‘Love at First Bite’ Taste of Real Bread
A teenager’s first bite of real bread– something simple can bring back a flood of memories. Recently a friend offered me a loaf of homemade bread and I said ‘yes’ in a heartbeat. It was still warm, and the fragrant seasonings tickled my nose as I took my first bite. I spread on a dab of ghee and the soft yeasty goodness of the interior, and the slightly salty crunchy crust became a time machine in my mouth.
It was a Saturday afternoon in 1971.
Dad told me I was to accompany him on a trip into Boston. I am sure I whined and complained. I would rather be riding my dirt bike or hanging out with friends. I am not sure why I was asked to ride along. Perhaps he was looking for bonding time.
This was a trip that dad made often, but I had only been to the city three times. Once in 1965 with the family to see Martin Luther King speak on Boston Common, something that went over the head of my nine year old mind. I lived in the culturally uniform northern New England.
Then there were two trips to the Museum of Science with the school science club. Boston was less than 50 miles from our home but it just wasn’t part of our everyday life.
The trip consisted of a short hop on the Interstate, then onto US Route 1. Route 1 is sort of an East Coast Route 66. There were restaurants, stores, bars, sales lots. It possessed a certain seedy funkiness that comes organically from the location and time. On the way, I always looked for the Hilltop Steak House with its herd of fiberglass Herefords grazing out front. That was just the buildup for the huge orange T-rex on a mini golf course just a few more miles further.
After the dinosaur, as the road slowly rises up to meet the Mystic River Bridge that crosses over into Boston, two major interstates meet. Then a never ending traffic jam. If you have heard of the legendary bad driving in Boston, this is the birthplace of those legends.
We arrived at Boston Haymarket, an open air market. It was a sort of a flea market for groceries that the wholesale markets used to dump their old stock and make room for new shipments. My dad took great joy in buying a week old case of lettuce for a dollar. Like many children of the Great Depression, he took frugality to levels that most people can’t even imagine today. After a few seconds of haggling, we walked away with a case of oranges for $1.50.
My dad was a minister, but was working as a school teacher at the time. This day he was heading toward the Boston Seaman’s Friend Society, a charitable religious organization based in Boston, that aimed to improve the welfare of and Christian education of mariners. He did church services there and was on the board of directors.
I remember parking a long ways from the destination; my guess is that parking was cheaper there. Dad would have walked miles to save 25 cents in parking fees. I had always lived where houses had yards with forested areas and space. I was uncomfortable in the North End Boston neighborhood.
At this time, Boston’s North End had been declining in population for decades and was in economic, as well as social crisis. The streets were safe only thanks to organized crime families. This was the era of Whitey Bulger.
Nearly every building was a shop at street level and tenements above. Shops had signs in the window offering the daily numbers game. This was one year before legalized lotteries, and the chance to turn a dime into $70 fueled dreams.
The streets smelled of cigarettes, baked goods, traces of gasoline and the occasional stench of a butcher shop. Every few hundred steps a full on pizza blast smelled wonderful. My home was typical 1960’s with bland foods – Campbell’s soup and Betty Crocker bland. Seasoning in our house meant salt and pepper. An exotic dish was potato chip and tuna casserole, string beans optional.
Pizza was rare, and even then it was a cheap supermarket mix that was like a saltine cracker soaked in tomato juice with a bit of melted Velveeta on top.
The family rarely went out to eat. A Chinese restaurant on special occasions, and and ice cream after dinner outings. Dad was often on the road working, and he often stopped for breakfast before a meals tax was instituted. He had a hard time accepting a slice of pie and a cup of coffee cost for more than a quarter.
I was a free range kid. I had several spent weeks the previous summer wandering the streets of New York City. My only obligation was to be at the US Navy & Marine Corps Reserve Naval base in Brooklyn no later than 4PM where the dog was in the station wagon waiting for her walk. Now, people hear this and say “You were raised by wolves.” But this needs to be viewed through a late 1960’s lens.
I bring this up since my dad then told me to not go wandering around while I waited for him to finish his business at the Seamen’s Friend Association. I guess the concern for the neighborhood was higher than I realized. I was just 15 and that was a full half century ago.
There was a pickup game of street hockey outside the store where I was waiting. I watched longingly, but I had my orders. The store’s shelves had books, newspapers and magazines from all over the world. I served my sentence by poring over the book and magazines. To the adolescent mind, two hours is an eternity, but still it went fairly quickly, and dad was ready to start walking back to the car.
Dad stopped in front of a store featuring hanging dead animal parts. There were more surprises inside, including a pig’s head in the display case. There was a comforting smell inside. My dad handed me a paper towel with a piece of pizza. It was square and thick.
Biting into the pizza: oh my, the doughy crust, rich tomato sauce with complex seasoning and stretchy cheese. Nothing I had ever experienced in pizza. The huge slice felt like a full meal. I knew instantly that I wanted to dedicate my life to finding more pizza like this one. My dad was happy too – two pieces for twenty five cents, just a little more than a gallon of gas.
Dad inhaled his pizza and went back to the counter. The storekeeper handed him two large paper bags. I told the proprietor just how much I had enjoyed my pizza, and she handed me another slice free of charge.
We walked back to the car, drove down the road past the orange dinosaur, fiberglass prime ribs and onto the Interstate, back to the little coastal town where we lived. There was one more bit of magic lurking in those two large paper bags.
Dad said there was ‘bread’ in the bags.. I thought, it can’t be. No plastic bags, no primary colored circles. I thought, bread comes in slices, how is this going to work? I took one loaf out of the bag. It was like a giant egg and flat on the bottom, very light and still a bit warm. Following my dad’s instructions, I tore the end of the loaf free. The crust was hard and thin, the inside was fluffy and light.
I pulled off a huge chunk of the innards and took a bite. The taste was like yeast flavored cotton candy and it just melted in my mouth. The flavor was not fancy but made me feel like I was in a warm house in the cold New England winter. Then I tackled the crust. Salty and crunchy; everything you want from a potato chip, but better. As much as I enjoyed the pizza, the bread was even better. Twenty years later I learned that adding a saucer of pesto to fresh bread is best thing a human can ever eat.
All that from a bite of bread, half a century later.