“Oh, and never throw out your old bread.”
“Really? Why not?”
“Locals say it’s really shameful.”
“So… what do you do with it instead?”
“Put it in a bag and hang it on your gate or on a tree limb in the street. People who raise animals will come by and collect it to use as feed.”
“So they come by regularly?”
“Yes, you’ll see. You might never see it collected, but it will be gone before you know it.”
This conversation with teammates happened early on after we had moved to Central Asia. It was an important piece of cultural orientation, the kind of thing that, unknown, could have made for a lot of unintended cultural offense. Our teammates were right. We started hanging up our baggies of dry, moldy, or unusable bits of bread. And they disappeared remarkably quickly.
Bread plays a central role in the diets of our local friends. Every meal will be served with either a form of flatbread or with small, individual loaves that are round or the shape of an eye. In fact, locals feel that if bread is not served, it doesn’t really count as a meal. Their words for breakfast, lunch, and dinner are morning bread, noon bread, and evening bread, respectively. The word for bread even substitutes often for the word for food, so that it’s most common to ask if someone has eaten by asking them if they’ve eaten bread.
“Have you eaten bread today?”
“Yes, I had some kabab in the bazaar.”
Many local women make their bread themselves, but each neighborhood will also have a small bakery or two within walking distance. Here, a crew of men will work all day in scorching temperatures in a kind of dance. For a flatbread bakery, one man shapes the dough into the right size. A second picks it up and twirls it until it is flattened and then slaps it onto a cushion with a strap on the back. Using the cushion, he then smacks the dough onto the inside of a blazing tanoor oven with a circular opening. The third man waits with a pair of tongs, grabbing each piece of flatbread when it has baked and bubbled enough, throwing it frisbee-style onto the counter that faces the street.
At mealtime, a crowd waits at that counter, their place in line marked by the folded bills they have placed in a notched piece of wood on one side of the counter. The person whose turn it is will expertly survey each piece of bread tossed onto the counter, selecting them one at a time, spreading out their scalding chosen pieces with the tips of their fingers and often flipping them upside down to cool. When they have the amount they have paid for, they will place the warm flatbread in a stack, stick it in a bag, and with a “May your hands be blessed” be on their way. Current prices are eight pieces of flatbread for about 75 cents (US).
The style of baking the bread and the lack of preservatives means it’s best when it’s still warm and fresh – and that it tends to get hard and moldy much more quickly than our bread in the US. Hence why we so regularly had bread that needed to be thrown out. That, and the fact that every piece of flatbread has soft parts and hard parts, and most eaters tend to use bits the former to scoop their rice and leave the latter on the tablecloth uneaten. There are some kinds of very thin flatbread that are made to last longer that are stored mostly dry and then made pliable by spraying them with a spray bottle at meal time or sprinkling them with water from your fingers. This practice of sprinkling the bread has come to be an inside joke of sorts among local believers as they discuss the various modes of baptism. “Oh, that missionary? He practices sprinkling the bread.”
There is saying in some parts of Central Asia that “bread is life.” What we have come to learn is that bread is viewed as so fundamental to life itself that it has taken on a somewhat sacred status in a way that’s not true of other food. That’s why it’s never to be shamefully wasted, but always saved for animals if it’s no longer fit for human consumption. Whether hung in the street in bags for farmers or torn up and and thrown on to the roof for birds, bread is precious and therefore never to be simply thrown away. Throwing out your bread would ruin your name in the eyes of the community.
I was reminded of this Central Asian practice when I was recently reading in Leviticus. The reason the people of Israel were not to eat meat with the blood still in it, but rather to pour a beast’s blood out and cover it with earth? “For the life of every creature is its blood: Its blood is its life” (Lev 17:14). Blood was sacred and to be honored. Why? Because it was so fundamental to life itself. This close connection between life and blood changed how the people of Israel were to treat blood. Blood was also how atonement for sin was made (17:11), and this made it a substance even more to be honored. These commands also had serious communal consequences if ignored. “You shall not eat the blood of any creature. For the life of every creature is in its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off” (17:14). Not treating blood appropriately would make one cut off from the community.
There are echoes of how old covenant Israel treated blood in the way Central Asians treat bread. On a purely cultural level, both honor that which is crucial to life. There is a natural wisdom in this. In order to respect life, we must also respect those things that life is most dependent on. However, for the people of Israel, their relationship with blood was also divinely commanded because of God’s chosen old covenant system of atonement – itself a prophecy of how Christ would atone for all who believe with his own blood. I don’t know the origins of Central Asians’ honoring of bread. Perhaps it is only a wise tradition. On the other hand, perhaps it came from the traditions of the ancient Christian communities that used to be so common in Central Asia. Similar to blood, we are also saved by bread. We remember this every time we take communion. We are saved by the broken body of Christ, the bread of life torn and pierced for our salvation. In this way, bread is a sign of salvation accomplished in history, and available to any who would believe.
In Acts 15, the Jerusalem council asked Paul and Barnabas and the gentile churches to still abstain from blood, even though they affirmed that salvation was by the grace of Jesus, apart from works of the law like circumcision. I would not be surprised if Central Asian believers continue to also treat bread in their respectful way even as they seek to transform their culture with the gospel. Some parts of culture get rejected when they come into contact with gospel truth. Others are retained, and not only retained, but deepened. Bread is life, and for those who believe in Jesus, now more so than ever.