52 Loaves: One Man's Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust

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William Alexander is determined to bake the perfect loaf of bread. He tasted it long ago, in a restaurant, and has been trying to reproduce it ever since. Without success. Now, on the theory that practice makes perfect, he sets out to bake peasant bread every week until he gets it right. He bakes his loaf from scratch. And because Alexander is nothing if not thorough, he really means from scratch: growing, harvesting, winnowing, threshing, and...
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Overview


William Alexander is determined to bake the perfect loaf of bread. He tasted it long ago, in a restaurant, and has been trying to reproduce it ever since. Without success. Now, on the theory that practice makes perfect, he sets out to bake peasant bread every week until he gets it right. He bakes his loaf from scratch. And because Alexander is nothing if not thorough, he really means from scratch: growing, harvesting, winnowing, threshing, and milling his own wheat.
 
An original take on the six-thousand-year-old staple of life, 52 Loaves explores the nature of obsession, the meditative quality of ritual, the futility of trying to re-create something perfect, our deep connection to the earth, and the mysterious instinct that makes all of us respond to the aroma of baking bread.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

"How can a nation be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?" With this Julia Child quote as his epigraph war cry, bread maven William Alexander begins his globe-hopping quest for the perfectly baked loaf of bread. Not content to simply sample store-bought treasures, he tracks his wheat treats back to their fields of origin and the flour-mills and brick ovens that give them their unique qualities. His 52 Loaves is both entertaining and informative; along the way, we actually acquire his obsession. Infinitely more rewarding than any fast food sandwich.

From the Publisher

"Laugh out loud funny . . . Alexander definitely doesn't hold back . . . A great book, simultaneously funny and thoughtful." --Apartment Therapy: The Kitchn

“Alexander’s breathless, witty memoir is a joy to read. It’s equal parts fact and fun . . . Alexander is wildly entertaining on the page, dropping clever one-liners in the form of footnotes and parenthetical afterthoughts throughout.”
The Boston Globe

“Nitpicking obsessiveness was never so appetizing. A-.” —Entertainment Weekly

“A warm, laugh-out-loud [memoir] . . . Alexander writes about the ups (few), the downs (numerous) and a lively history of bread itself, all recounted in a self-effacing but often irreverent voice . . . There is much to savor here, and Alexander entertainingly unravels many of the staff of life’s deep mysteries for the uninitiated.”
The Oregonian

“The world would be a less interesting place without the William Alexanders who walk among us—the people who pursue all sorts of Holy grails and latch like ticks onto particular passions, yet who have the good grace to tell us all about their exploits with humor.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

Entertainment Weekly
"Nitpicking Obsessiveness was never so appetizing."
--Entertainment Weekly, Grade A-
Boston Globe

"Nitpicking Obsessiveness was never so appetizing."
--Entertainment Weekly, Grade A-
Apartment Therapy: The Kitchn
"Laugh out loud funny . . . Alexander definitely doesn't hold back . . . A great book, simultaneously funny and thoughtful." —Apartment Therapy: The Kitchn
Library Journal
Opening with a story about his attempt to take sourdough on an airplane, Alexander (The $64 Tomato) recounts his challenge to make peasant bread every week for a year until he baked the perfect loaf. Bakers will delight in his often humorous mission as he relates leaving out salt, growing his own wheat, discovering parchment paper, and splashing water into the oven in an effort to create steam, "[that] miracle vapor that's indispensable in bread making from start to finish!" Alexander also writes about attending a kneading conference in Maine, spending time in a French monastery, and going to Morocco. During the first week of his quest, the bread books on his shelf weighed two pounds; by week 47, he owned 64 pounds of books. As he sums up, "Bread is life." He includes some recipes and "A Baker's Bookshelf," a list of the books on bread he acquired. VERDICT This humorous memoir is recommended for anyone who has ever tried to bake a loaf.—Nicole Mitchell, Birmingham, AL
Kirkus Reviews
A clever weekend baker learns some life lessons, loaf by loaf. As in his previous book (The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden, 2006), Alexander sets a fairly lofty goal-this time he wants to bake perfect bread. The author established a time frame for his task of a loaf per week for a year. That undertaking may not be as showy, perhaps, as cooking all of Julia Child's recipes in the same time period, but it's a formidable task nonetheless. Alexander used just four ingredients, baking his peasant yet artisanal bread from scratch using water, salt, wheat and yeast-a 6,000-year-old recipe "found scratched on the inside of a pyramid." The author built a rudimentary oven, separated wheat from chaff by hand and worked diligently to produce the ever-important gas bubbles in his bread's texture. Some of his baking, presented to an obliging family, was tasty, while some went against the grain. He considered sponge and crust, crumb and batter and the magical qualities of the ubiquitous ancient fungus, yeast. He also traveled quite a bit, baking in New England, at the Ritz in Paris, in a medina in Morocco and finally in l'Abbaye Saint-Wandrille, a modest seventh-century French abbey where he produced his best loaf. During his quest, Alexander learned plenty. For example, the professed atheist found something numinous in the loaves, and especially the process. His bright writing highlights a pleasing variety of comical misadventures. Recipes appended. Entertaining and educative.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781565125834
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
  • Publication date: 5/4/2010
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

