catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 21 :: 2010.11.19 — 2010.12.02


Good bread

I grew up in a household where bread was like gunpowder, something to be mixed and measured with care.  There was always bread at the table where we ate family dinners together, whether it was honey wheat loaves with darkened crust or quick-rise, starchy biscuits.  But the carbs always had to be counted, because my dad has had diabetes for most of his life, and too much or too little sugar could tip the balance in his bloodstream.

He knows how to take care of himself, and my mother is always there to tell him how many carbohydrate exchanges are in that steaming heap of potatoes, stuffing, mac and cheese.  But if my dad was “low,” the sugar drained from his veins, he would become slow and detached.  Stopping halfway up the stairs.  Unable to judge his own condition and counter it.

So my mom would rush to the kitchen and pour a syrupy glass of orange juice to coax into his hand, or rummage through the glove box for the film canisters he always kept ready, filled with candy corn and pale breath mints.  If she woke up in the middle of the night and found the number on her husband’s blood sugar monitor falling, or if he ate a cinnamon roll for breakfast and had to take a shot of insulin to stabilize himself, bread was to blame. 

As a child I learned bread was good though dangerous, something to be tempered, but later it became my personal nemesis.  I feared its doughy expansion in my stomach, the same way rice or bad bread swells in the stomachs of hungry sparrows, pressing against their twig frames until they break.  I feared that the contours and thickness of the food I ate would show up on my body when what I wanted most was a flat-bellied profile.  At 13, I wanted my ribcage empty, pure and unpolluted.  I was not diabetic, but I created a counting ritual of my own. 

Seven years later, I am sitting in a café next to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, a croissant crowning my plate with gold. Coming here is my weekly treat, a break from my daily work at the hostel to enjoy a cup of coffee and journal about my encounters in this wild, enchanting city.  The café is in the lower level of a canal house, and the warm lighting and wood beam ceiling boast an old world kind of beauty.  In the mornings as I bike by on my way from the staff house to the hostel, the smell of baking bread sifts through the rain and into the street.

It should take at least half an hour to eat a croissant, this is what I’ve learned.  The papery shell is dynamic, it requires attention; too messy and too delicious to eat in the American drive-thru style.   In high school, after counting carbs and calories during the day, sometimes I would go down to the kitchen at night and eat hurried handfuls of salty snacks in the dark.  I ate mechanically, in a way that is the perfect antithesis for what I now believe eating should be, not tasting, unfeeling, in solitude.  Then I would wipe the oily crumbs off my hands and bury my shame in sleep. 

But a croissant is not meant to be consumed, it is meant to be unfolded.  You have to sit, savor; take and eat.  At my table in the corner, I pour a little cream into my cup and break open the layers, my fingertips now glossy with an anointing of butter. 

That was the summer I learned to cook, the summer I went from scrambled eggs and grilled cheese to setting the table for thirty, as I was suddenly thrust into the responsibilities of cooking staff dinners at the hostel.  I was left to myself for six hours in a kitchen where all the ingredients were labeled in Dutch — more than a challenge for a food novice.  Not only did I have no idea how to make a white sauce, I also had to decipher the spice cabinet, careful not to sprinkle in knoflook (garlic), when the recipe called for suiker (sugar).

But as I tied my apron strings I also discovered a whole new way of creating.  Cutting an onion became an aesthetic event.  Flour, tomatoes, and vinegar became my new palette, as I found that my hands could knead and sculpt such elements into tactile art forms that fed those who came to the table.  I made spaghetti sauce from scratch, bought summer squash from the flower markets on the canals, and grew a pot of basil in the oversized Dutch window in the kitchen.  In my younger years I had trained my body to anesthetize itself, fearing that taste would awaken hunger.  But now, with my hands elbow-deep in color and texture, food became sensual — a raw, creative form that I could shape into something that could nourish the hungry; that could nourish myself.

Back in the States, I miss the Dutch words I learned from the pantry and I miss the croissants.  But I still come to the table, hungry for bread.  I choose a church where I can come every week, as the pastor invites us to cups of red wine and round artisan loaves.  Take and eat.  I stand in line and walk forward, we all like beggars in a soup kitchen, holding out our hands and hungry hearts for so fine a feast.

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