Tonight Mom demonstrated how to make bread, to my brother S and I. She and Dad are leaving on a mission in mere days, and this is one knowledge both useful and sentimental that I would like to acquire.
Putting my hands in the dough was a curious and wonderful sensation. As we took turns pressing and rolling the dough into loaves, for it to rise in the pans, I was put in mind of the link between bread, women, and fertility in so many parts of the world: women both make babies and make bread, and the rising of the dough is a cultural analogue to the conception of a child. "She's got a bun (or a loaf) in the oven" is a joking English expression for pregnancy that illustrates this heritage.
One might think that cultures without bread historically would be without such metaphors. But this is not the case: in Asia, there is linkage between rice production and human reproduction. Among the highland Yi of Yunnan Province in China, Erik Mueggler, an anthropologist, has documented how the growing and transplanting of rice seedlings into the paddies is made analogous to the female and male sides of conception. On the festive day, a man takes a plow into the paddy to "inseminate" it. Women then take over, caring for the growing "baby" seedlings. So the connection between food production and birth is worldwide, and not limited to "bread cultures."
I was thinking this over -- particularly Pierre Bourdieu's amazing description of the Algerian Berber calendar, with its "masculine" and "feminine" phases, and its connection of birth, planting, and bread making -- as I handled the dough. S made his first loaf, sloppily but diligently pinched at the ends, and placed it in the pan. Mom, standing by, cooed, "Oh what a cute little bread baby!"
We had been recalling happily the way we kids used to ask her for dough to play with as she made bread so long ago. We would roll it out, or eat it, patting it into various shapes, imitating Mom's actions.
So Mom's exclamation showed how alive the ancient linkage between motherhood, bread, and babies is, even now, in her: with that tender affection for the soft, pudgy "infant" patted out on the counter top.
Erik Mueggler, The Age of Wild Ghosts.
Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice.