Wonder Bread of Life

I would like to take a few minutes to hold forth on the subject of bread.

Think about the last time you ate some. Depending on where you live and what your think about carbohydrates, that might take some contemplation. Bread used to be, and in many places still is, a ubiquitous food, the staple around which all other foods revolve. When French peasants ran out of bread, Marie Antoinette lost her head; the epic lines of patient citizens that once crowded every Soviet city were mostly waiting for bread. Money can be "bread," a meal means "breaking bread," and we measure greatness against the invention of the automated bread slicer in Chillicothe, Missouri in 1928. Jesus Christ is the Bread of Life, if you swing that way, and I was brought up with the implicit belief that I ate His flesh once a week at Mass, and that He had the texture of Styrofoam.

The bread is at the bottom for a reason.
The bread is at the bottom for a reason.

Because, let's face it—anywhere, at any time, for as long as people have been farming or gardening for their food, they've relied on starchy staples like wheat, rice, potatoes, etc. for most of their calories. Bread wasn't just a food group, it was the food, the thing you ate for every meal; butter, meat and vegetables were just side dishes, and certainly not enough to sustain you if the bread was gone. Why else would carbs inhabit the base of the food pyramid? For most of the world, grains still make up the bulk of a day's meals—it's only in the better-off countries that starches play supporting roles. In the US, bread has been elbowed off the table by meat, as households everywhere plan meals around a main course of beef, pork and chicken. The Atkins Diet and its spin-off have made carbs of any kind the enemy.

Which brings me, at length, to Wonder Bread.

Like a lot of USAmericans of a certain place and time, I grew up on Wonder Bread. Or Bunny Bread, or any other of an array of snow-white processed wheat products that are so soft you have to put them in the child seat of the grocery cart, lest the other, tougher groceries squish it into a damp, rubbery mass. I knew this wasn't the definition of bread—my mother was quite enamored of her bread machine, which may well be the most absurd kitchen appliance this side of a Salad Shooter. (It can also make cookie dough! And jam!) I'd encountered cornbread, and the crusty rolls at the Pasta House Company, biscuits from a can and that nasty-tasting stuff with the little seeds in it. (My apologies to rye bread fans: I simply never got a taste for it.) But for a ridiculously long time my idea of bread normalcy involved bleached enriched flour with the structural integrity of a soap bubble. It was probably well into high school before I learned to appreciate crusts.

(This is not normal everywhere, of course, even in the US. Loyal Food Network viewers probably know the best place in their neighborhood to get brioche, ciabatta and ribollita aplenty. Across Europe, they're still used to firm, crusty breads made in actual bakeries by people who actually touch the dough. [Just think: the bakers had their hands inside your sandwich.] And in plenty of countries they don't even see what the big fuss is—you can't make bread out of millet or yams, after all. There is an entire manga series in Japan about a frustrated breadmaker in a country that only eats rice.)

Our first breakfast. Note the decadent Western bread triangle.
Our first breakfast. Note the decadent Western bread triangle.

Before I joined the Peace Corps, I thought that shelling out an extra seventy cents for just-as-squashy wheat bread at Aldi was daring and rebellious. Then, of course, I actually arrived in Kazakhstan. Breakfast on our first day in the hotel where we had our initial orientation—a breakfast we faced on about four hours' sleep after an epic flight from Washington, DC—consisted of fried eggs with bits of hot dog, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, a beverage with the color and consistency of liquid hand soap, and bread.

Oh, that Kazakhstan bread.

Most of the break in Kazakhstan is made in factories, not bakeries. Nobody has had their hands in your sandwich there, no sir. The most common type of white bread is a dense, dry loaf, tall and narrow, with a crust that could withstand moderate artillery barrage; you slice this and then cut each slice in half lengthwise, to make little spears of bread that usually get displayed in a basket on the table top. This can be served with butter, honey, sour cream, or a variety of syrupy jams called varenya, and it turns up at every meal. It's not unusual to see people leaving a bread shop with three or four loaves of this industrial wonder, because it doesn't matter if the bread goes stale. For one thing, you might not be able to tell; but for another, even if it does go stale, you still eat it.

Because you do not throw out the bread. Just don't. I was shouted at by total strangers on a train for this. Remember, bread is life; show a little respect.

Slightly less common than bread in brick form is the lapyoshka, which is more traditional among Kazakhs, Uzbeks and the other Turkic peoples of Central Asia. This is a flat, round piece of bread, in the same vein as a pita—in fact, we Americans sometimes used them as an substitute for pizza crust. Lapyoshka can be baked or fried, and in Kazakhstan's Kazakh-majority areas it's almost as ubiquitous as loaves. The only thing more common than lapyoshka is baurysaq, a fried bread that's at the center of any traditional Kazakh meal.

