Thursday, May 31, 2007

Bread: What We Used To Eat

Back in the mid-1970s, a Wesleyan professor was doing ethnomusicology field work in Indonesia, and like a good investigator he asked lots of questions. But his host and informant asked a question of his own. "What do you eat in America?"

The professor didn't answer right away. What to say? Our diet is so varied, how to sum it up? Nor did he wish to embarrass his host by describing America's extraordinary plenty, or by extension his own comparative personal wealth. "I don't know," he said. "Lots of things. Um...chicken?"

The Indonesian laughed. "No, no," he said, "what do you eat?"

Finally it dawned on the American that his host was curious about America's staple starch. Was it rice? Taro? Potatoes? That's what you eat. A chicken is a luxury item, party food, not a national diet. "Bread," said the professor finally. "We eat bread."

It wasn't exactly a lie. Although bread no longer holds the same place in Western cuisine as rice still does in Asia or potatoes did in pre-blight Ireland, it did once. "Give us this day our daily bread" was no mere synecdoche. Once, bread was food, and food was bread.

I've never forgotten Balzac's description, in "Lost Illusions," of a venerable Paris restaurant, Flicoteaux's, where impoverished students could eat for a few sous. The fare was not fancy, but the menu carried this irresistible item: "Bread at your discretion." All the bread you can eat! Unimaginable plenty. And to back up the offer, the tables were heaped with six-pound loaves, cut into quarters.

By bizarre contrast, I have more than once heard Americans complain about the basket of bread served in restaurants. "They want you to fill up on bread before the food arrives!" This is a sentence that could never, ever, have been uttered by a Frenchman in any century.

There's a stock character in classic Greek and Roman comedy named Artotrogus, or Bread-Eater. Artotrogus, thou shouldst be living at this hour!

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