By Ken Bradbury
When Mom brought home the loaf of whole wheat bread we had assumed that the world had come to an end. We were raised on good old Wonder Bread and its various unhealthy cousins, but this stuff that Mom had picked up by mistake was sort of brownish and had actual seeds in it. It looked more like horse feed than bread. I learned years later that most Europeans call this store bought stuff “air bread.” This American version that most foreign bakers would never touch is “processed,” meaning just about all nutritional value is removed. In the 1940’s the government realized that factory bread amounted to nothing but white pulp so they enacted laws forcing bread companies to “enrich” their product, putting just a dab of chemical wholesomeness back into the stuff.
Of course to generations of Americans who were raised on peanut butter, baloney, and toasted cheese, this processed bread is the only way to go. In other words, if we can actually taste our bread we don’t like it. A French tour guide said that he once visited the U.S. and ordered a grilled cheese sandwich. He said it was made from Velveeta which is not actually cheese on processed bread which had all the nutrients removed. He said, “I wanted to see what it was like to eat like an American.” Ouch.
I always thought it was an old joke, a stereotype, but then I saw with my own eyes. I actually saw men in Paris buy a baguette, one of those long loaves of bread, then stick it under their arms on their way home from work. Under their arms. No wrapping paper. On hot days. When their little les enfants bit into supper did they think, “Hmmm. Tastes like daddy!”?
I once took a busload of Morgan County kids and adults on a tour of the Soviet Union back when it was called the Soviet Union. We went an entire week without seeing anything that resembled a piece of plain white bread, and I loved it. No, the kids turned up their American noses in most cases without even trying, but those who were adventurous enough to bite into a hefty hunk of Zavarnoy bread made without yeast or leaven, but malt. The stuff has a sweet sour taste that our local Bunny bread bakery has never dreamed of because it would never sell.
Another little band of travelers once accompanied me to a café in Rome that was actually located inside a bakery. I doubt that the Morgan County Health Inspector would approve, but they actually pounded out the bread dough right in front of you and the entire restaurant was filled with a flour-laden haze. If someone had lit a match we’d all have been blown to France. The bread tasted pretty common to me but it was so much fun to watch that I didn’t mind.
My grandma liked rye bread and if ham was on the menu then you could be assured that a basket of rye would be awaiting you at the far end of the table. I’ve always prided myself on being able to enjoy just about any time of food and especially the food offered by Grandma, but when it came to rye bread I opted to eat my ham naked … the sandwich, not me.
Anyone who’s dined at Lonzerotti’s knows that we have at least one famous bread in town. I once asked one of their cooks the secret to the restaurant’s famous bread sticks. He said, “We put more of the good stuff in it than anybody else.” What the heck does that mean? I guess the guy was sworn to secrecy.
Probably one of the most humorous bread incidents I’ve ever witnessed took place in a retirement home for nuns and priests in Springfield called the Villa Maria. I was taking part in a weekend retreat called Walk to Emmaus and the climax of the weekend was a beautiful and moving communion service. The Emmaus folks had imported some special bread made in a Wisconsin convent and the stuff was just about three notches above heavenly. I sat waiting my turn to go forward to partake of the elements and saw something very strange happening. Man after man would walk to the altar, rip off a piece of the loaf then proceed back to his chair as he ate it. But time after time then men would stop mid-altar, turn and look back at the bread. That stuff was fantastic and we all were left wandering if it was polite to ask for second helpings at the communion table.
Once the Farmers Market gets into full swing at the shopping center I hotfoot it out there to scoop up the homemade artesian bread made by a couple of my friends, Adams & Adams Inc. If you arrive after the sun comes up you’re out of luck. Life is too short to eat air bread.