By Bread Alone

A chance encounter with buckwheat tea leads to deep thoughts about bread, bread-like substances, and proverbs.


It started innocently enough.  Doesn’t it always?  It ended with yet another overwhelming spell on Dr. Google’s couch.  But I get ahead of myself.

If you find no fish, you have to eat bread.
Ghanaian proverb

Fish.  Yes, that’s where this story starts.  Brain dead from hacking through the proposal jungle for several days, I balk at planning and preparing an evening meal.  The Big Guy balks at passing on food entirely, so we drive to the sushi delivery place that’s well within walking distance, plunk ourselves at one of the few tables, and peruse the lengthy menu.  Well, given my remaining mental acuity, the Big Guy peruses the menu; I flip pages and look at the pictures.  Gyoza.  Rolls.  Tempura.  Unagi—is there a reason they’re not translating it?  What the heck is it?  Sashimi—oops, no, I know what the heck that is: a bridge too far is what that is.  I close the menu.   

Seeing there will be no help from my side of the table, the Big Guy makes the call.  Behind the counter, the (presumably traditionally costumed) young folks launch.

Several dumplings, shrimp tempura, and no-raw-fish rolls later, I am satisfied, sated, stuffed, in sooth.  While the Big Guy continues to munch, albeit at a slowing rate, I look up as one of our attendants arrives with a teapot. 

This tea is not for sale, she explains, it is something we drink.  Maybe you will like it too.

Assuring me it has no caffeine, she bows and heads back behind the counter, too polite to put me on the spot.  Not a fan of flowery or flavoured teas, I take a cautious sip.  And another.  It’s good: nutty, or something.

What kind of tea is this?

She’s back, clearing the table, and thinks for a minute.  Stumped for the word in English, she scampers back to the kitchen.  Returning with a big smile, she presses four teabags in the usual paper wrappers into my hand.

These are for you.

I can’t do anything but smile in turn and thank her.  Hoping for some English among the Japanese characters, I flip the teabags over.  Buckwheat.  Ah.  And then I think, What the heck is buckwheat?  I mean, I know it makes pancakes, and, now, tea, but what is it?

Back home, I sit down with the Good Doctor and get my answer: buckwheat is a plant related to rhubarb, cultivated for its grain-like seeds, and used in Asia for a whole whack of things.  Including, as one site advises me (though it has since gone underground, drat it), a ‘bread-like substance’.  Sounds yummy. 

I think, I’ll stick with the tea, and think no more about it.  Or so I think.

Two days later I take another mental-health break, this time at the grocery store.  Wandering by the bakery, I hesitate for just a second as I pass gluten-free two-bite brownies.  Chocolate always catches the eye, doesn’t it?  But my pause at the end-of-the-aisle display has allowed something else to wiggle its way into my subconscious.  Now down by the meat counter, I stop and look back, perplexed.  What did that label say?  I leave my cart where it will cause the most disruption—Hey, I’m just following the weekend shoppers’ protocol—and head back.  Yup, here it is.

A loaf of something shaped like bread and sliced like bread sports this label:  White bean with grape skin flour (certified organic).  Never mind the ‘white bean’ part, as strange as that is: I’ve never heard of using grape skins for anything other than flavour and colour in grape juice and wine (surely their highest use).  I mean, who would even think to dry them, grind them, and use them as ersatz flour, organic or not?  Bemused, I carry on, thinking how typical this is: We notice things in groups.  Buckwheat bread-like substance one day, grape-skin pseudo-bread the next. 

I think no more about it.  Or so I think.  But my subconscious likes to think for itself, and starts to throw out half-remembered bread quotes (Half a loaf being better than none?). 

Give us this day our daily bread.
Man does not live by bread alone.
Cast your bread upon the waters.
A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou.

That sort of thing.  And so the conscious I starts to wonder—Are there many quotes about bread?  I’m not going for rigour, here, it’s just idle curiosity.  I sit down with Dr. Google again: Think Exist, Brainy Quotes, Inspiration Falls.  Yikes.

We’ve got bread in more biblical quotes.  Jesus maybe had a thing about bread-as-metaphor, making the point that he was the bread of life not once or twice but three times in just one chapter (John 6: 35, 48 and 51).  Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them.  Apparently the realities of human attention span haven’t changed much in two thousand years.

We’ve got bread in proverbs from every ethnic group that ever lived on bread, and a few besides.

With bread and wine you can walk your road.  (Spanish)
Make bread while the oven is hot.  (Iranian)
Look for cake and lose your bread.  (Yiddish)
Bread and salt never quarrel.  (Russian)
If fools ate no bread, corn would be cheap.  (Dutch)
Begged bread has a hard crust.  (German)
Better dry bread in peacetime than meat in wartime.  (Hungarian)
The God who gave us bread will also give us teeth.  (Czech)
Another man’s bread will not fill your belly.  (Arabian)
If you have two loaves of bread, sell one and buy a lily.  (Chinese)

We’ve got bread in calls for social justice.

Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.  Nelson Mandela

We’ve got bread in inspirational personal messages.

If they can make penicillin out of mouldy bread, they can sure make something out of you.  Muhammad Ali

We’ve got bread in self-deprecating humour.

I don’t even butter my bread; I consider that cooking.  Katherine Cebrian

We’ve got bread in other-deprecating humour.

Some people who cast their bread upon the waters expect it to return as French toast.  Author unknown

But nowhere, in this whole glorious mess, have we got any bread-like substances.

What does it all mean?  In sooth, I’m not sure.  Something about the limits of human ingenuity, perhaps, or the folly of trying to have it all, or the commonality of the human experience as shown by common metaphors.  Or maybe, in a world where things get more complicated and high-falutin’ all the time, some reassurance that it really is the basics that matter most: in the bread and in the human connections.  At my age, though, I’m satisfied just to take away this comfort from a French proverb:

There is no old bread that cannot find its cheese.

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6 Comments

  1. Dr. Google — love it.
    I think of Google as Gawd.
    But as for the French saying, “There is no old bread that cannot find its cheese,” this is simply just not true. We had a very chewy, dense, nutty bread in the house and a friend had given us a cheese log. Nothing else to spread it on, we tried the dense bread. Mistake. The combination was somewhere between moist particle wall board and gum arabic.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Barbara – I defer to your knowledge of the taste/texture of particle board and gum arabic, but am surprised you do not know that proverbs are never wrong! In this case, it just means that the cheese log was not that bread’s cheese. Besides, I had a more figurative meaning in mind. Maybe the Big Guy should become the Big Cheese.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Greg – Ha! Didn’t think of that one! And yes, I guess the human condition and our collective inventiveness in self-distraction haven’t changed much.

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