Today marks the publication of Gina Ochsner's new book The Hidden Letters of Velta B., a novel about a family of Latvian gravediggers. During her research for the book, Ochsner explored the world of Latvian breakfast and bread culture, so she wrote about it for Extra Crispy.
In Uzbekistan, trampling a piece of bread is a moral offense, and in some cases, a crime. Non, the traditional bread of the Uzbekistan, is always torn by hand, never cut with a knife and never placed upside down. In Russia, it is customary to give a bride and groom black bread and salt. In Romania guests are greeted with rice or wheat grains. So central is bread to culture, cuisine, and one could even say life, that for many people from many different countries bread is the meal. During some visits to Moldova and Romania, I noticed that bread was the go-to breakfast item for those in a hurry. Or, for those who had a little more time, bread was the base upon which breakfast was built: first a slice of bread, then maybe some salami, a slice of cumber or tomato.
In Riga, the capital city of Latvia, I witnessed what I privately dubbed the Riga Power Breakfast: A Snickers Bar or Kit Kat chased down with a can of Red Bull and followed by a quick cigarette. But in the countryside, breakfast is a different matter, and as in Romania and Moldova, it starts with bread.
At a Youth With a Mission center in a small town in Western Latvia, Judite, the base director, shared with me Latvian folklore and customs regarding bread. She pointed to a dark loaf of rye, rupjmaize. I hadn’t seen anything like it before; I was used to the airy fluffy nothingness of mass-produced white bread. Dense and compact, this loaf had the look of a dark brick. I thought, if necessary, it could be brandished as a weapon. Judite sawed through the loaf and the muscles in her arm tensed. As she sliced, the heel piece slid off the bread board and landed at her feet. She bent quickly, picked up the bread, and kissed it. I thought this was ordinary thrift. In Latvia, one doesn’t waste food. But later she explained that this is an old custom in Latvia: If one drops a piece of bread, one must pick it up—gently—blow the dust off of it and kiss it, so as not to offend the bread.
As I traveled and researched through Latvia and Russia, this reverence toward bread emerged as a common theme. “You can’t survive without out,” said Gulag camp survivor Leonid Svetlo. When he was 17 years old, he was sent to Vorkutlag, a prisoner camp near Vorkhuta notorious for its low survival rate and the back breaking forced labor in the mines. Leonid was sent because was a practicing Baptist. Prompted by Soviet authorities to renounce his faith, he refused and was sent to the camp.
Temperatures plummeted to negative 40 degrees Celsius in the winter. He had to sleep on a concrete floor that the prison guards made sure to hose down with water. He survived, he says, because of God, his mother, and bread. When she learned that Leonid had been taken to Vorkutlag, Leonid’s mother packed a small jar of goose fat and a loaf of black bread into her purse and took a train north, determined to find a way to feed him. On the train thieves attacked her. From her purse, they took the little money she had. But when they went for the bread, she went wild. As Leonid tells the story, she snatched the loaf of bread from them and as they tried to pry her fingers from it, she said, “This is for my son. He’s in the Vorkhuta work camp. He 17 and he’s starving. He must have this or he will die.” And when they heard that, they apologized and said, “Oh, dear mother, hurry to your son.” And to any other would-be thieves on the train, they announced, “If anyone on this train tries to rob her, we’ll kill you.”
Not everyone’s story is as dramatic as Leonid’s, but the love for bread is undisputed in Latvia. “Bread is at the center of the family,” Velta and Vilnis, two farmers living in western Latvia, assured me. They keep bees, harvest mushrooms, sow and reap their own rye, and of course, bake their own bread. “My son can’t live without it,” Velta said. Four of their five children have immigrated to Sweden and England in pursuit of higher paying jobs. But she faithfully sends them her homemade rye bread. It is the lifeline to home.
Bread’s central position, not just as a culinary staple, but as the foundation of life, is highlighted in the many of the dainas sung by Latvians. The dainas are short songs, often four lines in length. Many of them describe ordinary but essential tasks of living. There are songs that describe what to do after a baby is born, songs for courting and marriage, songs sung at funerals, laments for the troubles that have befallen Latvia, special songs for the mid-summer Ligo/Jani celebration, and then hundreds of songs containing references to the hard acts of ploughing, sowing, reaping, threshing, and grinding. These are work songs sung to make the tasks go by more quickly and to bind those who sing them together in their labors. To eat the fruit of those labors, the bread, is to participate in this unbroken cycle of life.
The songs also suggest that bread’s importance transcends its function of satisfying physical hunger. The care with which workers are urged to sow, reap, gather and the many specific instructions as to how to properly to show gratitude to the fields and the god of harvest, Jumis, suggest that these acts border on the sacred. Eating bread is not only a physical act, but a spiritual one. According to Indra Cekstere in her beautiful book Musu Maize: Our Daily Bread, in many places in Latvia bread is blessed and believed to carry within it blessing. This is why one shouldn’t walk out of a room while eating bread: you’ll walk the blessing out of the house. Loaves are “blessed” with symbolic marks on the top crust and as the baker makes the mark they might say: “enough for the beggars, enough for the travelers, enough for the children, enough for ourselves.” In Latgale, the southernmost region of Latvia, some women draw signs of blessing on the loaves. Often it’s the sign of the cross. Another popular sign is a herringbone-like pattern, the sign for Laima, goddess of luck and destiny. When the baking is done, more logs are put in the oven so that God will clear the path into the Otherworld.
So, to say that for Latvians bread is important is an understatement. When I visited Latvia I saw it at every meal and in some cases, it was the meal. In Tilza I stayed with a family who hosted and cared for young folks who didn’t have anywhere else to live. The day I arrived, Gaddis, one of the residents, turned seventeen. The host family threw him a surprise party: a cake, carnations and the requisite chair raise. Four men lifted Gaddis in his seat, seventeen times. All four mentioned how glad they were he was turning much older. His gift: a loaf of rupjmaize. IN the morning I saw him just before he was leaving for the city, on his way to start trade school and intern as a garage mechanic. His breakfast? Two slices from his loaf of rupjmaize.
After several visits to different parts of Latvia and hearing the stories about the significance of something as simple as bread, I began to understand that bread is connection to our past and our present. Eating bread, and especially eating it with others, honors those who labored in the fields and kitchens, and affirms the traditions that define a culture and people. I left Latvia with a healthy respect for rye bread and with five loaves of it in my suitcase.
Gina Ochsner is the author of The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight, a novel long-listed for the Orange Prize, and two story collections. Her awards include the Flannery O’Connor Award, the William Faulkner Prize, the Oregon Book Award, Guggenheim and NEA grants, and the Raymond Carver Prize. Her newest novel, The Hidden Letters of Velta B., is out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt this week.