It used to be the staff of life. Now, you'd think it was the staff of death.
If the latter is true, it's a miracle that I survived my Barcelona childhood, for my days were punctuated by slices of bread. Bread and butter for breakfast and, after school, bread and chocolate, or pa sucat amb oli--bread drizzled with olive oil. And bread with lunch and dinner.
I can still hear my mother's serrated knife cutting into the brittle crust as crumbs exploded everywhere. The pale yellow and gray tiles of the dining room floor had to be swept after every meal. But before that, as my parents and my aunts lingered over a dessert of almonds, oranges, or dried figs I would lick my index finger and press it into the little shards of crust on the tablecloth and eat crumbs until only flour dust remained.
When we moved to the land of Dixie in the late 50s, the supermarket shelves only stocked variations on Wonder Bread, and my father used to say, wrinkling his nose at the floppy white square in his hand, "this bread--it's like eating a piece of towel!" There were no crumbs to sweep up after those meals.
Me, I even kind of liked Wonder Bread, but then, in the 1970s, when my children were young and I was trying with all my might to do the right thing, I found a recipe for whole-wheat bread that was supposed to be healthy and nutritious. For years I spent Sunday afternoons baking six-loaf batches, which I would then slice with an electric meat slicer and freeze. That bread was nothing like the crusty Catalan bread of my childhood, and my kids were embarrassed to take it to school in their lunch boxes, but it was sweet, nutty and robust and oh, how the kitchen smelled on Sunday afternoons.
The downfall of bread began shortly after that. First, we were told that it was fattening; then there was concern that its carbohydrate load would cause hypoglycemia; and finally, millions of people developed wheat allergies that ranged from annoying to life-threatening.
I was one of the many who developed a sensitivity to wheat, and for a year I abstained from it altogether, a sacrifice compared to which giving up cigarettes in my twenties was a snap. Now I can eat wheat, as long as I don't eat too much, or too often.
I come from generations of bread eaters. True, they didn't grow nearly as tall as milk-and-meat-fed Americans, but they were healthy enough, and not a single one was obese. So what has changed? Did the old varieties of wheat have something that the new ones don't, or vice versa? Have our bodies evolved away from this most basic of foods?
These days I hardly ever eat bread, for where is the pleasure in eating only a little and not too often? If I have to monitor every bite, I'd just as soon do with no bites at all. But still, I mourn the absence of bread from my life.
I may some day look into the matter of wheat varieties, and see if there are any that are less noxious than others. And if there are, I know how I'll be spending my Sunday afternoons.