The baurysaq dough is cut and waits to be fried.
The baurysaq dough is cut and waits to be fried.

I had the pleasure of making baurysaqs with one of my students and her family during a weekend outing to their village. The dough—a basic mix of flour and water, unleavened—was prepared in a bowl large enough to fit a decent-sized pumpkin inside. The women of the family tore off chunks of this, rolled it out, and cut it into squares; they filled sheets of newspaper with irregular squares of dough and spread them out on any flat surface in their kitchen except the floor. (You do not put bread on the floor.) Their kitchen was its own little building, and one entire corner was taken up by a vast coal-fired stove/oven, and on this stove they had set a round-bottom pot at least two feet across, filled with oil. One by one, they dropped the squares of dough in, so carefully that the hot oil barely rippled. The dough puffed up almost immediately just from the heat, and after a few minutes on each side the hot, golden baurysaqs were ready to drain in a colander over another giant bowl. The Kazakhs are descendants of nomads, and those big round pots are more portable than an oven; the Soviets may have forced them to settle, but their culinary tradition lives on.

It wasn't only the local customs that opened my eyes to what bread could be, though. For two and a quarter years, if I wanted a lot of the familiar foods of home, I had to make them myself; the Peace Corps provided me a helpful cookbook with recipes for everything from General Tso's Chicken to marinara sauce to pancakes. I learned to make my own tortillas, though a Georgian flatbread called lavash made an acceptable substitute in a pinch; I made my own pizza dough, too, and even a pan of cornbread using a precious cup of corn flour hand-ground by a local friend. And, of course, I bought bread about twice a week: not the squat industrial rolls, but long oval loaves of a dense white bread that was actually, occasionally soft. Not Wonder Bread, of course, but a decent approximation—decent enough that when I shelled out to make grilled cheese or peanut butter and jelly, I could almost, a little bit, feel at home.

There's a lot of things that make re-entry to American life strange after being away for so long. I had to get used to receiving change in stores and being able to find the light switch. I am no longer allowed to lapse into Russian. And I had to readjust to the Wonder Bread world that my family lives in. I had laughed when my Kazakhstan friends, after a visit to America, marveled over the bread: "How do you eat that? It's so soft!" And yet, when I got back home, I had much the same reaction: the first time I tried to make a peanut butter sandwich, I tore the bread apart. I've been toasting the Wonder Bread in a bid to toughed it up, but that only goes so far. If this bread is life, then I need therapy.

Of course, I could shell out an extra dollar or two for bakery bread with a crust and an existential context, just like I used to drop extra tenge for a loaf that wasn't suitable for shingling the roof. I may not live behind the bread store anymore, but I am about fifteen minutes away from a Trader Joe's. Replacing my Wonder Bread won't solve my larger lifestyle problems, but it sure would make them taste better. (And might offset the weight I've gained since my return to the First World—though it would help if I didn't work for a regional chain restaurant famous for its milkshakes.)

One victory I can claim: this week, my mother made pizza dough. I happened to mention offhand that I made my own crusts in Kazakhstan; actually, I've been doing it by hand for much longer. My mom asked me for my recipe, which I adapted from here, with the addition of a teaspoon of sugar to feed the yeast. I made my own pizza dough starting in college because pizza is easy, it makes good leftovers (cold pizza breakfast: win or epic win?) and because I like to knead: it's repetitive, but requires attention, and there's a certain intimacy inherent in the warm dough bending and folding under your hands. I like that my hand was in your pizza. I created that pizza, damn it.

Mom was uncertain, because the bread machine is long gone, and while she's an ace cookie baker she has suspicions of yeast. So I made the dough on the first try, to general acclaim, and on the second try Mom watched me and asked questions. "How hot is the water? How long does it have to rise?" I showed her how to proof it on the baking sheet and how long to bake it before putting the toppings on, and the result was good pizza. Then, one day, as I was getting ready for work, I heard her call from the kitchen: "When do you put the sugar in?"

"Put it in what?"

"The pizza dough."

I smiled. "With the yeast."

"Oh." Now that I was listening for it, I could hear her knocking about in the kitchen. "When do you add the olive oil?"

"You add it at the same time as the flour," I told her.

"Do you have to let it rise twice?"

"You roll it out and let it rise the second time."

It was really good pizza. Followed by really good white bread—the kind with texture, substance, presence. And also wheat bread, starring the whole-wheat flour that had previously been reserved for dog treats in this house, and Irish soda bread, which has the texture of a delicious, delicious paving stone.

Maybe I don't need to hit up Trader Joe's after all.

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