Sunday, January 15, 2006


Bread, as some of you readers know, can be a very deep and philosophical subject for reflection. I like to make bread. Not many people do anymore, and when I bring homemade bread to a function, it inevitably arouses admiration and lots of fuss. I enjoy that, because I like attention and I like to hear people tell me how good my bread is and wow, etc., etc. I don't mind admitting that I really like to get some gratuitous admiration every now and then just for doing something I like anyway.

I discovered in China, in my first year of teaching there (1998), that I also really like to make Communion bread. That first year I was dreadfully clueless in nearly every respect, and very quickly I found myself in the position of having volunteered my apartment as a meeting place. It seemed a simple thing to be able to contribute (and, quite honestly, the only way in which I could contribute, save for a good steady alto in the ol' standby hymns we inevitably tortured ourselves with every Sunday). But it did involve a fair amount of work: cleaning, rearranging furniture to allow maximum space and seating, and the provision of the bread and grape juice for Communion.

That first Sunday I think my bread was probably a disaster. I don't remember it, so I'm pretty sure it was bad. But gradually over the weeks my experiments improved, until one Sunday I was sure I'd hit the jackpot: crisp, but not crumbly; resilient but not tough; and, the crowning achievement, downright tasty. I always taste-tested before church, and this Sunday I was jubilant. My Communion bread was good.

And--please believe me--it wasn't the thirst for admiration that made me so happy. After weeks and weeks of really substandard fare, I had begun to draw the theological conclusion that the Body of Christ ought to taste good. There was, it seemed to me, something wrong if one couldn't abide the taste or texture of the Body in one's mouth, if you had to force yourself to pick it up and swallow it. I viewed my quest for good Communion bread as a service to the church. And, finally, I felt good, because I was able to serve adequately in this small way.

I wasn't the only one who noticed that the Communion bread that Sunday was especially fine. After church, a visitor from "across the river" [geographical note: Wuhan is a city of three main districts, split down the middle by the Yangtze River; I lived in Wuchang, and the visitor worshipped with another church across the Yangtze in Hanyang] came up to me and said, "that was the best Communion bread I've ever had." Foolish, clueless me! Beaming happily, I said, "Thanks!" The visitor continued, "If I may ask, how did you make it?" Believing this to be a further compliment, I happily shared my secret: "Oh, a little flour, a pinch of salt, and some "Mother's Choice," cut in with a fork, and water until the dough holds together, like you'd make pastry. But this morning I also added a pinch of sugar to the flour."

The visitor's reaction was somewhat less complimentary, now having sniffed out the problem he'd suspected all along. "Sugar? You put sugar in the bread?" Somewhat confused by the shift in tone, I said, "Yes, just a little. A pinch."

Seeing that I was in trouble, a friend came to the rescue and began engaging the visitor, eventually positing that a pinch of sugar in the dough was in no way equivalent to, say, having cheese and herbs alongside one's unleavened bread.

The next week we heard reports of rumors that the church across the river believed we ate cheese and herbs for Communion.

I was distracted from following this conversation further by being pulled into my living room. I was sat down on my couch and soundly rebuked for my theological waywardness by three members of the church. It was simply inappropriate to put sugar in the Communion bread. I was treated to a rather lengthy and unnecessary recap of the Passover story and the symbolic connection to the Last Supper, culminating in a paternalistic warning: don't do it again. Feeling rather put upon and harassed at this point, I demanded to know why. My Communion bread was good; everyone had said so. What did it matter how I made it, as long as it was unleavened? I didn't put yeast in it, for heaven's sake, or baking soda or powder. Sugar isn't leavening. After these protests, my interlocutors scrambled for a logical rejoinder: there wasn't time for the Hebrew people during the Exodus to add sugar to their bread, either. When I pointed out in reply that my sugar bowl sits right next to my salt on the counter, and that a pinch of one takes about the same time as a pinch of the other, therefore it seemed equally problematic to add salt, I was reassured that salt was okay. Just not sugar.

My second year in China, I requested the recipe of a friend and fellow English teacher because her Communion bread was unfailingly the best I had ever had. It is the recipe I use today and it is written in my keepsake recipe book, the one I received from a dear friend at Harding at the wedding shower she threw me, under the tab labelled "China."

GB's Communion Bread
Changsha, China

1/2 cup flour
pinch salt
1/8 cup olive oil
water to make dough hold together

Drizzle the olive oil into the flour/salt and mix with fork. Add only enough water to make dough hold together in one ball. Divide into as many loaves as you like. Roll out very thin on floured surface. Prick top with fork to prevent bubbles. Bake at 400 degrees for about 5 minutes or until brown. Sprinkle with salt immediately after baking.

For those of you who are curious, when I make GB's recipe, I add a pinch of sugar. Not to be defiant, and not because her recipe isn't stellar as is. Adding the sugar now is more a symbolic act than culinary. I do it because it reminds me of one of the first theological convictions I ever held, one that was marginalized and challenged even as I came to hold it: the Body of Christ ought to taste good.

1 comment:

Chad said...

Great post, Jen. Indeed, the Body of Christ should taste good. In more ways than one.