Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bread With...

This Thanksgiving, I passed the ceremonial turkey baster to my older daughter and her husband.

By now I figure I've hosted almost forty Thanksgivings, mostly at home, but some at restaurants. Some of the latter were terrific, some mediocre, but it was always a relief not to have to worry about having everything hot at the same time, and especially not having to thicken pints of gravy with the guests seated slavering at the table.

This year it was good to sit and slaver while my offspring stirred the gravy.

All the talk about food at Thanksgiving got me thinking about the foods of my childhood—not the major holiday feasts, but my everyday after-school snacks. The name of these snacks always starts with “pa amb...” (meaning “bread with...” in my native Catalan). By “pa” I mean a substantial loaf of bread so crusty it would scrape your palate raw, with a soft, elastic crumb that would soothe the pain as it turned to sugar on your tongue. Here are some that I remember:

“Pa amb oli i sal.” This was the ur-snack, endlessly accepting of embellishments but sufficient on its own. You take a thick slice of the above-mentioned crusty bread (if you have a very hungry kid, you slice the bread lengthwise) and drizzle dark, fruity (none of that anemic extra-virgin stuff) olive oil onto it while squeezing the crusty edges together so the oil is evenly absorbed. Take a pinch of coarse salt and sprinkle it over the bread. Hand it to the kid and send her on her way.

“Pa amb tomaquet.” This—not paella—is the true Catalan national dish. Prepare the above recipe, then cut a ripe tomato in half and rub it cut-side down so the bread absorbs the juice (you can also rub the bread with garlic before applying the tomato). This was not, strictly speaking, an after-school snack, since tomatoes were not in season during the school year. It was what my grandmother fixed for me in her shady kitchen when I came in from my afternoon rambles down the hot, dry roads of summer.

“Pa amb oli i raim.” This was a late-summer snack, consisting of oil-soaked, salted bread which you held in one hand, and a bunch of grapes which you held in the other. The grapes had to be white—red would not do. You took a bite of salty, oily bread, then a bite of cool, sweet grape, and you walked down the road, kicking your espadrilles into the dust, listening for the thunder of the village sheep being herded home from pasture.

“Pa amb oli i xocolata.” A city snack, this made the sadness of autumn afternoons bearable. First, I had to change out of my school uniform. Then my mother would hand me a slice of pa amb oli i sal and a hunk of dark, bitter chocolate. I would eat this—a bite of bread, a bite of chocolate--as I skipped down the long, dark hallway of our apartment. And the saltiness and acidity of the oil, the sweetness of the bread and the bitterness of the chocolate would console me for the fact that I was skipping down a hallway in my leather school shoes, instead of down a dusty country road in my espadrilles.


  1. The vivid tastes, dust and images of your past are thrilling to read in this day and age. The senses are much enlivened by the simplicity.

  2. Aren't you glad there are plenty of dusty (not to mention muddy) roads where we live? Maybe we should get some espadrilles.

  3. Yum -- my paella meal the other night included an appetizer of somthing similar to your Pa amb tomaquet.

  4. I didn't know you were such a Catalan cook!

  5. Me neither! I just tried to recreate something I had at my favorite tapas restaurant.

  6. You are very much in danger of my just "showing up" every afternoon around 4.

  7. Yeah, but the bread just isn't the same.