bread as the word of the Lord, the logos of faith, the symbol of the sacrament” — all of these are more than vehicles of faith: through the physicality of the bread itself, they connect the human beings to God as they seek succor, peace, and sustenance.
By contrast, Islam is not so much concerned with liturgy, mainly because of its focus on prayer and ethical understanding. However, grain is mentioned in the Qur’an many times. One of the surahs says, “It is Allah who causes the seed-grain and the fruit-stone to split and sprout. […] We give life to the dead earth and bring forth from it again.” Culturally, bread holds a high place for Muslims. It is made with care and gratitude, but most of all, it is shared with others out of common humanity and charity.
The most poignant part of Matvejević’s book is the final reflection on his personal experience of bread. He remembers many family members in Odessa who survived the Soviet gulags and for whom bread represented the possibility of life in the midst of hunger and poverty. Most died tragically, and this is part of the sadness that Matvejević feels. Yet this sorrow is at times transcended because it is precisely the bread that humanizes his family’s dark experiences of totalitarianism.
Matvejević intimately understands that bread isn’t simply food, that there is a spiritual interiority to this humble physical object. He writes that
[t]he poetics of bread is scattered like grains through time and space, across countries and people, in everyday life and eternity. It reveals itself in poetry, paintings and prayer. It is present when dreaming and when awake, “between dreams and reality,” in the shortness of an instant and in the length of time. We carry it within ourselves, knowing it and forgetting it at the same time.
Just like our mortality, bread is always present. Memento panem — remember the bread so that you may remember who you are and who you may become.