Lexie Smith has been making a lot of challah lately. Rather than twist her egg-rich dough into six-strand braids, she lets it run amok. Her loaves are wild—coiled into sinuous forms that, if you squint just so, resemble fallopian tubes or petrified magma or the albino python that keeps her company in her apartment in Ridgewood, Queens. Remnants of older bread sculptures fill her freezer. Most mornings, when she isn’t in Iceland or India or some other corner of the Earth, she thaws out a slice of something in her toaster. Smith is adamant about not wasting food. With rare exceptions, anything that appears on her Instagram feed or in a gallery is consumed, one way or another.
“Nothing I make lasts,” Smith tells me. “There’s already too much garbage on this planet.”
She’s sitting across from me at a Brooklyn coffee shop with both hands wrapped around a mug and a level, contemplative expression. Challah interests her because it’s so laden with symbolism—a challah with 12 humps represents either the 12 tribes of Israel or the 12 ceremonial loaves left in the Temple of Jerusalem, while a round, raisin-studded challah at Rosh Hashanah ushers in a sweet New Year. Smith is acutely aware of the history, even as she uses it to forge her own path.
“I’m working with bread that has so much tradition associated with it. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do it,” she says, before adding with a grin. “I’m Jewish, so I’m like, ‘I’m allowed to bastardize this.’”
Bastardize might be too strong a word, although it’s sometimes hard to find the right one for Smith’s body of work. Some artists work in paint or plaster; Smith’s preferred medium is gluten. Her asymmetrical, edible sculptures have landed her on “30 Under 30” lists for the Times and Forbes, and in places like Berlin, where she once filled a gallery in Neukölln with a forest of branches laden with Turkish simit and dense German Dinkelbrot to represent the uneasy symbiosis of the neighborhood’s two dominant cultures.
“I started thinking critically about bread because I’m obsessed with bread. I use that word very specifically because it kind of gets into you,” Smith says. “The way my brain works, I look at things from every angle in a way that’s kind of fractured and distracting, but ultimately sometimes reaps interesting results.”
At times, she seems as surprised as anyone about those results. Smith bakes with an urgency that defies rational explanation, leading to pieces that are sometimes beautiful, often deeply weird, occasionally figurative, and just as often not.
“I think it’s interesting that a lot of them end up being very phallic. There’s one that looks a lot like a uterus, but that’s never done intentionally,” Smith muses. “I use the sculptural element as a method to get people to pay attention to the conversation. It’s the tip of the iceberg. The meat of it, the stuff I really care about, is exposed through connecting people to their own relationship to bread and a social history that’s been with us for thousands of years.”
Smith, now 30, is still baking, but with a greater sense of purpose and an ideology she describes as increasingly radical. Whether she’s making challah or hundreds upon hundreds of chapatis, as she learned to do during a recent stint in Rajasthan, her work is grounded in extensive research and a deep-rooted appreciation for the cultural significance of her material. At the moment, she is gearing up to teach a workshop at the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam on the sociopolitical history of bread and its relationship to peasantry and power.
“It’s fun to see the different colors that have represented wealthy people’s bread over the years. It was white bread—as white as you could get. Now we want sourdough, local heirloom grains, freshly milled, $15-a-loaf, slow-fermented,” Smith says. “You see the spectrum bending back on itself. This is why I’m interested in bread as a barometer of social change. If you look at bread, you have to look at subsidies and revolts and taxation. Bread has never really been simple.”
When Smith was newly 22, she sold banana bread at a farmstand in Hana, the tourist town at the end of a scenic, 52-mile road that hugs the volcanic curves of Maui’s coastline. New York University had cast her into the world with a liberal arts degree. Smith had spent her college years writing, drawing, and baking with an intensity that she describes as compulsive. With nowhere to focus her creative energy and no other way to make money, she packed her bags, and agreed to work for a farm in exchange for room and board. Days settled into an easy rhythm—rise at 6 AM, bake, drive the truck down the road, repeat—until she met a guy on the beach.
“Basically, we fell in love in a day and a half. He had a company in Dallas. I had seashells braided in my hair and was living in a tent in Maui,” Smith remembers with a laugh. “I ended up getting on a flight two days later.”
The pair settled in Marfa, Texas, where Smith started a small baking company to support herself. She filled her days by selling pastries at farmers’ markets. When she started to go stir-crazy, they moved again to Austin. Although her only restaurant experience had been in the front of house, she managed to lie her way into a French-Vietnamese restaurant, where she spent a few years elbow-deep in baguettes and croissants. She knew she had found a calling in baking, but not in the grinding, repetitive framework of kitchen life.
By the time she made her way back to New York, Smith no longer had to fake her chops in the kitchen. She landed a job at the now-defunct El Rey on the Lower East Side, which gave her the creative space to experiment. While Smith will read recipes by the hundreds, she has always had an aversion to using them. Instead, most of what came out of her oven came from an amalgamation of her own research and ideas.
