This is the stuff of nightmares. I’m sitting in a college auditorium, surrounded by 150 people who are taking notes and laughing at jokes I do not get. A lecturer is ruminating on a subject that might as well be astrophysics taught in Dutch. This is not a literal nightmare, however. This is a bread conference. More precisely, I’m at Johnson and Wales University in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, at the International Symposium on Bread. “Welcome to all of my fellow breadheads,” organizer Peter Reinhart says to laughs and applause as he opens the conference. I immediately wonder if Christopher Guest has ever considered making a movie about a bread symposium.
Before the event, I spoke to Reinhart on the phone about his desire to make the first iteration of what he hopes to be an annual symposium that will showcase the “rockstars” of bread. Reinhart himself is a rockstar of bread. He is Johnson and Wales’ chef on assignment, and over the course of his career he’s written over a dozen books about bread, including one that won a James Beard Award for Cookbook of the Year. His recipes have been featured in the New York Times and National Geographic. Joe Paro, an attendee who teaches culinary arts in Indiana, says he designs one of his lectures around Reinhart’s 2002 book The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.
Near the end of Reinhart’s opening remarks, he mentions that at the end of the day, everyone has to check out something called the Puratos Sensobus. The Sensobus, as the video Reinhart plays shows, is a truck that opens up into a mobile pop-up store that conducts taste tests all over the country in order to “gather consumer insights.” Sprinkled throughout the Sensobus video are kitschy Bar Rescue–like blueprints and hidden camera shots. I have to stifle a giggle about how hilarious this is. Forget Best In Show; this is straight out of Tim and Eric.
The keynote lecture is given by Puratos’ Stefan Cappelle, who deadpans observations like, “My whole life is about fermentation.” One of his projects at Puratos has been to build a “heritage library” of sourdoughs, which now numbers more than 84 different kinds of sourdoughs from bakeries around the world. The oldest, he says is from a family bakery in Japan, with a recipe that dates back one hundred and fifty years.
After a break punctuated by a spread of pastries, we return to the auditorium for a talk by bread historian William Rubel. Rubel is exactly what you pictured when you saw the words “bread historian.” “I live in a world of chaos,” he says as he sorts his notes before beginning his talk. “But it usually works out.” Rubel traces the history of bread back to Genesis 3:19, which reads: “In the sweat of thy face, thou shalt eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
Ten minutes later, Rubel is slapping a loaf of bread with a gigantic knife. “Sorry, Johnson and Wales,” he says sheepishly while furiously slapping the bread. “It’s great when you’re a speaker, it’s just like, ‘Fuck it.’” Ten minutes after that, Rubel takes off his shirt and changes into another shirt mid-lecture to make a point about how the upper class dictates trends about taste. (See above photo.) “This lecture will be re-airing tonight on HBO,” Reinhart cracks.
Despite the name, Rubel later tells me he doesn’t see this as an academic event. “This is mostly bread enthusiasts,” he says. “There aren’t any academic conferences yet based around a scholarly look at bread.”
The “bread enthusiasts” Rubel speaks of are remarkably good natured. I ask Peggy Sutton, the founder of the Alabama-based To Your Health Sprouted Flour, if she’s ever faced obstacles or caught some flak from more traditional bakers due to the relative niche of what she’s selling.
She pauses and smiles. I half-expect her to drop a “bless your heart” on me. “It wasn’t so much that,” she says. “But we had to educate… most of my advertisement [money] is educating the public on the benefits of sprouted grain and good, wholesome, whole foods.” In other words: no.
“The baking industry seems to have a sense of camaraderie,” says attendee Travis Weller, who manages the bakery of an upscale grocery store in Dayton, Ohio. “It’s not as cutthroat,” Paro adds. I try to imagine what a cutthroat bread community would look like. Who gets mad about bread?
The second half of the symposium is headlined by a talk by Francisco Migoya, author of the forthcoming 2500-page, five-volume behemoth Modernist Bread. He details a few of the many experiments he and his team did throughout the four years they worked on the book, such as a process he called “dough CPR” that allowed them to “rescue” over-proofed doughs by reshaping them and throwing them back into the oven. (They were able to rescue one dough ten times.)
Migoya’s presentation is fascinating, but at this point I just want to drag my sourdough ass into a comfortable chair and take a nap.
The final speaker of the day is Chef Michael Kalanty, who gives a talk on bread tasting. This, we learn, is pretty much exactly like other types of food and beverage tasting, using smell and taste to identify different notes and flavors. This comes in handy, because the day ends with a bread and beer tasting, with the beer provided by Charlotte brewery Birdsong.
After the symposium ends, we shuffle a block away to the Sensobus. I take a seat in front of a computer monitor with a blue button that says “Start.” I begin clumsily pushing the button with the indolence of a bear on tranquilizers. The attendant sees me struggling and comes over. “There’s a mouse and a keyboard underneath the desk,” he chuckles.
Another attendant brings out three rolls for us to do a taste test, and the test asks us some very general questions, like age group, gender, and what state we were born in. The breads are all very good, but, after a day of all-encompassing bread, looking at these rolls makes me want to vomit. And even after getting an entire day’s worth of bread knowledge drilled into my brain, I still can’t tell the difference between sourdoughs.
Over the course of an eight-hour conference, I learned more about bread than I ever thought I’d care to. For a complete newcomer to bread, Reinhart’s program was a solid one; for someone more experienced I can imagine this was a bit like the WrestleMania of bread. With any luck, Reinhart’s project will become an annual event, and may even bloom into what Rubel says the bread community doesn’t have: an annual academic conference dedicated to dough.
As for me, however, I don’t think I’ll be attending. I don’t think my body can take it.