Saturday, January 10, 2004

Give me my daily bread, right now

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The most painful way I can think of to lose a finger — excepting the old mousetrap in the Triscuits box gag — involves flour, eggs, yeast and two heaping tablespoons of bearded Portuguese man between 5-foot-6 and 5-foot-7.

I’m generally a nice guy. I say “please” and “thank you.” Old ladies crossing the street near me can usually count on a piggyback ride to the other side. But do not come between me and bread, buster. Deny me my bread, and you might as well deprive me of oxygen.

I don’t kid around with bread. Almost every meal I eat has bread on the side — and for snacks, it’s usually dry bread. For special meals, I visit that Panera store in Dartmouth to indulge in some Expensive Yuppie Bread. I can have a refrigerator stocked with cooked turkeys, platters of filet mignon, cupboards full of pasta, a fruit bowl so overflowing I have to wade through oranges to reach it — but if I have no bread, I’ll whine to my wife that there’s nothing to eat in the house.

As a kid, my favorite bakery (yes, I had a favorite bakery, thank you very much) had a sign behind the counter that read, “A Day Without Bread is Like a Day Without Sunshine.”

So why do Atkins dieters insist on living in permanent darkness?

“No carbs!” I thundered to my wife the other day over a bread sandwich (two slices of bread with bread in the middle). “No bread! They can eat the burger but not the bun!”

“Doesn’t sound healthy to me,” she said.

“It’s nutty — certifiably insane!” I said, spewing crumbs. “Dr. Atkins is a fraud! Why hasn’t somebody arrested him yet?”

“Dr. Atkins is dead, honey.”

“Brilliant. So people are taking health advice from a man who’s the complete opposite of healthy!”

I especially like heavy breads — rye, pumpernickel, pão do milho, or cornbread. Softer breads are fine, too. Sweet bread is also wonderful. What the hell — I’ll eat any bread that doesn’t eat me first.

One of my uncles is a Portuguese baker in a Canadian town with an appallingly low number of Portuguese bakeries but a good number of Portuguese people. So, on average, my uncle’s company bakes as much Portuguese bread as all Fall River’s Portuguese bakeries combined.

When my family visits his bakery, we’re always roped into helping knead dough — the cockles of my heart are turning a golden, crusty brown just recalling it. My uncle has these colossal ovens that bake thousands of buns every 15 minutes, almost every hour of the day. The baking room is hot as hell and smells like heaven.

Part of the reason why I love — cherish! — bread so much is because of my Portuguese heritage. Bread is to us what smelly cheese is to the French. I have bread flowing through my veins — which may account for why I’m such a lousy athlete. Bread has minimal viscosity at best.

Portugal has an entire museum devoted to bread. It’s the Museu do Pão in Seia, central Portugal, and yes, I’ve checked hotel rates nearby. Quite reasonable.

According to its Web site, www.museudopao.pt/eng, the museum contains four exhibit halls with paintings and dioramas about baked goods, a bar-slash-library (I saw pictures — there’s more booze than books) and a restaurant.

“This is the place,” it reads, “where the traditional flavors of the Portuguese gastronomy are recovered through an always renewed investigation.” Avid gastronomers with 12 and a half euros to spare can investigate a dozen varieties of the golden loaf. And just recently, the museum hosted a traveling exhibit of sculptures of men and animals done in bread. Did I mention that hotel rates near the bread museum are quite reasonable?

Bread isn’t just the stuff of arts and letters — it’s a political statement. A flaky, crusty, hot-buttered political statement.

According to the AFP news service, a prison in the town of Belas, Portugal, served its inmates a special Christmas lunch. But 50 of the prisoners refused to eat it. They went on strike. Why?

“They said the bread included in the meal had not been freshly baked,” acccording to the story.

Seems reasonable to me. Stale bread ticks me off, too.

It’s perhaps a lesson that Sheriff Tom Hodgson should heed — the Bristol County House of Correction has a few Portuguese people in residence, I hear. The inmates can’t watch TV, lift weights or smoke. Substandard dinner rolls could easily be the prison’s breaking point. Here’s a free tip, Mr. Hodgson: fresh bread is squeezable, should have a firm but yielding crust and is best served warm under a clean napkin.
I can see it now: some tattooed guy chips a tooth on a stale bun. Before the guards know what’s happening, the prisoners are up in arms, sniffing their rolls and tossing them to the ground in utter disgust. Some of the bread is so stale it shatters to pieces like glass. A guard desperately tries to radio for help, but is clonked on the noggin by a mousy-looking car thief wielding a submarine roll like a baseball bat. Sirens blare. Someone yells, “For bread, compadres!” and is heartily cheered. German shepherds begin to run the prisoners down, but most of the dogs are too busy licking crumbs off the ground.

It’s too late, anyway — day-old Vienna loaves are heaved through the windows, and in a matter of minutes there are hundreds of escaped convicts charging across Dartmouth in a mob, noses in the air. Someone catches a whiff of warm flour and they change direction — they’re on the move, searching for fresh rolls and probably a cup of coffee to wash them down.

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