“During that time, that was when the convergence happened,” she says. “I was in this liminal space between a history of making visual stuff and sacrificing everything to work in kitchens. I’d been trying to hopscotch between the two and feeling really bereft and resentful and reluctant in every direction because there was this whole other part of me that was being silenced and didn’t allow for the other thing to survive.”
A way to combine her interests came about in 2015, when a friend asked her to participate in a group show at a pop-up gallery in SoHo. There were no specifications on what she should contribute, so Smith baked 15 loaves of sourdough and stacked them into towers. Next to the piles she laid out a bowl of honey, a bowl of oil, cubes of softened butter, and wooden utensils she had carved. Then she stood and waited, politely informing anyone who asked that they could eat it.
“They wanted it, but there was always this tension between wanting it and having it,” she says. “If you’re in a setting like this, people tend to stray away from indulging.”
When Smith ordered a friend to break rank and start eating, the whole supply and all of her backup loaves vanished in 15 minutes. Just as the feeding frenzy prompted a rupture in decorum, it also broke down social barriers.
“The reaction that I got from people was so much stronger than I expected. What it did was it made people feel very close to me when they ate this bread that I had made,” Smith says. “They started telling me stories about their family and their lives and their relationships to it and how that relationship had changed.”
Nothing she had ever made or done had elicited such a reaction, which made her think about what else she might be able to do in this realm.
“I kept thinking about that experience and also started utilizing the medium as my singular conduit for visual and critical thought,” Smith says. “I found that it was sort of endless in what it was able to represent.”
Though at times abstract, what grounds most of her representation is a fascination with tradition. It’s what led her to create Bread on Earth, a rough and constantly evolving compendium of regional breads she someday hopes to translate into an interactive digital map. Much of the project still lives in spreadsheets, where she’s constantly compiling new recipes from geographically distant friends, from her own travels, and from online forums. She steers clear of cooking sites, preferring less tidy corners of the internet. While there’s plenty of space in her notes for airy-crumbed sourdoughs and the like, many of the recipes in her files are variants on flatbreads cooked in embers or over live fires or other contraptions common in places without Western-style ovens.
“There are endless amounts of breads that are hyper-specific to certain regions. What I found interesting is that so many of them are similar and yet deeply felt as unique to these communities,” Smith says. “There may be a bread in Somalia that is nearly identical to a bread in Romania or Yemen, yet members of those communities will still say, ‘That’s ours.’ It’s incredibly resonant and personal, but it’s also universal.”
A fear of losing the specifics and histories behind these breads is part of what drives her. Smith is inherently distrustful of any systems that would capitalize on a foodstuff that’s fed the masses of the world for generations by somehow making it elite. When gluten-phobia was at its zenith, she argued against it, both because of the confusion it spread about celiac disease and the fact that a multibillion dollar industry was pushing people to buy its products based on pseudoscience.
“It’s remarkable that there is a huge industry that’s telling us to behave a certain way, then profiting from that behavior, and it’s not considered suspicious,” Smith says. “The reason I started crusading for bread is I wanted people to ask better questions.”
Questions animate her. They’re part of what forces her to continue to make time and space for bread in the midst of an already busy schedule. As one might imagine, making art from bread doesn’t pay the bills and Smith’s days are an uneven checkerboard of consulting, editing an indie food magazine, and modeling. Even in these other arenas, the full force of Smith’s personality shines through. In a recent campaign for a New York jewelry collection, she appears bare-faced and soft-lit; one shot depicts her with her pet python wrapped around her neck, in another, she gazes out at the viewer with unflinching eyes and an entwined challah covering her naked torso.
Through it all, she keeps trying to bring bread back to its egalitarian roots. On a trip to Portland, she passed out dime bags of dehydrated sourdough from the starter she has been cultivating and quietly spreading around the world for the past three years.
“Sourdough is an accumulation of the air and your direct environment and feedings over years and years and years. Really, it’s accumulation of knowledge or experience,” she says. By giving it to strangers in dried form, she hopes people will be less afraid of killing it and more inclined to use it. “We have more access to information than we’ve ever had and less access to knowledge. I look at both the recipe and the experience of making bread as a means of tapping into intuition, taking your time and attention away from a market that can use it.”
Smith’s idea of slowing down involves actively engaging with her work. As someone who is accustomed to living and working in several spheres all at once, she relishes the chance to focus on a single task at hand. And after all this time and all this research, bread is the one task that still manages to astonish her.
“You ultimately don’t have control, you’re relying on these other things that are alive that you’re attempting to incubate,” she says, as a slow smile spreads across her face. “Every time I bake bread and it works, I’m astounded. It’s utterly amazing.”
This article originally appeared on Munchies US.