“Cooking is one of those arts which most requires to be done by persons of a religious nature.” — Alfred North Whitehead
Bread or sex? It’s a time-honored question, with its attendant subtexts. Would you rather engage in pleasures of the flesh or devour a bunch of doughnuts? With gluten allergies on the rise, maybe it’s safer to stick to sex. But hold on.
In ancient Jewish texts, bread was a symbol for sex. In the Babylonian Talmud, marriage, and the sexual activity that came with it, was referred to as bread in the basket. “One who has bread in his basket is not comparable to one who does not have bread in his basket,” the sages say in Yevamot 37b, meaning a man who is married does not crave illicit sex the way a man who is unmarried does.
Why was sex considered ‘bread in the basket’? It was an act of being taken care of, whether in a position of coitus or in a position of physical nourishment. To the Jewish rabbis, one was just as necessary as the other in marriage.
“Be modest before your husbands, do not eat bread before them,” Rabbi Hisda admonished his daughters (following BT Shabbat 140b). Here again we see bread as a symbol of arousal, as something associated with sex.
Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant, it says in Proverbs 9:17. The Babylonian Talmud explains in Sanhedrin 75a, that this refers to forbidden sexual pleasure.
So there’s a precedent, as surprising as it might seem, for comparing bread to sex in Judaism.
But it’s not just Judaism.
In the 1800s, bread was sex - euphemistically. “Rumor has it he found her bread and butter fashion with the neighbor,” the phrase went, meaning he found them one on top of the other.
Two hundred years later, little had changed — the strange correlation between bread and eros lived on. The ‘Yeah Sex Is Cool But Have You Ever Had Garlic Bread’ was a popular meme that proliferated online, eventually making its way onto T-shirts and other merchandise in 2017. There’s also Paula Deen’s Is It Really Better Than Sex? cake recipe. Most of the 5-star ratings seem to be an answer in the affirmative.
When it comes to sensuality and bread, challah is at the top of the list. After all, it’s prepared for Shabbat — a day on which intimacy is encouraged — and the process is, traditionally, a women’s mitzvah, prepared in the kitchen which has historically been seen as a women’s space, a private sanctum.
There’s the bread, kneaded, almost alive under your hands, returning your interest, a living, breathing, moldable, almost fleshy thing beneath your hands. There’s the musty smell of the kitchen, of the women who came before you.
Like sex, baking can be an intimate act. It’s the process of taking care of another, of tending to ourselves. And like the bedroom, the kitchen is a space loaded with centuries of tension and cultural misunderstandings, of things getting lost in translation. Where dough gets pounded and flung into the air, where knife skills and softer sides might be on display, sometimes simultaneously.
Food nourishes the body from the inside out, and sex feeds it from the outside in. “Together, they create life,” wrote chef Tiberio Simone. “Our societal norms of using food to comfort and express love or gratitude have been around for hundreds of years, and in recent years – especially with baking – this has evolved to not only be about giving food but also as a means of engaging creatively with each other,” wrote psychologist Dr. Linda Papadopoulos.
In The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert called the Great British Bakeoff Show “a refined and well-mannered cookery contest that somehow also manages to be a teeming hotbed of smut, later adding that “hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins inquire winkingly about the erectness of a biscuit or the appropriate length for a profiterole.” The fact that this humor feels so natural is a testament to the way that bread and sex seem to exist side by side. (Bon Appetit Magazine even compiled a list of the best food erotica quotes, speaking to some people’s urge to literalize the two indulgences together).
Both sex and food require some degree of reciprocity, in which you cannot take without giving back something. Among foodies, many believe that to be ready to eat, but not ready to cook, is an essential failure of being a person. To eat well, you must create well, or at minimum be prepared to pay a premium for other people’s creations. Women do not create challah to eat solo. They cook it for their families, to bring to other people’s tables, to adorn their own. To make challah is to give, and to give is to give something up, whether it’s the time, mental energy or money it takes to create challah.
Cooking is an act of indulgence but also a necessity — no different from sex. We can see cooking as an indulgence of sexuality and we can see challah baking as a celebration of the women that came before us, as a time a Jewish woman has just for herself, to think about what she likes, whether its sex or food…or both.
Shira Feder is a writer at the Forward. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org