In the King James version of Genesis, Adam and Eve began their lives as vegans. They ate nuts and fruit.
Then they ate Yahweh’s special fruit, so he expelled them from Eden. Yahweh said, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.” Adam and Eve would no longer live in a land of such abundance that they could survive on the raw produce of trees – instead, they’d have to cook bread.
And Yahweh rubs it in – even if you work hard, and procure food, and survive a while, still you will die. You humans are mortal.
(To the other deities, Yahweh offers an aside: “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.” Yahweh does not mention to the humans that their mortality was curable, His own doing, and His plan all along.)
In the beginning, bread was a curse.
Soon, however, the Western world treated bread as a mark of civilization.
In The Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew sail to Laestrygonia. Not knowing that the island is overrun by voracious giants who might slay and eat them, he asks who eats bread there. In Emily Wilson’s new translation, he says:
I picked two men, and one slave as the third,
and sent them to find out what people lived
and ate bread in this land.
Bread is alchemy. Flour and water and a speck of yeast aren’t enough to support a human life, but if you let yeast eat the flour, then bake it, suddenly you have a food that could nourish you for weeks.
In jail, meals are served with flimsy slices of airy white bread. I’ve eaten one meal at our local jail – the guards let us stay for dinner with the men after class one week, just after one man’s partner was murdered.
(The trio charged with murder – a woman and two men – were incarcerated in that same jail. The woman was placed into a holding cell adjacent to the dorm where the murdered woman’s partner lived. He stayed up all night, shouting to her through the wall. He was telling her to forgive herself.)
We received green beans, spaghetti, a slice of white bread, a cookie. To drink, our choice of milk or sweet tea. I’ve been told that our jail has better food than almost any other.
If you fold your spaghetti into the bread, they told me, you get to have a taco.
When we incarcerate people in this country, we force them to find ingenious ways to deal with deprivation. Demetrius Cunningham built a practice piano out of cardboard. In Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water, she describes the jerry-rigged water heaters common at Attica Prison.
At the end of our poetry class recently, a man showed me his ear gauge, a round disc of purple and green.
“I’m surprised they let you keep it,” I said.
“They didn’t. It’s bread.”
“Bread. I made it here.” He popped it out to show me – it wasn’t quite as shiny as the stuff you’d see on Etsy, but otherwise looked just as nice. “While I been in, I must’ve went from a quarter inch to, what’s this, over an inch?”
“Bread,” I said, shaking my head. I felt hesitant to touch it.
“I been making all sorts of things. You need bread, and some pencil shavings, colored pencil, you know? I been making flowers, little sea turtles. I made a whole lot of flowers. Gifts for people, when I get out. It’s like therapy. While I’m making them, gives me something to think about, you know? It helps. Keeps the mind busy.”
The next week he brought a few of his sculptures to class. The flowers were incredible, each an inch or two tall, with green stem and leaves, petals in blue and purple. His sea turtle was only a quarter inch across and intricately detailed. Like netsuke, except …
“Bread?” I asked him again.
“Yup,” he said, leaning back in his chair.
I’d previously read about Robert Martinson making a chess set from bread, but I’d assumed the pieces would look gross. In “Solidarity under Close Confinement,” Martinson wrote about his experience being incarcerated for 40 days with the Freedom Riders in the 1960s. He reported that “chess sets and objets d’art could be molded from paste made from chewed bread and dried in the ventilator … I gloated over a tiny nest of buttons, string, chicken bones, and chess pieces – an affection I now find difficult to remember.”
Martinson was appalled by what incarceration does to people: “Of course, the persons we had become in our cells were difficult, boring things.” After his release, he studied prisons, hoping that the way we punish people could be made less awful. He was hired by the state of New York to address recidivism: did any type of programming reduce criminal behavior by ex-felons?
As described in Terry Kupers’s essay “How to Create Madness in Prison” (published in Hell Is a Very Small Place):
A turning point occurred with the publication of Robert Martinson’s 1974 essay, “What Works? Questions and Answers about Prison Reform.” Martinson ran some numbers and announced that rehabilitation programs have no positive effect on recidivism rates. This was the research that conservative pundits and politicians had been waiting for, and they made Martinson famous as they legislated a drastic turn from rehabilitation to harsher punishments.
With calls to “stop coddling” prisoners, prison education programs were slashed, weights were removed from the yards, the quality of prison food declined, prisoners were deprived of materials for arts and crafts, and so forth.
Even though Martinson really should have realized that this would be the consequence of his publication (and subsequent speaking tour), he was devastated. After all, he was a firm believer in social justice. He had risked his life to join the Freedom Riders. He began to study incarceration because he hoped to improve prisoners lives. As a result of his research, he’d written that prisons “cannot be reformed and must be gradually torn down.”
That’s not what happened. Instead, we started sending more people to prison, and made the prisons worse.
Which is why Martinson soon recanted his findings. It was true that the education and counseling offered in prisons weren’t very effective at staving off future crime. It was also true that the education and counseling offered in prisons were terrible.
If the available “education” is just a guard and some textbooks, is it surprising that few people are rehabilitated by it? What about counseling – with untrained counselors told to do “whatever they thought best” during five or so short meetings with their patients each year?
Nobody cared about Martinson’s 1979 publication, “A Note of Caution Regarding Sentencing Reform,” in which he apologized for flaws in his earlier work. By then, the punitive reformers had already gotten what they wanted: a lefty intellectual arguing that nothing works and so prisons should be cheap and miserable.
Martinson was horrified by the damage he’d wrought. That same year, he committed suicide – in front of his teenage son, he leapt from the window of their ninth story apartment.