Can you spare some bread?

At a birthday party, passing out the cake, I asked Madhuri, “How did you celebrate birthdays when you were little?”

Madhuri is from India, born in 1940, and she has spent most of her adult life helping take care of children. She took care of Veronica, and the girl whose birthday we were celebrating this day.

She told me “We would make rice pudding, and neighbors would come get some. We did not make a big deal about birthdays. We did not have cake. We did not have an oven.”

“So, everything was cooked on top of the stove, like in a frying pan? That must be how naan is made, so you had everything you needed without an oven.”

“No, naan is made in a special oven. There was a bakery where people would go for things that must be from an oven.”

And she began to describe with wonderful detail how the family would use the small stove they had to make the food. They would take cow patties and mix it with rice hulls and form balls using their hands, which dried out and could be used as fuel. That would be put in the base of the chimnea-type stove, with small chunks of coal—which they broke themselves. In order to conserve the fuel, all the cooking had to be done at once. So the whole day’s cooking would be done and then that was that.

Later, apparently, they began to use a propane-like gas to fuel the stove. But it was considered very expensive so they conserved it.

“Madhuri, you know that people right now complain that the neighborhood baker is going away because of the big corporate stores. But. We all have ovens in our homes now. We aren’t dependent on a bakery to get bread.”

Suddenly the history of the world (as I know it) flashed before my mind. I hadn’t realized that an oven was a precious commodity. And not just an oven. The butcher on the corner is supplanted by our sub-zero stainless-steel-finish refrigerator.

I think about places like France. Did they not have ovens in France, during the Revolution? When everyone went to pick up their baguettes and croissants everyday? I had a picture of it like it was Disneyland. They went there because they were friends with the baker, or he made better pies then they could. But no! They had no choice.

And an oven was a big investment. You bought an oven, or inherited it, and you were set for life. The whole neighborhood had to come to you if they wanted to eat bread. And a butcher would have set up a place to keep his meat cold enough not to go bad. A root cellar? A supply chain of ice? Either way, this kind of setup would be a very secure middle class business. Back before refrigerators and ovens.

But wait! Russia is famous for peasant houses having enormous stoves. Is that one of their advantages over the other world peasants? And oh yeah! Isn’t Russia obsessed with Bread? As I recall, they have a whole big fetish of bread. Maybe that is in part why. They had the ovens to make the bread.

I would have to spend a long time with Wikipedia to thread out the true history of the oven. But this technological advance of something I take so fully for granted is a huge leg up.

You know what is strange now? I don’t go to a bakery shop to buy my bread. I go to a big corporate store…Target or Vons. And I buy bread that was made a long time ago in a location far far away. But we have figured out how to preserve bread—as well as a thousand other necessary foods—and get them all over the place.

I have lived in this house for 7 years. I have not made bread. I have an oven. But I could probably—no assuredly, I could survive and thrive without using my oven.

America spent some time building infrastructure that Vons and Target takes advantage of. And I take advantage of Target and Vons, so I get the great benefit. AND for a hobby, if I wanted to DIY I could go bake bread.

India is still trying.  I know it is better than when Madhuri was a child. There are a lot of places that have a ways to go with building the systems that can get people what the truly need. But her story made me rethink the world I live in.

And it made me appreciate the cake I was finishing.


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