More than a food, Bread rises with meaning in society after society. It begins with something magic, the rising of dough whether through using bought yeast or a natural (wild) yeast that simply starts the dough growing.
Recipes are ambiguous because of the need for skill in judging how to put together ingredients, and kneading the bread is a skill that must be acquired. Finally, the oven as a place of transformation enables more meaning. What goes in white and moist, comes out crispy and brown, outside, while fluffy and light inside.
You can imagine how the magic of bread must have been in early days where sometimes a mixture of ground grain and water started growing–as if filled with life, while sometimes it just lay there inert and unmoving. How would you explain the difference, how would you know what to do to avoid disaster the next time?
In a classic Malinowskian senses technical knowledge could never be completely enough and, as a result, the door is opened to all kinds of other explanations and rituals.
Though not indigenous to the Andes, since bread and its base, wheat, came with the Spanish, nevertheless Bread has become an indispensable part of life and something crusty and filled with meaning.
People may make bread elsewhere, but in the mind of the people of Cuzco, bread springs from the land and ovens of Oropesa, a town that lies perhaps a half hour by road from Cuzco, at the opposite end of the Huatanay Valley.
Besides this geographic importance, Oropesa was also important symbolically in the construction of post-invasion colonial society, since the Marquisate of Oropesa was a valued plum of status.
Nevertheless, as people talk today there is a more direct connection.
In a recent conversation, a man from Oropesa remarked on the importance of Oropesa’s pan chuta, it large round loaves of bread. These are justifiably celebrated in Peru for their flavor and as a symbol of Oropesa and Cuzco. But they are more.
As the man argued, Oropesa bread is a “key”, in that it unlocks many doors of social and ritual interaction. People take the bread to mark the obligation someone has been requested to take on to sponsor feasts for people. It also is given as gifts and carried far and wide throughout Peru, wherever the people of Cuzco travel, as an offering to family and hosts.
You give them the bread, said breadmaker, and they will host you. The bread, he felt, makes that possible.
People also give Oropesa bread as an offering to saints and other holy figures.
The daily bread of Cuzco may be the pan huaro, a bread that carries the name of a different place, Huaro, but the ceremonial bread is from Oropesa.
However, Pan Chuta cannot be made elsewhere. It is tied to the place of Oropesa, with all of its symbolic and ritual meaning. The man sustained this. “Many people from Oropesa have migrated to Lima. They know how to make our bread, our Pan Chuta, but when they make it in Lima it does not come out right. It is not the same. For some reason the bread must be made in Oropesa and only Oropesa.”
The secret of the bread, he holds, is the water with which it is made. This is not ordinary water. It filters up from the earth, the Pacha Mama, and does so through a rock formation that is shaped like a toad.
The toad has a long history in the Andes as a bringer of fortune and wealth. It is said to come up from underground, the place where wealth and good fortune originate and it is also associated with water.
In fact the basic idea that the Europeans glossed in Quechua as worship, much’ay, is an imitation of the pursed lips of the toad and its moving its mouth. Although now meaning to kiss, in its origins the word marked the way that in devotion people imitated this holy animal, nor just when engaging it, but also in devotion to all kinds of other holy figures and places.
Throughout the contemporary Andes, toads are much esteemed as bringers of wealth, those which solve the perennial problem of how to obtain more things, especially those you want and need, as well as how to obtain and keep good fortune.
In the case of the bread of Oropesa, following this man’s suggestion, the bread is a key. It carries with it a secret, the use of water from the toad, which can make the bread something that opens doors and makes good fortune, as well as brings wealth.
Bread has meaning. To the Spanish the growth of wheat in Oropesa may have been linked to the role of the Savior and his resurrection, life after baking, as maintained in the mass. It also may have signified a holy mean, the Last Supper, which through breaking bread became an image of relationship among people and relationships with the divine.
In Oropesa, it took on more meaning. It became tied to a specific place with its hsitory and set of local ties, such as to the city of Cuzco, by many means, including the specifics of local water–more than local wheat.
But more than any of that, the connection with the toad, locates bread in the problem of obtaining good fortune, a different kind of salvation from the European one after death. This fortune comes when a big, round of Oropesa bread is transported and given as a gift. In this way, Ayni–reciprocity– life in Cuzco is maintained.