William Alexander, the author of two critically acclaimed books, lives in New York's Hudson Valley. By day the IT director at a research institute, he made his professional writing debut at the age of fifty-three with a national bestseller about gardening, The $64 Tomato. His second book, 52 Loaves, chronicled his quest to bake the perfect loaf of bread, a journey that took him to such far-flung places as a communal oven in Morocco and an abbey in France, as well as into his own backyard to grow, thresh, and winnow wheat. The Boston Globe called Alexander "wildly entertaining," the New York Times raved that "his timing and his delivery are flawless," and the Minneapolis Star Tribune observed that "the world would be a less interesting place without the William Alexanders who walk among us." A 2006 Quill Book Awards finalist, Alexander won a Bert Greene Award from the IACP for his article on bread, published in Saveur magazine. A passion bordering on obsession unifies all his writing. He has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition and at the National Book Festival in Washington DC and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times op-ed pages, where he has opined on such issues as the Christmas tree threatening to ignite his living room and the difficulties of being organic. Now, in Flirting with French, he turns his considerable writing talents to his perhaps less considerable skills: becoming fluent in the beautiful but maddeningly illogical French language. 


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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 8 )
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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 30, 2012

    It is very funny to observe another persons over the top pursuit

    It is very funny to observe another persons over the top pursuit of perfection especially, when one has that tendency. Very enjoyable read with lots of interesting information.

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  • Posted January 15, 2011

    I Also Recommend:

    You do not have to be a bread baker to love this book

    I enjoyed the self depracating humor and all the side information that William Alexander provides. The $64 Tomato was ok, but I enjoyed this book much more.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted May 6, 2010

    52 Loaves by William Alexander

    Subtitled "One man's relentless pursuit of truth, meaning, and a perfect crust." this is William Alexander's year-long attempt to replicate the 'perfect' loaf of peasant bread that he had in an upscale restaurant.

    It's very funny in some places such as when he uses pH papers supplied by his physician wife to see if the tap water he uses is acidic. He finds that it but is relieved to find that it is not pregnant. I also enjoyed the story of how he carried a sourdough starter through the TSA to take it to Europe.

    But, as a amateur bread baker, I found his obsession with minute details of measurements and times frustrating, since one of the things I like about bread baking is the inexactness of the process. And, I wondered if the perfect loaf of bread he strived for existed. Indeed, he seems to come to the conclusion that it is not.

    There is some very interesting information in his stories. I did not realize the ancient Egyptians kneading bread in a trough with their feet. And his description of the Abbaye Saint-Wabdrille de Fontelle in Normandy, France and his week with the monks there was very interesting.

    I would recommend this book to bread bakers everywhere.

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  • Posted May 4, 2010

    Just flour, water, yeast, and salt

    If you enjoyed watching the movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding", then you are going to relish reading "52 Loaves". Just as the audience did not have to be Greek to laugh at the hilarious movie scenes and to empathize with the protagonist's experiences, readers do not have to bake bread, to be fully sated with this wonderful book.

    For me, the most satisfying book is one that balances character, plot, setting, and theme. In "52 Loaves", all four strands are woven in a tapestry of well-written, thoughtful words.

    The main "character" is the author, William Alexander. If you can recall a time in your life when either a meal or food tantalized you with its sublime taste, smell and texture, you can understand the author's dogged attempts to recreate a memorable experience with a loaf of bread. Given bread's many dynamic variables (flour, yeast, time and temperature), replicating a loaf of bread without a recipe, is intricately complicated. As the story enfolds, we laugh heartily as the author encounters one mishap after another in search for this elusive recipe, while admiring his doggedness. The single-focused character who we meet at the beginning of the book becomes introspective and philosophical at the end.

    The plot holds the reader's interest as it revolves around the author's activities, his tribulations paired with triumphs, his obstacles followed by revelations. Along with the author, we learn from and enjoy meeting, among others, the miller, the bakers, the hippie, the scientist, the storeowner, and the monk. While we know intuitively that the author will eventually bake a "perfect" loaf, we read on to share in this victory. Rich in setting, the book travels from one location to the next - a myriad of fascinating places that culminate in a week's stay at a French monastery. The descriptions are precise in detail, informative in context, and lyrical in tone - a pleasing juxtaposition. Finally, like the author who learned that the perfect bread is the penultimate one, at the conclusion of the book, the reader will think about its many meanings long after the last page is read.

    "52 Loaves" is quintessential story-telling. Whether you have never baked a loaf of bread, want to bake a loaf of bread, or have experienced the joys of baking your own or eating the "perfect" loaf, this is the book to read.

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    Posted July 29, 2011

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