Preston Yancey, Out of the House of Bread

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(this review appeared in an earlier form on goodreads)

I was hoping to write a review about Out of the House of Bread primarily as a bread book, but I realized that that would be unfair.  It’s not in the same genre as Peter Reinhart or other bakers.  Preston Yancey is a faith leader and author by trade, not a baker.  The structure of his book is more like Shauna Niequist’s Bread and Wine.  The food is not the key factor, but a tool for developing a deeper understanding of faith concepts.

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Nevertheless, I enjoyed his perspective on baking and took on the challenge of trying a new recipe and making it nine times. He justifies the challenge because “the practice of baking is, to me, less about following the recipe than it is learning the feel of dough and how the humidity of a room changes the texture of the crust.”

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When he wasn’t going too over-the-top with his purple prose (I cringed when he likened a closed dutch oven to a tomb), it was actually quite lovely and sometimes funny. I liked how he wove life and bread-baking together in his metaphors, describing the spiritual and the physical in the same terms.

We’ll “bake it out.”

“the mess is holy and so is the uncluttered.”

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“[The rise] is the process that remains a marvel to me, how bread slowly becomes itself with so little of our input when it comes down to it.  We have only brought in means to make, but it is the dough itself that comes alive and into its own.”

“the less communal our lives become, the less communal our expectations of our religious environments.”

“tradition forms us, feeds us, gives us roots.”

“I am comforted that there is always but one more thing to discover and to know about God.  I’m comforted there are so many ways and kinds of knowing.  Some knowing is in the hands touching bread, some in the work of the field, some in the pages of words penned millennia before.  God seeks a plurality of experience with us, a shifting kaleidoscope of encounter.”

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“Dividing dough is an unceremonious task with no room for pretense.  There’s a good deal of flopping and flipping and hoping for the best.  Let that be a welcome to you instead of a hindrance. Accept the necessary task of disorder.  There will be flour on your kitchen floor.  There will be sticky dough clinging to your elbow.  These things are unavoidable but these things are also the stuff of real, ordinary, miraculous life.”

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Where his writing really shines is in the Feasting chapter when he talks about the death of his grandfather and baking a pie that he then shares with his father. The chapter is so restrained and yet it conveys so much. I wish there were more vignettes like that. The structure reminded me of Rachel Held Evans’s new book, but she really expanded and pushed the idea of the various sacraments that framed her narrative.

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In the end, his book left me wanting more while simultaneously wanting less.  I hesitate to say this but I wish he had waited a year and published this book, to see what he might add. In the time since Out of the House of Bread was published, he has become an ordained minister, and he and his wife welcomed their first child.  I would’ve been interested to see how those experiences changed him and/or his baking.  It seems like he chose not to share his really deep life experiences in this book, where they would have strengthened it.  That is his choice, but his stories become repetitive by the end.  He spends too much time hammering home the metaphor of the Scottish path, and not enough time exploring his own spiritual journey.  This could be because he already recounted it in Tables in the Wilderness, but I haven’t read that.

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In the end, I gave this book three stars.  Together, the baking side and the spiritual side of the narrative come together to create something stronger than either part alone.

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So that is my literary review of Out of the House of Bread.  I also plan on publishing my baker’s review, with more details about what I learned baking the same bread nine times.  Stay tuned.

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