Something Sour in the Middle Class

If you have money, then food, especially bread, is easy to buy in Sweden. Bread fills the shelves from petrol stations along the roads to small kiosks in major cities. There is a rich variety of factory-baked and standardized bread, and with a little effort, you can buy something that gives you energy. Sometimes it even tastes good. In this situation, a trend suddenly arises that is based on individuals who bake their own bread which take a long time to bake. It may seem strange with a trend that runs counter to the quick, standardized, especially today when time is generally seen as a scarce commodity. So what is behind this trend to make their own bread, particularly sourdough bread? Why bake yourself, when the shelves are already filled? Can sourdough baking show a change of status for baking of bread?

Kasper Fogh 2015-11-2

Photo: Josefin Vargö

To home bake or to buy?

Bread has a strong symbolic value and is an important staple food around the world. We want to break bread and share our meals with those we care about. That may be a way to show our love. Being the one who takes control of something as sacred as the daily bread is in itself symbolic. Historically it has been women who have had control of the kitchen and bread baking. Those who have mainly been visible in the new bread baking trend in Sweden have been men. They have appeared in blogs, newspapers and radio. Two prominent people are blogger Martin Johansson with the blog Pain de Martin and Sebastian Boudet who had the bakery Petite France in Stockholm. What has driven those who indulged in this trend? Do they just want to bake tasty bread? For whom do they do this – their mother, their family or other men?

The sourdough trend began to slowly grow in Sweden around 2006 and has since then only grown bigger and bigger. While the “bake your own bread-trend” emerges, more bakeries are started. In Stockholm, it is especially obvious in the borough of Södermalm. In the middle of SoFo (south of Folkungagatan), a borough that could be seen as the epicenter of the authenticity chasing middle class, the bakery Urban Deli started a sourdough hotel in 2011. There, they take care of sourdoughs submitted for people who are unable to care for it themselves, even despite the capability of the sourdough to survive both as dried and frozen. So people want the sourdough so much that even though they don’t really have time for it, they are willing to pay for it. Has the sourdough become an accessory, an interior detail, rather than a food? Today you’ll find more sourdough bread in the supermarkets in Stockholms city center. These stores are mainly located in economically better-off areas. One of the bakery chains, Gateau, had a turnover of 45 million Swedish kronor in 2007, and 2010 the number grew to 84 million Swedish Kroner.

Kasper Fogh 2015-13

Photo: Josefin Vargö

A new symbol of social status

The bread which especially dominated in Sweden after World War II has been an industrial syrup-heavy baked loaf, which also became a symbol of Swedish welfare. An open-faced sandwich with margarine and the significant Swedish cheese, hushållsost became a snack that Per Albin Hansson’s Folkhem (welfare state) was decorated around. A friend of mine says that in the 1960s, people, meeting for Sunday coffee, would utter: “Oh, is it bought bread?”, when the coffee roll proved not to be homemade, but bought in the supermarket. Not having to bake yourself was a status symbol, a part of the advancement, a welfare improvement for millions of women in the postwar period.

But now, the pendulum has swung the other way with the trendy sourdough bread that takes time to make and gains on resting before eating. To bake this kind of bread is a counter-turn against rationality and a standardized society. Those who bake these breads reveal that they have the time and energy to spare for sourdough adventures. Time has become the new status currency, and the leaven becomes a Bourgeoisie symbol. It’s a projection of value, and those baking sourdough show through their efforts in the kitchen tha they are better off, sophisticated and knowledgeable. It displays that their paid work creates space for more leisure time which they can spend on reproducing the image of being worldly.

Why the time consuming trend exploded exactly in 2006 is not easy to explain. Perhaps it was a reaction to a more general tendency in society. For example was a work tax credit set in motion in 2007, which meant that more money was freed for private consumption, but not much more time. Thus, leisure time, the time we have to reproduce our values, has become scarce.

