I am hungry. There is an ache beneath my ribs and heart. It’s a fist that’s been clenched too long. The feeling is nowhere near unbearable - why exaggerate? - but I need to be rid of it. Some hungers are debilitating, and I could not bear that. My hunger must be the physical sort, because the other sort, the one that is made of thinking, would be the end of me. Yes, all I need is food as sustenance. For now, at least.
I am specifically, consciously, hungry for bread, so naturally I look around for it. We all know the story. It’s too ancient not to. Bread is a comfort food in so many places in the world. It has many shapes and ingredients. Its grains come from everywhere. It is the story of peoples since Antiquity. Holding it in our hands makes us feel good, even loved. By someone.
It will be perfectly fine if the bread I encounter, because here there is no shortage of it, serves as the outer portion of a sandwich. There are other options as well: toasted and buttered; paired with a fancy fondue sauce; in a bowl, torn up fine, with cold milk and sugar. (A dish my grandfather loved, but I never could swallow because I didn’t love him.) At lest my solution to hunger was not going to be a ready-made, pre-packaged, over-refrigerated sandwich from the grocery or convenience store. That was fortunate.
It is also a fact that Maine Street in Brunswick has a few places that sell excellent bread. I won’t name them because their names don’t matter as much as my knowledge of what they sell does. I mean, I am well aware of the choices each venue offers, and on what days the items are delivered. I even know about what time the loaves and rolls come in. Nobody would ever buy out my choice because I am pretty much always first in line.
You might say I’m a bit obsessed about bread and baking, but that would not be accurate. It has always been a habit with me, waiting for an adult to cut a slab of the still-warm loaf from two blocks further uptown. A slice an inch thick, moist and more than tepid, slathered with overly-yellow, overly-salted butter made by the Lebrecht family around the corner on a street whose name I can’t recall. Maybe I thought I hated the other bread we ate, that Wonder Bread with no taste or nutritional vale, a ghost of a loaf, probable second cousin to sawdust.
Yet we ate it. White trash. I grew up knowing only two types of bread.
The place I’m going to is not on Maine Street, but it’s close. All the Wonder Bread of the past is pretty insignificant in comparison with the manna that is in my hands. And Yet I carry every component of that past with me, convinced that I will never find a cure for nostalgia. The door jingles brightly as I tug on it, of course. All doors used to jingle, I think, reminiscing with the child I know so well.
The interior is worn wood, eclectic old things one might choose to buy, and an air of having been there forever, not just three or four years. Of course it is where it should be, that bread I have been craving. I have opened the door to the shop with Old World on shelves and in the deli case, but have a single purchase to make. For some reason had I had feared this would be the day my selection would be sold out. Fortunately, it this turns out to be an unfounded fear.
I have bought the large loaf with a good price, and find myself cradling the cylinder in a brown bag on my way home. (It was somehow nicer when I was a little girl waiting and her father was the one who brought it home. It tasted better when it had arrived with his grin, hearty laugh, and throat-clearing of a chain-smoker. Daddy.)
It is fresh, this bread. Its steam reminds me of its quiet presence.
This bread is always fresh. Still in the oven an hour ago. Its oven waiting to give birth.
And perfect. It’s a mystery how the pieces all come out the exact same size, with the exact same twists and slits. That’s muscle memory for you. Probably because the bread maker has many years of experience. That’s what I’m trying to say, I think. He is wise.
He knows his bread. Somebody told me his father was a baker, too, and so was his grandfather. Maybe farther back, even. Memory never lasts long in this country.
Keep the trade in the family, follow the footsteps of those who went before. That’s what used to happen, especially back in the Old Country, where children took up the occupations of their parents, learning first by intense observation. Generations to perfect a practice, whether it be culinary, woodworking, or some other art.
He knows about many types of bread the grains can make and he knows how to make them all, as long as he can obtain the right flour. Chestnut and acorn flour are hard to come by. Corn, wheat, rye - they are not.
Among other types, the old bread maker bakes khorasan, miche and anadama bread. The latter is the one I’ve chosen today. I pay for my purchase, move away from the counter, and begin to think.
I think about anadama and also about miche. It is not clear why these types of bread have become something to think about today. There is not much to know. Or is there? Anadama bread is known mostly in New England and miche bread is from Maine, mostly. I think. People say that, but nobody around here seems interested in knowing more. That part about miche being from Maine, which does have its share of ethnocentrocity, could be inaccurate. What if the Francos from Canada who moved down here were the original transporters? That would make it a Franco thing and people know they’re not like original, or real Mainers. Real Mainers don’t speak French and don’t get along with any other residents of the region.
Miche has to be a French word, I am thinking. I will have to look it up to be sure, however. I am not a fan of folk etymologies, as you will soon see.
