Bread Alone

American bread is awful.
(Declaimed strongly if not quite loudly,
declaimer being in America.)

All generalizations are rubbish.

Much like American bread.
(Muttered weakly.)

Hey! Cut that out.

OK, OK. But for years I have tried to find good bread in standard American supermarkets–even in stand-alone neighbourhood bakeries (stand-offish? I never know) –and I have failed. No matter where I find it, the bread is much of a muchness.

First, let’s correct any misapprehension that I might be a difficult customer. I am not a generalized super-taster with an unusually refined palate. I am not a specialized bread connoisseur (connoissuese? No, except archaically or informally; in part, surely, because that would lead to connoisseuses, an aural abomination in either Official Language.) I do not bake my own sourdough bread, the only sister of three so afflicted.

But I do like good bread: crusty, flavourful, a chewy-not-gluey texture, and not sweet unless specifically designed to be so for an express purpose like, say, bread pudding or French toast. Decidedly not, say, for sandwiches or dinner rolls. Bread meeting these specifications is hard to find in America.

It’s not just me. Per my disclaimers above, many people are pickier than I (bread, we’re talking about bread here). There are whole threads online on This Very Topic. To save you time, I offer here the coup de grâce, the not-the-first-but-the-last word in one of those threads by Jim Chevallier, a qualified Bread Guy and author of Before the Baguette (among others). Is he writing *as* an American, which would save this from being rude or chauvinistic? I think so. His name certainly seems French but he lives in LA County and he writes in colloquial English. (If the whole screenshot is too much information, jump to its last two paragraphs, but don’t blame me if the pop quiz is a problem for you as a result.)

A few weeks ago I chose a new bakery to try (by relative proximity, mostly–that’s what learned helplessness will do for/to you), and had one of those happy accidents: I stumbled upon better bread. Just plain, white, sliced bread. Unsweetened, hallelujah (they had a “honey wheat” option that I eschewed, this not being even my fifth rodeo).

On my second visit, I fell into conversation with the cashier, something generally easier to do in America than in Canada. As I had waited for him to finish conversations with the few people in front of me (nothing–not even a national characteristic–is all good or all bad), I had noticed that some of their products–hearth breads, they called them–appeared on their sign but not on their shelves. When it came to be my turn at the till, I had some tough questions for Buddy. Were these unseen breads only to be had by special order? On special days? By special customers? Say it wasn’t so.

It wasn’t so.

Buddy led me to the front of the shop, before the on-the-one-hand showcases of brownies, sugar cookies, and lemon tarts, and on-the-other-hand racks of bagged bread, where he showed me unbagged loaves ruggedly retaining the crustiness of their crusts, per Jim. Hearth breads, in the vernacular. They were piled on shelves behind the counter, hygienically out of reach of customer hands. A few minutes later–after a suitable time in conversation–I walked out with one loaf of Asiago bread in my hands.

I am now here to say that Jim the Bread Guy writes truly: One can find lovely bread in America.

I am here to say this, too: We do not live by bread alone. We require Thai salads, too.

Hey! Cut that out!

OK, OK. I’ll be serious. Although we don’t live by bread alone–not metaphorically or literally–it’s still good to have good bread. I likely wouldn’t have thought of that Biblical quote (Deuteronomic in the first instance) except for the sign on the bakery door, which I offer here in a crummy shot.

This, too, is easier to find in America than in Canada, “this” being “willing to highlight the making of a business decision based on something more important to you than money.”

Finally, I am here to say this: I wonder what good things Americans miss, what they struggle to find, when they come to Canada?

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15 Responses to Bread Alone

  1. Jim Taylor says:

    Given your comments on American bread, I suspect that the quotation could also be stated as, “Anyone who attempts to live on bread alone shall surely die.”

    They (whoever “they” is/are) used to put prisoners on “bread and water.” It can’t have been American bread. Might as well put them on cotton batten.

    Jim T

  2. Judith Umbach says:

    English bread isn’t so great either. And in Tuscany they still make bread without salt, due to a tax dispute back in the mists of time. Moroccan bread baked in a community stone oven is the best!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Judith – Here’s to Morocco! I suppose there are lots of apps that tell people what food/drink not to miss when they go somewhere. If not, we should start one.

  3. Tom Watson says:

    Move to Guelph! There’s a Polestar Bakery here that makes all kinds of bread from sourdough. Delicious.

  4. John Whitman says:

    Isabel: There is no accounting for different national tastes. In Canada, McDonald’s coffee isn’t bad. In the US, McDonald’s coffee is sort of like mud.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John- Fair enough. No accounting for taste at any level, really. I worked with a guy who moved to Turkey to work and he was really amused comparing good coffee in Turkey with what we accepted here, so there are lots of different perspectives.

  5. Talk about being in sync across the miles, yesterday I was bemoaning the nasty changes in even meh! bread from our “there’s a bakery in it” grocery store, and Dan said, “Let’s make our own again.” So, here we go. Thanks for the nudge!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – 🙂 Excellent! Let us know how things go. As for synchronicity, maybe there are seasonal influences on our food preoccupations? I don’t much care about bread in the summer . . .

  6. bcarlson says:

    My sister dreamt she was abducted by aliens. “They gave me bread. It was SO good — I KNEW bread could taste better than what I’d ever been able to buy in the stores.” (She lives in California.)

  7. Mary Gibson says:

    Excellent piece! I could put you on my sourdough mailing list….

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