Kasper Fogh 2015-19-2

Photo: Josefin Vargö


Through food a person can mark their class position. If you look at a city like Stockholm, there are many shops selling locally and organically grown products, most gathered in Södermalm. Those who consider themselves belonging to a cultural middle class live here. The culturally interested middle class in large cities, and especially Stockholm, has an impact around the rest of the country. A good example is the journalist Mats-Eric Nilson, who has become a symbol of seeking authenticity. He is one of those who created the label Äkta vara (the real thing) and has written extensively about the high use of E-numbers by the food industry. His approach to the problem is perhaps above all a symptom of a cultural need of a particular segment of the middle class to feel unique, high qualitative and for them to have enjoyment of life. The discussion is not really about the reasons that caused the food industry we have today or why it has turned out this way. Instead, the problem lies in defining what “The real thing” is. Often his definition seems to be that it is something inspired by older cooking traditions. For authenticity fundamentalists to be able to have an impact, they must check for themselves what is “true” and ensure that those listening will believe it to be true. Not infrequently, this anti-modern criticism linked to a product in the form of a book with the full list of harmful modern foods or additives, or the advice and recipes on how authenticity can be resurrected. They can show how their interest in food is driven by something more than mere necessity. The quest for authenticity has emerged as a movement in our time, and it signals quality and reliability.

In order to pay for our daily bread, we sell our work every day. Our function in the production becomes central, not who we really are. Today it might not be as clear as when several of us did labour work. Class is shaped both by the given positions in the economic structure and the people’s active interaction on the basis of the given positions in class. Sourdough can be a way to make good bread. It can also be a way to show that you have the financial resources to make a bread that takes time. No bread adds more than the actual baking. Baking bread at home can be an attempt to violate the alienation found in wage labor by making living labor, i.e. where you work for yourself, enjoy the fruits of your own you work – and eat your own bread).

Kasper Fogh 2015-14

Photo: Josefin Vargö

Control your bread, control your life

The dilemma is that even the unpaid work reproduces consumption. As long as we live in an economic system that affects everything we do, it is not possible to break away from it. This makes everything we do work and all work strange – not only wage labor is what gives us money and time to reproduce. Trends where you create something from the bottom may indicate that there is also a willingness to try to change our consumption patterns. If the whole existence feels shaky and alienated, activities as sourdough-baking can create a sense of control in a small part of life. All is not chaos anyway. One is not at the mercy of the system. There may be a way to get past a fairly extensive powerlessness by creating personal relationships with food and its producers.


A social media phenomenon

Today it seems that the sourdough baking trend is being driven by men in the age of 30-40. They put focus on the bread and its ingredients; the kitchen becomes a special atmosphere. Would these men show that they are equal to women when they bake their bread, when they take place in the kitchen? Male trends usually have a tendency to be focused on machinery and equipment. Here, other issues becomes important instead such as being able to know who has grown and milled the flour. To nurture the leaven seems to be a fixation, as opposed to traditionally letting the dough left-overs remain in the trays. On the blog Pain de Martin, Martin Johansson compares the same type of bread and its different qualities when baked using different flours. He also shows how to bake a fluffy bread without machines. One must ask if this kind of instruction will be a way to show others who bake that there are easier methods or if it becomes a pure demonstration to time surplus; “I have indeed spent time on this.” Perhaps also a way to create community with the other bakers, especially other men? A question one may ask is whether this type of food porn – like photos of sleek dough on Instagram and not videos of coitus like these as one would normally associate with the word porn – would have been possible or even conceivable without the internet, cell phones, mobile camera, Facebook, blogs, and wireless networks. For no one seems to want to bake alone to just eat the bread. We want to show us off with our bread. No one would ever think to shoot himself with a Pågens Coarse Lingonberry [a Swedish industry produced bread] or Wasa Husman [well known crispbread] in backlit to get 200-appreciations. But when you present the line “Now is the leaven ready. Three days of work, at the end of the road”, it’s a whole other thing. Sébastien Boudet spoke on the radio show Summer on P1 [a Swedish radio station] about how important it was with a strong relation to his miller. Ideally, a visit to a mill is made. By doing something in a traditional way, practitioners show that they are directly linked to the history and recreates traditions. Does not this kind of trend, with consideration for the raw material, in the end create more interest for agriculture and rural areas?

Sourdough may seem to be an expression of particular men in big cities. They take place in the kitchen without equipment, but make bread baking into something more than just baking a bread for their loved ones. Throughout history, traditional female domains and work become male-gendered and changed to higher status. With sourdough baking in combination with the Internet, middle-class men can show their masculinity to other men as men always have done. At the same time, they possess the new ruling middle class most central status markers: time for loved ones and with a specific knowledge of a complex process, which requires its technology but without technical aids. It becomes visible with the time that can be set on side for leisure.

Kasper Fogh 2015-12-2

Photo: Josefin Vargö

Ayhan Aydin

Ayhan Aydin

Meal ecologist, Nordisk Matutveckling AB

Art, science and food

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