The Busted Staff of Life

A former executive in the automobile industry in Detroit, LEE ANDERSON organized his own advertising agency in 1928 and retired in 1941 to divide his time between Nantucket Island and Woodstock, Vermont.

FOOD

by LEE ANDERSON

NOT all dietitians are in agreement with that estimate of our forefathers which made bread the staff of life. But none will deny that it is still a desirable part of every complete meal; though in these days when the nation is striving to send wheat to starving Europe, few will insist on toast or sweet rolls with breakfast; rolls, Vienna slices, biscuits, or loaf bread for luncheon; sliced bread, ice-box rolls, or sandwiches for tea or between-meals snacks; bread bases for most of the hors d’oeuvres with cocktails; bread, rolls, or one of several varieties of biscuits for dinner.

In view of the wide public acceptance of commercial breads which have the airy consistency of cotton, and all the tastelessness of shredded newsprint (indeed, those addicted to paper chewing are found generally to prefer newsprint to the modern loaf, for flavor if not for vitamin content), the wonder is that we continue to make bread so important an adjunct to our meals.

The lessened importance of bread as an edible is not so much the fault of bread itself— that is, good bread — as it is of the impaired taste of the hurried and harried eater who allows himself to be fed the mass-production ersatz breads which are today the rule, rather than the exception.

What our larger bakers seem to have done is to sublimate the old-time Vienna bread, adding some vitamins and calling it homemade, until it has the airiness of a tasteless gas surrounded by a crust of less crustiness than the waxed paper in which most bread is now wrapped.

There is no intention here to quarrel with the food (and medicinal) properties of modern bread. It may well be more digestible than the bread our mothers and grandmothers used to bake each week-end, more nourishing, more scientifically pure, more enriched with those essential substances which make hair grow, eyes see better, bones get harder, and which we all absorb daily — so the advertisements assure us —through all the laboratory-prepared foods that grace our tables.

But Grandma’s bread was bread — light enough to rest easily on Grandpa’s weak stomach, solid enough to satisfy the appetite of a thresher. And if Grandpa had to wear “specs” at sixty-five, and lost all his teeth at eighty because his diet was deficient in vitamins, no one ever complained that the bread was at fault.

Gone, too, with these luscious homemade loaves are other substantial and tasty favorites: “salt rising” bread which almost no one under fifty has ever tasted; rolled oats and wheat flour bread, wonderful with new maple syrup, or honey; the baked in ashes rye loaf, with its salty, almost sour, flavor; creamy rich French loaves, three feet long and almost all crust; flat, round loaves of German bread (gray, indeed, but supreme with a thick slab of cheese in place of butter); sweet hickory nut bread; moist, yellow corn loaves (not to be confused with johnnycake) with a tobacco-brown crust, crumbly and nearly an inch thick; sweet graham bread made with molasses and raisins.

Once in a blue moon, some of these epicurean loaves can still be found: on farms sufficiently remote from commercial bread delivery for the tradition of home breadmaking to have survived, now and then in foreign settlements in our big towns, or rarely in some little bakery in which the old craft still persists.

If one is fortunate enough these days to find a cook at all, just try to get her to bake the family bread. Breadmaking, except in great factories, is a dying art. And like any art which is run off the production line, the factory product is a chromo.

I know of one large bakery (in Connecticut) which still produces bread that is a satisfactory facsimile of the bread that Mother used to bake; and for four years I have had its white and whole-wheat loaves shipped weekly across half a dozen states. I have gained thereby a wide reputation for the performance of a minor miracle, in addition to the satisfaction that comes from my family’s enjoyment of bread that is bread.

One suspects that the fluffy, paper-crusted, “enriched with vitamins,” and “homemade” labeled breads become insipid to the tastes even of those who have never eaten the more substantial and flavorful breads. How else can one account for the great number of “mixes” which have enjoyed a growing success during the past ten years? Either the mine run of commercial breads pall with continued eating, or the “mixes” owe their success to our national fever for short cuts and quick methods. Some of the biscuit, corn bread, and gingerbread mixes are very palatable substitutes; and for those unskilled in cookery, they greatly minimize the chances of baking failure.

But not even the best mixture can fully replace the true “drop,” “spoon,” or “baking powder” biscuit. Nor do they save any time in the making of at least the first two. Homemade drop biscuits—rich brown, nutty, and irregularly shaped as newly solidified lava — are, with a tart jelly and good coffee, worthy of the table of Lucullus himself. And a good cook can whip up a batch between the salad and the coffee.

As for the corn bread mixes, good johnnycake or the corn loaf calls for genuine stoneground corn meal. Piping hot, with plenty of butter and a jug of light and mild maple syrup, real johnnycake is all one needs for a feast.

Finally, in the general decadence of bread, there is that modern abomination, the “ready sliced” loaf. Of all the insults to a once honored food, presliced bread — limply resembling an honest loaf only because it is weakly jointed by a waxed paper envelope — must be the most humiliating.

Nothing so marks the regimentation of the public taste in bread at the nadir of mediocrity as the universality of factory-sliced loaves. No longer, if one depends for the staff of life on the great bread factories, may one choose the delicate eighth-inch slice with tea. A generation is growing up which will never know the appetizing delight of toast a quarter-inch thin.

French toast, if you have a cook or a wife who knows how to mix the dip and fry the slices to the exact golden nut-brown turn, becomes a gluey offense when made with pre-sliced bread.

Even in the shops where whole loaves are sliced to the buyer’s order, the pre-slicing operation serves only to promote staleness: and if one is able to get the slices thin, who ever heard of uniform slices for every bread purpose, or for every member of a family?

Good bread in the whole loaf, treated with respect and sliced as it is eaten, and as one desires it, above all other foods is good to the final crumb.

If we cannot get back to the close-grained, substantial deliciousness of the bread of our fathers, let us at least rise in our democratic might and demand the freedom to slice our own bread, as thick or as thin as we like it, and when we like it.