The Comfort Food Diaries: Breaking Bread

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Zac Overman

Welcome to The Comfort Food Diaries, a month-long series that will run each weekday throughout the month of January. Here, the Serious Eats staff, along with some of our favorite writers from the food world, will reflect on the dishes, delicacies, and, yes, guilty pleasures that have sustained us through good times and bad.

Italians are uniquely gifted when it comes to expressing their disdain for idiocy. Take, for instance, one of my favorite scenes in the 2003 movie Io non ho paura (I'm Not Scared). The young protagonist, Michele, enters a general store in his village; it's 1970s Sicily, hot and dusty and listless. He asks the proprietress what a hungry soul with only 500 lire should buy to eat. Her mood shifts, from helpful to indignant. She draws her head up and back a little, knits her brows, and says with the authority of a mother superior, "E che si può comprare? Il pane. Quando uno c'ha fame, si compra il pane."

Translation: "What can you buy? You buy bread. When you're hungry, you buy bread." The next shot is of a hearty brown loaf, balanced on the back of Michele's bicycle as he pedals down the road.

The thing that gets me about this scene, other than the shopkeeper's fine display of Italian shade, is that we know what she'll say before she says it. We are cued to chuckle at Michele's naive lapse of deduction, because it's so blindingly obvious to anyone who grew up in Western society. You're broke, you're hungry, you buy bread. Whether flat or yeasted, some form of bread is probably what kept generations of your ancestors from starving in the Levant/Maghreb/Great Steppe, and thus what allows you to be here now, wondering why I'm harping on this subject.

At the same time, the thought of good, fresh bread—sturdy and fragrant as it's sprung from the oven, its burnished crust, the escaping steam and humid, fluffy interior as your tear in—is enough to bring a lump to my throat. This is one of the wonders of great bread: that something widely seen as poverty fuel can feel like a luxury to even the most financially secure of individuals.

Having grown up on the sliced supermarket loaf common to the U.S., I didn't consider bread a thing to be savored until my college year studying abroad in Florence. We had to buy our own lunches, so, to scrimp, I'd get a big pane pugliese, a bottle of olive oil, and a canister of sea salt and keep them in my cubby at school. Midday, I'd bring the whole kit out to the courtyard picnic table, pull off an airy hunk of bread edged in crackling umber crust, hold it over the end of the paper bag it was wrapped in, drizzle, sprinkle, and eat. The bread would last me about a week, by which time it had certainly staled past the Italian threshold of acceptability, but not past my own (at least, not when showered with extra olive oil).

This ritual sprouted a sub-ritual or two, though I wasn't fully conscious of it initially. I'd tug out a puff from the loaf's center and hold it up, pellucid against the Mediterranean sky, then pinch and roll it between my fingers into a gumball-sized wad, wrap it in a belt of crust, and pop it in my mouth. Or I'd coat the puff in a little olive oil, tilting it in the sunlight so the oil droplets glinted around each tiny air pocket, honeycomb-like. Pane pugliese was my usual, but I also liked a light, flour-dusted pane portoghese, a firm and dense ciabatta, or a salty golden schiacciata—the chewier breads, generally, were what I was after, and still are to this day. (I've long thought this preference might relate to my mostly vegetarian diet; maybe a bread that fights my bite and makes me oscillate my head a little, like a dog with a rag toy, is a stand-in for the texture of the meat I'm not consuming.)

My bread lunches in Florence may have been born out of a student's budget, but as bread lunches go, they were worthy of the Medicis. You may have to spend up to get "the best" in most other food categories, but even at the chichi-est boulangerie in Paris, a fresh baguette won't cost you more than a few bucks.

Frugality aside, it's a peculiarity of mine, which I've only recently recognized, that my favorite foods are all very simple, often elemental. I can appreciate a complexly seasoned or constructed dish—relish it, heap praise on it—but the signature blend of sensations offered by a stark and unadorned slice of bread is enough to quiet my mind and command my attention without challenging it. When I face the prospect of having to eat while sad, self-conscious, self-flagellating, or otherwise depleted by the yammering internal sound track of an overly mental life, it is just enough.

If you're ever curious to know what a food means to you, of course, all you have to do is deprive yourself of it for a time. In March last year, my husband, Shaun, and I moved back to the States after living for 16 months in the Ghanaian capital of Accra. Shaun had taken a job there as a writer for a policy think tank, while I divided my time between managing a rapidly failing business news website and sweating. Accra, for the uninitiated, is not exactly a city paved with boules (though its springy, square "butter bread" is great for egg sandwiches on the street). Living in Ghana had been tough for me in a lot of ways—the heat, the noise, the power outages, the ceaseless neighborly interaction that, however friendly, eventually takes its toll on an introvert—and I was ready to get away from it all. When we ultimately decided to move back to the States, we resolved to take a last-hurrah trip to Istanbul before boarding a plane to New York.

After poking around the hectic streets and contemplating the novelty of cold air, we stopped in a touristy little restaurant one afternoon to warm up. Neither of us was ready for a meal, but Shaun asked for tea, and I ordered a small bowl of soup. The waiter brought them out briskly, left, and then reappeared to place a basket in front of us. Draped on top of the basket, spilling over the sides until it almost touched the table, was a puffy, golden-brown, crisp-topped, platter-sized specimen of bread—bazlama, maybe; I wasn't sure. Our eyes dropped to the bread, then returned to each other. Without looking into the mirrored wall across from me, I knew mine were shining.