Friday, January 29, 2010

Bread is life!

If anyone has seen the great New York movie "Moonstruck," then you will know that Nicolas Cage plays Cher's love interest–Ronnie the baker–who, in a hissy fit about his brother, Johnny, yells out "What is life? They say bread is life! And I bake bread, bread, BREAD!"

Well, I don't know about the metaphysicality of bread, but I do know that while it is the seemingly simplest and most basic food, good bread is quite possibly one of the most satisfying things on this great earth. The smell of it alone is enough to drive me into a frenzy, and there is nothing like squishing your teeth into a perfect slice of challa bread or the crumble of a warm brioche.

Last Sunday, and a rainy one at that, I shuffled down to the nearest Le Pain Quotidien to finish up some editing. This book is a very moving history of the town of Trochenbord which was completely destroyed during the Holocaust, and while I knew exactly how things ended, I was moved to near tears all the same, and then went and bought the biggest baguette they had for sale to lift my spirits.

So there I was, scooting home in the drizzle, sans umbrella, trying to keep my baguette and my manuscript dry. Luckily, before I left, I bought a tub of their Noisella, a chocolate-hazelnut spread that makes Nutella taste like shoe scrapings. Smooth and velventy, without the slight processed after-taste of preservatives that I always experience with Nutella, Noisella was the perfect compliment to the simple slice of baguette on that rainy afternoon. I sat there on my sofa typing out my notes, trying in vain to keep the brown Noisella off of my pristine white laptop (and the sofa).

Why is it that bread and some sort of spread has this kind of comforting effect on us? Is it because it can meet so many different gastronomical needs? It clearly helped my mood the other day, and when I was growing up, I had two slices of whole wheat toast and butter each morning, washing down with an orange juice before swim practice at 4am. Carbs to give me energy, butter to stick it to my ribs, and a bit of orangy sunshine to make me forget that I was so tired I was actually worried I might drown.

And there is no better post-workout treat than a bagel. Period. Wheat or everything, raisin or salt, toast that bad boy up with a little butter or cream cheese or just eat it plain, and it's like those three hours of living hell never happened (almost). I once heard from a cabbie that as he was driving a man back to JFK (he was a former New Yorker now living in L.A.), he had the taxi stop in front of the Ess-A-Bagel on 1st Ave, and, with the meeter running, went in and bought 200 bagels, which he then put in a special suitcase to take back to California with him.

My father has a special bread box, filled with dark pumpernickel, tangy rye, soft sourdough, which he will tear into as soon as he gets home from work and enjoy with a bit of Italian vinaigrette. My mom prefers a thinly sliced baguette with brie. My brother and even the pugs are rye fanatics. Dogs love rye bread. I'm serious. It isn't just the pugs. We had a mastiff who would come barreling through the house, all 180lbs of her, the second she heard that distinctive crinkle of the wrapper being opened. It was like mania. The golden retriever next door couldn't get enough of it either, and her owner used rye bread to train her to stop running through the electric fence over to our house, where, presumably, there was even more rye bread to be found.

Anthony Bourdain kept rehiring a man who was certifiably insane (a drug addict who would show up to work with sperm on his shoe, and that was on a normal morning) despite repeated incidents of insubordination, quite simply because he made the most fantastic bread he had ever tasted. People were coming into the restaurant specifically for this bread. They even started a whole mail order system just so people could enjoy this magic bread in their own home. (For more stories like this, do read his Kitchen Confidential. It is laugh out loud funny and an unparalleled look into the NYC culinary underbelly).

Perhaps the deceptive simplicity of bread reminds us of being a kid, and childhood, in many ways, is deceptively simple. Not to get all Jungian, but this has got to be the case with Vronsky. Bread with jam and butter is his holy trinity. I will forever have this image of him in a London hotel room two years ago, rumpled with jet lag, sitting in pile of bread crumbs, empty jam jars strewn about, with a near beatific look on his face. I swear he had jam in hair. All he needed was a toy dinosaur in his hand. Ah, the answer to my hearts duet.

I suppose the magic of bead will remain one of life's little mysteries. There will be as many ways to enjoy it as there are days in the year, and making my own tartines, garlic bread, even biscuits, will still not be half as enjoyable as poking around bakeries, enjoy someone else perfect creation. All I know for sure is that I'm home for the weekend, pug at my side, trying my best to keep the bread crumbs (challa this time) out of keyboard.


  1. Love the pics of the food. Very thought provoking ideas. keep them coming.
    This is great blog. If you enjoy sartorialist you will enjoy this blog too.

  2. That looks great! I shall definitely check it out. Thanks for the kind words and encouragement!