Le Pain: A Love Story

It’s everywhere. People wake up at ungodly hours to make it. It’s on every single shopping list. The government regulates its ingredients and price. No meal is considered complete without it, and the thought of a household without some is just dingue (crazy).

This is what our drive home looked like yesterday: tons of traffic (emerging as a troubling pattern), but offset by this small beautiful loaf. By now I’ve rehearsed the proper line to perfection:  “Une demi-baguette, pas trop cuite s’il vous plait” (Half a baguette, not too cooked please). I’m proud when I whip out this magical line at the boulangerie, and I think Charlotte has noticed because she delegates this task to me a lot. For those of us tickled by authentic French experiences, the act of ordering bread in the native language is a full-blown romp in the hay.

It’s a no-brainer to say the French love bread, but somehow it goes even deeper. They’re almost possessed by it, like a Stephen King movie where the local villagers have a paranormal life-force hidden in one of their barns behind a corn field. Charlotte could tell it was raining the other day before looking out the window: she could feel it in the bread (no joke). This one sitting on the dashboard was to be saved for dinner only, but it was taunting her so badly we had to relocate it to the back seat for safe keeping. This still wasn’t enough to save it. Each and every baguette we buy gets the once-over from her discerning eye: this one’s too spongy, that one has good texture but a slightly odd flavor, that establishment over there should be burned to the ground, etc. We’ve sampled all three of our local providers multiple times to narrow down whom will receive the honor of our future patronage.

On our way to her dad’s one afternoon, we pulled a trick that always insures a successful visit: bringing the family’s favorite style of pain from their local shop. This gesture seems comparable to flowers or chocolates or wine, while thankfully moins cher (less expensive). We left before dinner that night, mentioning on our way out we’d be stopping to grab our own before leaving town. Dad seemed doubtful we’d find a boulangerie open so late, but good luck anyway.

Five minutes later in the car, the phone rings and it’s Dad wondering if we found bread. “Non, malheureusement (unfortunately)”, to which he replies by offering we drive back to his place, grab half of the loaf we just gave him as a gift, and use it for our own dinner. The ultimate sacrifice! No paternal instinct would allow for a daughter to endure something so vile as a bread-less dinner. Alas, we didn’t turn around, but the event was duly noted in my notebook.

A couple other bread-related nuggets: in the middle of a family dinner Charlotte’s brother asks me in a sort of friendly, nervous English, “Cohree, doo yoo alwayz poot zee bred on zee plate?” At the time it seemed like a perfectly civilized habit: tuck your food aside to give the bread a little hang out spot on the edge of the plate. But looking around I could see that without fail everyone else had theirs on the table, in a specific spot to the upper left of their plate. Luckily Charlotte’s work is related to table manners and settings; she offers the explanation that it’s due to the traditional placement of the now non-existent bread plate that once took the upper left spot. Check, another notch on my etiquette belt.

Finally, something that really floored me: during an afternoon visit, Charlotte’s description to her grandfather about how we yankees dip bread into olive oil COMPLETELY grossed him out. He pulled one of those scrunched-up faces of disgust, disapproval, and overall confusion. It’s true though: when you think about it, you rarely see oil, butter, or any other condiment on bread during meals here. In their own words, why would you take such a wonderful thing and defile it with another flavor? It’s not a vehicle for fatty spreads or a sponge for sopping up a balsamic. It’s bread, the whole bread, and nothing but the bread for les français, at least for dinner.

So if you ever find yourself alone Stephen King-style in a dark forest with a smoke machine, an eerie soundtrack, and a lynch mob of Frenchmen with a gleam of dingue in their eyes, be sure to have  a spare baguette or two packed in your satchel to throw them off your scent. You’ll be the hero riding off into the sunset at the end of the story (maybe even with a cute mademoiselle by your side)…

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