Book Review — Going with the Grain: A Wandering Bread Lover Takes a Bite Out of Life

Going with the Grain: A Wandering Bread Lover Takes a Bite Out of Life
Susan Seligson
Simon & Schuster, 2002

If you don’t bake bread, can you write a book about bread? Susan Seligson attempts to do so in this book about bread-making in different cultures. She travels to Morocco to follow daily loaves through the fes; to upstate New York to try the sourdough; Jordan for Bedouin flatbreads; Ireland to study soda bread; Maine to understand the ubiquitous Wonderbread; Brooklyn to watch matzo being made; India for roti; New Mexico to get a look at the special, hundred year-old bread ovens called hornos; Alabama for biscuits; a military R&D kitchen to learn about how bread is made to last in MREs (meal, ready to eat) for soldiers; and finally to Paris where she cannot score an interview with the famous baker Lionel Poulaine, and so settles for his brother.

Despite the fact that this is a lot of bread, many of the chapters touch on bread only briefly — Seligson is more of a travel writer than a food writer, and while she asks questions and observes the processes, and describes them, this book often meanders off into the personal memoir realm, such as the chapter on India where she mostly talks about her rich friend, the friend’s home, and the friend’s servant, who, incidentally, is the one who makes the rotis covered in that chapter.

While I found myself laughing at Seligson’s often-caustic observations of the people and places she encounters, other readers might find her a bit too critical and mean-spirited as opposed to observant and forthrightly honest. To be fair, there are chapters where the author does come off as a grade-A jerk. In the chapter about the New Mexican hornos, she complains incessantly about her inability to access the local villages to get a good look at the ovens, the hostility of the Native American people on the pueblos towards Anglos, and the cheap jewelry and crafts sold to tourists. At other times this attitude can be be kind of charming, such as when she spends a day at a matzo factory where they are stringent about keeping out chametz (leavened bread of any kind), only to discover after she leaves that she’s been walking around with part of a chocolate chip cookie in her pocket.

The charming and interesting part of Going With the Grain is being able to see different types of bread and the culture around them (how loaves disappear into the Moroccan fes, for instance, and get returned, properly baked, to their rightful owners), or the intensity of the baking process for a sourdough savant. While Seligson occasionally meanders too far from the subject at hand, she paints vivid pictures of each type of bread and how it comes to life. The recipes at the end of each chapter are a nice touch.

This is a good food-lovers read if the reader can ignore — or find a way to enjoy — Seligson’s personality as it comes through her narrative.