And there we go! There is no surprise, none at all: Maine’s miche is not a local invention; it comes really from France. There, overseas in Europe, the country bread was called pain de campagne and miche more properly applied to it’s being baked in the shape of a round loaf. So miche is pretty certifiably a bread once - or still -,eaten by farm workers and the term simply drifted a bit as it crossed the Atlantic. Now for us the word refers to the flavor of the bread, or to the recipe, not the shape into which it is baked. That’s in France.
Anadama reminds me of a cross between miche and broa. The latter is the rustic Portuguese bread found everywhere. This might seem like a non sequitur on my part, but it really is relevant. I actually know broa better now than I do Wonder Bread, the evil concoction that oddly enough did not kill thousands of US children or make them undernourished. For a period in my life, I ate broa three times a day. It was a kind, unassuming friend, and I liked being frugal. I was far from home and perpetually unsettled.
I should explain that I lived in Portugal for six months, for reasons I may or may not reveal later, so it is natural for me to think of broa, always a chunk of it next to a bowl of caldo verde. A bowl of caldo verde almost every day. Essential to living to be a hundred. That meager repast, surrounded by the vineyards and vilas of the poem that is the Portuguese countryside. Natural to think that way, because my time in that country weathered some part of me and I managed to capture its beauty.
I want to know now, here, on the step outside the shop, if these three breads are related, all of them or at least two of them. The intensity of a desire wells up in me and propels me to find an answer.
This is not simple curiosity, and the craving has had its consequences. The most important, and the one I want to address here, is that without an answer to what these breads mean in my life, I feel cut off from my past. The only past I have that is related to them is the knowledge of the old local baker, who will never retire. His past cannot become mine, even if he were to leave it to me in his will. However, he will never die.
Probably I ought to explain why I feel cut off, and perhaps cut off isn’t the right term to use. Maybe I should describe myself as feeling disconnected, out of the loop, even disoriented. I am searching for the correct term, anything that might describe this sense of not being able to communicate with, to fully understand, these breads. I feel so ignorant. So at a loss for words.
That is significant, for reasons I will try to explain.
I was born and raised in New England. That explains the familiarity with anadama, but does not excuse my ignorance of its roots. New England is so diverse now that there are roots of all sorts, from the incredible Massachusetts (not the state, the indigenous group) culture. Anadama with its misogynistic folk origin? No, I cannot stomach that. Anadama as a Finnish food? One never knows.
Now let me go back to my point about having gone to Portugal for a semester on a whim and a grant. It was actually a summer and a semester, so closer to eight months. Eight months during which I studied my heart out, the key point being my heart. I left blood on so many stones near the Universidade de Coimbra. Metaphorical blood, but blood nevertheless. The language was my own unchained melody and I took all I could with me when I left.
That sounds absurd, such an exaggeration, you think, but there is something else.
It was only after I had returned that I discovered there is Portuguese in my genes. That is probably where all the sounds went: they found their place in my blood and moved through me like air when our lungs expand, contract. I wish I were free to tell you the whole story of when my past Portuguese left the Old World and arrived in the New World, only to watch their identity slip into oblivion.
Nobody here cares where you’re from, or where different types of bread are from. We’re all just cut off from the past. All I can guess, from a scrap or two of writing on dingy paper, is that they were likely stonecutters, lured by the rocky coast and offers of employment, impelled by hunger resulting from potatoes that refused to grow.
They could also have been seduced by the infamous cod, which they carefully filleted in places like Rockland or Stonington in Maine, just to mention a few places. In Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, there were many Gomes, Seara, Pontes, and so on. (Note: Perhaps it’s irrelevant, but historians discovered the first white person in Maine was in fact Portuguese.)
Anyway, somebody stayed. Families don’t always preserve the memories of those who emigrated or immigrated. How much survives the passage? Words are everlastingly fragile. They silence broken spirits, bodies bent by labor too hard for humans, songs, successes, even death.
There is hardly nothing else remaining in the velvet folder with the faded yet yellowed papers. Even away from the sunlight, shielded by velvet, tied with a colorless satin ribbon, the footsteps are muffled. I have managed to reconnect shards like da- and -rão. Like mi- and -nha. Like Mãe and Avó. Darão. Minha. Mãe. Avó.
I went to Portugal and didn’t know any of this. Why? It took a desire to find out the history of the breads I buy and the memory of a broa I ate day after day as I consumed the land, its sounds, its grapes and its sea. I should have been told. I don’t care if my forefathers and foremothers were slaves, thieves, sluts, or witches. I deserves to know that before I went to spend those months in close proximity with myself. It could have been so different, and now all I find here are words, split and spliced.
There is nowhere to turn, there are no names of family to gather, no anadama or miche or broa to cut up and place beside a bowl of caldo verde like the ones I loved so much in Portugal but did not know why.
My veins feel slit, as if I too were bread.