Ode to the French Baguette

Intangible in cultural heritage, tangible in my mouth

An old man and a young boy, both in berets, ride a bicycle with two baguettes strapped to the back down a tree-lined street; the young boy is looking back over his shoulder at the camera.
Elliot Erwitt / Magnum

I remember you, baguette. I made thousands of you.

That’s one of the nice things about being a baker (which I was, for a few glorious years): You’re as ancient as Egypt, but you’re also Andy Warhol in an apron, mass-producing your art object. Baguettes in glowing dozens, repeating editions and series of baguettes, out of the great oven and onto the metal rack. How do they look? How do they sound? A field of grain right before the harvest will give off an audible creak or tick of readiness, as the loaded stalks gently grate against one another. At the other end of the process, the cooling baguettes sit on the rack and crackle with contentment. With completion.

Was I good at my job? You tell me, baguette. You were measuring me as I was measuring you: The bread judges the baker. Baking is not mystical. It’s scientific. Get the recipe right, do what you’re supposed to do, and something pretty close to the desired outcome will be achieved. But of course it is mystical, like everything else. The condition of the baker’s soul is alchemically involved. As above, so below. A jolly baker with a clearish conscience is going to have a better bake, and produce tawnier and juicier baguettes, than his chafing, pissed-off colleague. That’s a fact.

And you’re a diva, baguette. Prebake, at least. You’re high-maintenance. Your state of perfect proofedness, of ripeness for the oven, is about 45 seconds long. I exaggerate only slightly. The baker touches your surface, tests it, feels the energy quiver in the dough, the ballooning cells, the gassy bounce of your interior expansions, and makes the call. Too early and you’ll warp hysterically in the oven; too late and you’ll lie there in protest, doing nothing. Did the baker cut you properly, giving you those three diagonal slashes? If the razor went too deep, you’ll collapse. And how much steam do you need, for a nice glossy crust? The baker hits the button, floods the oven-deck with a gash of vapor—for how many seconds?

Postbake, you are robustness itself. Tough-skinned: Now you’re an implement, a weapon, a thing. You lend yourself to being torn apart by vigorous hands—the initial crusty resistance, and then the lovely rending of your gluten strings. And just about anything can be profitably stuffed inside you.

And now UNESCO has declared you an item of intangible cultural heritage. Congratulations. You mean a lot to me, baguette. I loved being a baker. And nothing I cared, at my sky-blue trades, like Dylan Thomas said. Not quite true: I cared about you.