This morning, over a cup of coffee, I ate my politics.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the ways that food is political. In my dissertation, I argue that the food that feminist restaurants served was not solely a way to economically support feminist spaces but rather was a feminist product itself; like the books at a feminist bookstore, the food makes the space feminist.
Food is a political product. From production to distribution to consumption, food is shaped by politics on personal, regional, and federal levels. Environmental activist groups draw attention to the greenhouse gases released in cattle ranching while community leaders in urban settings focus on the lack of produce available to inner city dwellers. Revolutions begin over food and food nourishes revolutions.
In 1969, the Black Panther Party began the Free Breakfast for School Children Program in which they would cook and serve food to the poor inner city youth of the area. The program was so popular that within one year, the Panthers set up kitchens in cities across the nation, feeding over 10,000 children every day before they went to school. Food distribution enabled the Panthers to address the needs of black Americans, whereas their political opponents in the Federal Bureau of Investigation deemed the program merely a propaganda tool.
Food access issues have repeatedly spurred political unrest and revolution. The French Revolution serves as one of the most famous examples. The famous line, “let them eat cake,” misattributed to Marie Antoinette, has come to represent this struggle.
Not only is the quote actually from Maria Theresa, wife of Louis XIV, but her words did not reflect the monarchy’s disregard of the poor, as most people believe the quote represents. Instead, Maria Theresa was referring to the Pain Benit given as charity to the poor by priests and how economically unsound this practice was (Bread through History). However, due to confusion caused by the posthumous publication of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s autobiography “Confessions,” his quote about a “great princess” became the symbol of a revolution. Furthermore, the quote “qu’ils mangent de la brioche” has been mistranslated. The French literally means “Let them eat brioche.”
What really is brioche; a bread, a pastry, or a cake? According to Peter Reinhart, author of the must- have reference book, "The Bread Baker's Apprentice,” brioche is the standard by which all rich breads are judged. In fact whenever rich breads are described, they are often compared to brioche or called a relative" (123). In France, brioche is considered a gateau or cake rather than a bread ("Bread: A History," William Rubel). No matter how you slice it however, brioche is butter heavy. There are numerous formula variations. All brioches have yeast, a small amount of sugar, a substantial amount of egg, and lots of butter. It is often sold in small rolls, baked in a fluted mould, as Brioche à tête or parisienne. Some of the lighter brioches have a 20 percent butter to flour ratio whereas heavy brioches, or rich man's brioches, have upwards of 80 percent-- and even sometimes 100 percent! The heavier, richer brioches, can be used to make a pie dough. Thus, I like the definition of Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of "The Bread Bible," best: "brioche can be considered a cake, a pastry or a bread, depending on how it is used (what it is filled or topped with) and when it is eaten" (94). Brioche also acts as a base for kugelhopf, challah, and panettone.
Brioche thus has, over the past few centuries, been the symbol of the poor, the revolutionary, the rich, and the decadent. We can therefore project a variety of political meanings onto the bread.
Somewhat ironically I decided to bake brioche this morning as a way to escape my political, academic, and social responsibilities. Tired of feeling the personal and work related stress my friend and I have been dealing with, I baked a decadent cinnamon chocolate brioche flower as a treat for us.
The recipe calls for:
- 600 g white flour
- 1 packet of dried yeast (7g)
- 1 tsp salt
- at least 2 tbsp sugar
- 4 eggs
- 120 ml 2% milk
- 200 g butter, diced
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 300 g nutella
- 1 handful of plain flour, to dust
- 1 egg, beaten (to glaze)
Dissolve the yeast into the milk. Mix in the flour, sugar, eggs, and salt. Knead for at least 3-4 minutes until it is fully mixed then add the butter and continue kneading until it’s fully combined and the dough is really elastic. It will take about 10 minutes to reach the perfect consistency. Time will differ depending on the humidity of the air. Cover the bowl and leave to prove in a warm room for an hour to prove and double in size.
Scatter flour onto a work surface and turn the dough out to knock out the air. Divide into 4 equal pieces and roll each one to a circle as thin as it’ll go and about the size of a dinner plate. Spread nutella all over 3 of the circles leaving a 5cm border around the outside. Stack the bread circles on top of each other finishing with the pieces without nutella.
Place a glass in the centre as a marker then cut from the edge towards the glass to make 16 equal segments. Twist each pair of neighboring sectors together with 3 half turns and press together to hold.
I then let the flower prove overnight since I didn’t want to wake up at 4 am in order to cook breakfast. The next morning, I preheated my oven to 180ºC or 350F. I brushed the bread flower with beaten egg and a bake for 25-30 minutes until golden and risen.
As much as I wanted to escape my political and academic commitments this morning over my brioche and avocado eggs benedict on a bed of smoked salmon and mache, food is always political. It has history, it has roots, and it has influence. Whether or not I’m cooking brioche, I always must eat my words and my politics.