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A Personal History of Bread Part 1.Supreme Slices.

The bread bakery of my childhood was housed in a large brick building with a flat roof and lots of windows. It was located on a corner at the intersection of two non-perpendicular streets and thus had an odd shape, the front more like the prow of a ship than a storefront. The bread baked inside was invariably and uniformly white, pillowy, and sliced. Gaily painted panel trucks delivered the bread to grocery stores and neighborhood markets throughout our small city in plastic bags, the labels of which listed the many vitamins and minerals — and preservatives — with which it was enriched.

My friends and I passed this bakery often on our way to and from what we called downtown, meaning Main Street from the square where the hotel was located up to the library several blocks above. The air around the bakery was suffused with the aroma of baking bread and we’d make a great show of inhaling the comforting scent on the way by.

In our house, bread was stored in a deep drawer with a metal slider on top. Our neighbors put theirs in a green metal bread box decorated with peeling stencils of apples and pears. No matter where it was stored, the bread of my childhood was virtually immutable. It didn't mold or harden, but remained its white, fluffy self from first slice to last. My grandmother saved bread bags, cut them into long thin strips and crocheted the strips into carry-alls. Like the bread that came in them they were indestructible.

Toast was a staple of my childhood and this bread made great toast. Each uniform slice fit perfectly into the toaster slots and popped up golden brown and ready for a lavish application of peanut butter or jam or cinnamon sugar. Alas, it was woefully ill-equipped for the vicissitudes of a child's lunch box. Rarely did it survive intact the trip to school and the ensuing knocking about in one's desk. One's tuna sandwich was in peril if accompanied by so much as an Oreo cookie and the ravages visited upon said sandwich by a rogue apple could put the hungriest kid off her feed. Every lunch time half a dozen ruined sandwiches hit the garbage bin, the bread reduced to an unappetizing doughy glob, the filling squashed against the sides of the baggie.

When I was in high school, my grandmother retired from her factory job and returned to the bread baking of her childrearing years. Her loaves were, literally, the greatest thing since sliced bread, lovely creations whose golden-brown crowns rose majestically above the rims of the loaf pans, gleaming with brushed egg white, their centers chewy and tender and flavorful.

Rather than spend our thirty minute lunch amid the mayhem of the school cafeteria, my best friend and I chose to hurry to my house where my grandmother had lunch waiting for us. On bread baking days we feasted on thick buttered slices or crusty rolls hot from the oven. Other days, toasted tuna or egg salad sandwiches sated our appetites while steaming cups of tea or instant coffee warmed our cold hands and revived our flagging energy.

Those nourishing and nurturing lunches of high school were but a pleasant memory during my early college days. In the university dining hall, sliced white bread was a staple. Bland, reliable, and abundant it was a dependable alternative to the

unpalatable servings of mystery meat smothered in congealed gravy on offer most dinnertimes. Sophomore spread was the price we paid for the endless peanut butter sandwiches we consumed in lieu of the cafeteria fare.

It wasn’t until the Back to the Land Movement of the 1970’s, that the supremacy of sliced white bread began its steep decline. It proved to be no match for the muscular stone-ground loaves of the new age.

1 Comment

Ellen Angell Sholk
Ellen Angell Sholk
Dec 10, 2022

The description of the bakery‘s “bready” aroma wafting in the air of your hometown brought back memories of the Sunbeam bakery near my childhood home. In fifth grade, our class went on a field trip to watch how the bread was made. We were thrilled to each receive a whole loaf of bread as we left the building, as a memento of our experience.

Every culture on Earth has its own version of bread. It’s a food that links us all to one another, just as your grandmother’s homemade bread kept you close to her as you grew up.

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