When I was a little kid, my Dad ran off to Europe for a short while, carting his bewildered family along for the ride. Once there, we discovered bread. Good bread. Bread with crusty shells and airy centers, bread that came with beautiful sliced ridges on their tops, bread that cracked as it cooled on bakery shelves.
There was bread back in the states, of course. Wholesome, pre-sliced, clean, white, soft, monotonous bread that came in a plastic bag with a twist tie. It was awesome–you could eat slice after slice and never feel full. This was the real bread of my childhood, but as I grew up and older, I kept a soft spot in my heart for quality bread. The grocery stores of my small town slowly began supplying better quality loaves… and by that I mean those pre-sliced garlic breads that you bake inside the aluminum bag.
“Our bread, mixed and baked, packaged and sold without benefit of accident of human frailty, is uniformly good and uniformly tasteless.” — John Steinbeck, Travels With Charley
There’s a notion in the US that “real” food and authenticity doesn’t exist cities, where stuff is fancied up with names borrowed from others countries, but in the country, because it’s where the good, old-fashioned, honest, earnest, salt of the earth people live, passing down recipes from generations before.
It’s a bright and idealistic view of country life, but it’s just not true. At least, it’s not true for a lot of rural America. A few pockets–sections of the Pacific Northwest and more affluent regions of the rural New England come to mind, along with a couple cultural small-town enclaves in the Midwest–have resisted or revitalized authentic small town living. For the most part, though, rural American food culture barely has room for homecooks in independent diners, because they’re out-competed by speedy food chains squatting alongside long stretches of freeway and main streets dictated by strip malls.
Authentic country/soul/comfort food has a much safer home in the cities. And alongside that Southern Fried Chicken, crock-pot macaroni, or grits and greens, is a spot reserved for a big, good, crusty piece of artisan bread. Portland, Oregon has excellent bread, as does Minneapolis. And look at the bread scene in San Francisco!
But in my pocket of Missouri, no such thing exists. There are no independent quality bakeries, not even Amish or Mennonite-run, and the only bread you can consistently buy is at the grocery store. Bread there reflects the Wonder bread of my childhood, and that ain’t good.
Since moving here, my bread appetite has shriveled but for a tiny outpost praying for a good artisan discovery, somewhere, anywhere. I’m not talking about biscuits and rolls, either. I mean bread, the good stuff, the kind that holds a sandwich without tearing or getting soggy in your hands. The kind you can dip without worrying about it disintegrating in your soup. The kind with substance.
“What is good bread? The commercial, factory-made breads with their sugar and preservatives, soft crust, and soft interior or crumb, are pale imitations. Good bread should have a fairy crisp crust and a soft interior, generally with irregular, slightly glazed holes.” — James Salter, Life is Meals
I finally caved and made my own. Here’s a close-up:
The recipe came from The Splendid Table thanks to contributions from the wonderful bakers behind The New Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day cookbook. Its ingredients mirrored what I’d once been told were the only ingredients you truly needed to make good bread: water, flour, salt, yeast. No sugar, no scalded milk, no fancy steps, no kneading or punching. That’s right: NO KNEADING OR PUNCHING. That’s good news for my tiny wrists and weak hands. Just mix together and wait. The baker’s website has a zillion great tips and videos showing how to “form” a loaf, and I also learned from them that you’re supposed to let bread cool (and thus cook) completely before eating, which I didn’t know. So many people talk about the delights of “oven-baked bread fresh from the oven” that I just assumed you’re supposed to cut into it. But I didn’t. I waited.
Waited until no one was looking.
The first bite blew my head off. For one thing, I couldn’t believe I was finally eating artisan bread in my own Missouri kitchen. Furthermore, I couldn’t believe I had actually made it with my own hands. It was so good that I didn’t bother taking a picture.
I knew that, left unsupervised, I would devour the entire loaf and skip dinner completely, so I wrapped it in a kitchen towel and took it down to Jon’s mother. Together, we slathered our pieces with salty butter and gobbled them down.
“Very, very good bread,” she told me.
I couldn’t help but think of the last time I ate artisan bread, last November, in Oregon, shortly before my grandmother passed away. She loved good bread, and I made a point to bring her a Kalamata Olive round from Big River Breads. The next morning, a Sunday, we skipped church, instead stood barefoot in her kitchen and ate the entire loaf.
As she cut our final slices and handed one to me, she said, “See? We didn’t need to go to mass. God is here. This is church.”