You’ve probably already heard the worn out (and not necessarily true) fun fact that the Eskimos have 52 different words for snow, followed by the remark that a culture’s language reflects its practices and values. Now, I don’t think the French have 52 different words for bread, but they do have quite a few varieties, which must say something about their cultural values. Any given boulangerie has at least a dozen kinds of just plain bread, as well as various pastries, desserts and ready-to-eat sandwiches. Everything is made fresh the same day, and sometimes a bakery will even have both a morning and a 5 p.m. batch of pain-au-chocolate so that the food is fresh for the afternoon snack. Bread kept overnight quickly becomes stale, so, in an idyllic, storybook, Beauty-and-the-Beast kind of way, the French must buy this staple regularly, giving the term “daily bread” an entirely new significance. As a French friend of mine succinctly stated: “If there’s not bread, something’s missing.”
Along with the idea of being simple and essential, bread in France also carries a sense of fraternity: it is something to share. Meals in general are more communal here, and if bread is the most basic element of a meal, it is not surprising that it should also bear the greatest social significance (I mean, I don’t know about you, but eating escargot doesn’t exactly symbolize “friendship” for me). Perhaps this is why baguettes are so long. I’ve been buying myself “half baguettes” for my lunches this semester because I’m making a meal for just one person. I wonder if the ladies in the bakery watch me leave with my shortened loaf and murmur some sympathetic comment about that lonely American soul who often comes to buy half baguettes and always has exact change.
Today, however, I had the satisfaction of purchasing a whole baguette on my way home for the evening like any other non-hermetic Frenchman: I was going to have dinner with a friend. I paid more attention en route for the tramway to the other people on the street walking home with their baguettes, not only because I wanted to identify myself with them, but also because I had discovered a new challenge: how exactly does one carry such a long stick of bread?
When you buy a baguette in France, the boulanger wraps a small square of parchment paper
around the middle so you can hold the loaf without touching it, but the rest is simply left exposed to the world. If I were particularly skilled at wielding a full-length baguette, this would not be a problem. However, I’m only accustomed to carrying half loaves for two blocks, and this once or twice a week. Transporting a three-foot stick of bread from the heart of the city to my friend’s apartment on the outskirts without letting it come into contact with not-so-sanitary objects is too great a challenge for this American novice. I decided at last to place it in my grocery tote (“Ce sac bleu est vert”) and hope that the inside of the bag was cleaner than whatever else the bread might encounter. Even so, half the loaf extended beyond the bag, exposing itself to the chance brush with objects less savory than itself.
At the end of the day, though, the bread did not appear to have been compromised, and my friend made not a single remark to the contrary. Indeed, we were too engrossed in our conversation to ask ourselves whether or not the bread had been maintained in a state as sterile as an operating room (which may be a rather American obsession, anyway). Perhaps the end goal of the bread is not the glory of the bread itself but the meals and the communion it facilitates. It seems that the French tradition of daily bread can accomplish many things: it nourishes our bodies, it promotes our friendships and it even provides subjects for newspaper columns.