It should come as no surprise that sometimes, various breads and bread-like treats should be invested with spiritual meaning. After all, John 6:35 (KJV) says:
And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.
John 6:48-58 goes even further, explaining in metaphor what Jesus would later make concrete at the Last Supper: this is My body, this is My blood.
As we all know, Catholics and some mainline Protestants remember this every Sunday when they take Communion. Indeed, the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation has it that the bread (host) given during this rite is literally the same as the body of Christ.
While this cannibalistic theophagy may turn you off, you certainly like snacking on tasty little cakes, no?
Unsurprisingly, France has plenty of those to offer.
The Madeleine (Magdalene) is one such cake. It's biggest claim to fame is that it kicks off Proust's ten-volume In Search of Lost Time, where he describes it as having the form of "a pilgrim's shell". In one traditional form it is indeed scallop-shaped. The pilgrims Proust refers to are those on their way to Santiago de Compostela, who affix this scallop to their staves as they make their way towards the holy destination. The scallop, as we have discussed, is associated with Aphrodite and its vaguely feminine forms may evoke a woman's sex; one often sees stoups for Holy Water in the form of a scallop (in France, at least). The origin of the Madeleine is in dispute, but most agree the name comes from inventor Madeleine Paulmier. Whether she was an 18th or 19th century figure is uncertain, but in either case they are native to the Lorraine region of France.
Another cookie with more direct religious overtones is the so-called "navette", which among other things means "barque" or "little boat". This hard cake is associated with Provence, especially Marseilles, and there are several theories as to its origin. Ean Begg speculates that it comes from the little cakes offered to Isis and that the barque here refers to the barque of Isis. Another speculation is that it recalls the legend that has the three Marys (including Magdalene) landing in France at what is now Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer; in a similar vein the boat is said to be a metaphor for the word of Christ landing on the shores of France. Others still say it commemorates the founding of Marseilles by Phoenicians.
The navette is associated with the Saint Victor Abbey, especially its Candlemas celebrations. There is a legend that a polychrome, wooden statue of the Virgin, crowned and slightly battered, washed up on the shores of a lake near the abbey sometime towards the end of the 13th century. Some took her to be a protectress of people who plied the waves, sailors, fishermen, etc. To commemorate this legend, one Monsieur Aveyrous decided to give his biscuit the form of a boat. Finally, the metal container that is used to carry incense in the Catholic liturgy is in French referred to as a "navette". Come to think of it, the scallop shell form used for stoups is also used in Western iconography as a kind of boat (think of Botticelli's Bith of Venus), bringing us back to Madeleine, or Magdalene, who arrived in Provence in a tiny little boat....
Whatever the case, most of these theories give spiritual origins; not so shocking when we consider again that the "main man" of Western Civ is metaphorically referred to as bread and consumed in bread form in the Communion rite.
There are other cakes that come to mind. For a long time I was a great devotee of the "galette St. Michel", a small buttery cookie, not especially delicious. I liked it because it was the only cookie I'd ever seen which featured such a striking design: St Michael standing on the Devil's neck, thrusting a lance into the vanquished rebel. This cookie is from Brittany and may recall a Breton legend where the Devil, jealous of St. Michael, challenges the latter to....a jumping contest. Ready, set, go! The Devil plummeted into a canyon, but Michael, borne by pinions of air, floated safely across, coming to land on a mountaintop that still bears his footprint (shades of the Dome of the Rock, said to bear Mohammed's footprint). Devil, as Jack Black said so wisely, You can't win!
This was all triggered by a recent random encounter with an Oreo. A Canadian colleague was eating some and I wondered where she'd gotten them (being in France and all) and apparently, our office vending machine, um, vends them. So I bought myself a packet and before consuming it, looked at it closely in nostalgia. Lo and behold, I noticed that the Oreo name was surmounted by a Cross of Lorraine and what appeared to be 12 Maltese crosses. Those latter are in fact four-leafed clovers but the Cross of Lorraine is just that. It's a copy of the Nabisco logo, in fact. Maybe I've read too many of Boyd Rice's esoteric writings, but that Cross of Lorraine always geeks me out on the Merovingian mythos.
Funny that these symbols have also stoked the paranoid fantasies of the truly deluded. Researching this symbolism I came across people calling this the "Illuminati cookie" because the Cross of Lorraine is the symbol of the 33rd degree Mason or because the Nabisco logo could be seen as an eye in a pyramid. Trouble is, the Cross of Lorraine is not a Masonic symbol. It is symbol associated with Joan of Arc though. Maybe food companies have a thing for her. We recently posted about Joan of Arc beans made by Underwood.
Finally, I was at a wedding in Barcelona in June and at a dinner hosted by the bride's parents, the mother told us of a festival in her village in honor of Saint Agatha. It involved quite a few things, but what stands out is that the people of the village baked cakes shaped like breasts, brought them to the church to be blessed, then distributed them afterwards. Agatha, patron of bakers, among other things, is often pictured holding her own breasts on a platter, which were sliced off in her martyrdom.
So, sometimes cigar is just a cigar, but a loaf of bread can be something else...
Another coincidence is that the only Jack Chick cartoon tract I own is called "The Death Cookie" and relates how the Devil has tricked Catholics into worshipping the host instead of Jesus himself. Aside from the literal Devil thing, he may have a valid theological point, but since I'd just as soon not promote Jack Chick, let's just leave it at that.
Coming back to France, how could I forget the galette des rois? This cake is consumed on and around Epiphany to honor the Three Wise Men. It can be like a large donut or a disc, but inside there is always a "fève", or bean, which is now not literally a bean but a small porcelain figure that could be anything from a soccer ball to a Smurf, or even a religious figure such as a shepherd or a Wise Man.
The person who receives the slice of galette with the fève then gets to wear a crown and is "king for a day". I'm too afraid to peep into my copy of The Golden Bough to cite the many pre-Christian precedents for this idea of the temporary king, they're far too plentiful. The festival I mentioned earlier about the bread breasts of Saint Agatha also featured electing two young girls as queens of the festival. It occurs to me that Miss America pageants, where a young beauty is crowned as the queen, as well as the whole homecoming/prom king and queen business, certainly have forgotten roots in these pagan festivals. The king for a day idea can also be traced back to the Roman Saturnalia via the Medieval Feast of Fools.