Book Review: “52 Loaves” by William Alexander

I’ve been cooking up a storm lately. Beet and carrot salad last night, a new pasta sauce tonight, homemade pizza for tomorrow. I blame it on the end of daylight savings time. All this darkness makes me hungry. What better time than now to read a book all about baking bread?

Before I start talking about Bill Alexander’s new book, 52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning and a Perfect Crust, I must stop and ask if you’ve read his first 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. Have you read it? If your answer is no, stop right now, open a new tab on your internet browser, go to Amazon or Barnes and Noble or your favorite indie book store and order it. It’s a fabulously funny and well written memoir on the trials and joys of building a new garden, from negotiating with the gorgeous young landscape designer to battling a devious woodchuck to harvesting, finally, that precious, perfect brandywine tomato.

Okay, now assuming that you’ve either read this first memoir or that it is on its way to you via UPS, I will move on to his second book, 52 Loaves. (Forgive me. No subtitle this time). Not being much of a baker myself, I picked this book up on the strength of his gardening memoir. Now, I want to be a baker. Alexander decides to spend a year trying to recreate the perfect loaf of “peasant bread” that he tasted in a she-she New York restaurant. As year progresses, he grows, harvests and grinds his own wheat. He mines the expertise of well known bakers around the world. He bakes bread in a monastery in France and a communal oven in Morocco. He builds his own wood-fire clay oven. He educates about the history of bread, the chemistry of bread, the cultural significance of bread, the love of bread.

I spent about a week reading this book, and my quality of life experienced a boost during that time. I felt, as much as learning tons about bread, that I looked through a window into another life. It’s a pretty normal life, just with ambitious interests and a great writing voice. Alexander writes, but also has a real job, a family, a house to take care of, a garden to tend. And he responds to e-mail! I know that facebook and e-mail and twitter have made the world small and connections easy, but it is still pretty amazing to look up an address on a website, send an e-mail (Hi Bill, Liked your book), and then get a response the next day (Hi Kelly, Glad you enjoyed it.). There is still something for me about a published author that seems mysterious and distant and beyond my reach. I’m not going to lie: that personal interaction thrilled me. My kids thought it was cool too, and made them thinking about actually sending those “letter to the author” book reports to their favorites.

So, I highly recommend spending a week or so with my friend Bill (We’ve emailed. Doesn’t that make us friends?). You’ll enjoy it. And I bet you’ll be inspired by one of his lessons learned: “Choose one thing you care about and resolve to do it well. Whether you succeed or not, you will be better for the effort.”

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12 responses to “Book Review: “52 Loaves” by William Alexander

  1. We stopped purchasing bread products a few months ago, and now only bake our own. Sourdough, whole wheat, flat breads, bagels, cinnamon rolls. My grandparents owned a bakery, so bread baking wasn’t foreign to me, but I’d only dabbled over the years. Some of the money I would have spent on grocery store breads has been ‘invested’ in bread books, Hamelman, Reinhart, Hensperger etc., all in search of that ‘perfect’ crusty loaf. I have a feeling I’ll love reading your friend Bill’s book! I’m still looking for mine, but I wonder if he ever found his perfect crust? Shhhh! Don’t tell me! 😉

    • ooooh CV – I want to come for dinner! What an ambitious project – sounds like a wonderful way to go about your bread-eating business. I know you’ll enjoy this book – probably even more because you are a baker yourself. You’ll have to tell me how you like it.

  2. Kelly, I love book recommendations – especially when they have to do with food. My husband is the bread baker in our family. Well, mainly he just tinkers with dough for pizza, but we have grand plans for baking bread this fall and winter (I’m ready to start grinding the wheat!). I think we’ve taken every book out of the library on bread/pizza dough making, but have yet to see this one! Thanks for the review – it’s going in our library queue right now. Oh, and I love that you emailed him and he responded!

  3. Both books sound really good. I love these types of books and they sound like perfect reads during the winter when I’ll mostly be stuck inside.

  4. Dear Kelly, I love it when garden bloggers recommend books … I have found some brilliant ones that way. I will definitely be reading your friend Bill’s books. Thank you. Pam x

    • Thanks for visiting Pam! So glad you found the recommendation helpful. Maybe I should write a post seeking everybody’s favorite books – gardening and otherwise. That would make for a great reading list, no doubt.

  5. I will definitely read this – sounds fascinating! I did read the $64 tomato and related a lot. It was really hilarious.

  6. We have an amazingly good bakery in town so it’s at least easier to find the perfect loaf of peasant bread than it is to find a passable tomato. That said, I’m not totally satisfied until I’ve grown/cooked/baked something myself and brought it to the table. This book sounds inspirational–and it might save me a few mistakes along the way. Apprenticing in a monastery in France sounds totally doable. Sign me up!

  7. James – glad you stopped by. So you’re one of those do-it-yourselfers, eh? I can relate. There is something so satisfying when you know you’ve seen it through from start to finish. Bill Alexander is in our camp – I hope you’ll enjoy the book!

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