Bread, Friendship and the History of it All

There is nothing like the smell of freshly-baked bread, except for sharing it with
a dear friend.  Bread is the ultimate comfort food.  It triggers a sense of well-being
 and soothes the soul.

For most of the world, the appetite for bread is an essential part of being human. In our country, we have such an abundance of things to eat that we forget what a central role bread once played in our diet, and still plays in many other places. Take Egypt, where the word for bread, ''eish,'' literally means ''life.'' 

''He who has bread and something to dip it in,'' runs an Egyptian proverb, ''has the whole of happiness.'' 

In the Middle East --- which is, after all, where it was invented thousands of years ago --- bread has a sort of sanctity. If a piece falls on the floor, you don't eat it, but you don't throw it away, either. You're supposed to pick it up, kiss it and put it on the table. When people notice a piece of bread on the ground, they will sometimes pick it up and leave it in a visible place. 

Bread is not just food; it's the symbol of sociability. In Eastern Europe, guests are traditionally greeted with bread and salt; in the Middle East, it's with bread and water; and in my home, it’s French bread, herbed butter and wine. ''To break bread'' is still our term for establishing or sustaining a social relationship. Even now, we consider it treachery to turn against someone in which you've broken bread. 

Of course, ''breaking bread'' is just a phrase with us. We slice our bread; rather, we usually buy it sliced. But in some places, in North Africa, for instance, the idea of cutting bread with a sharp metal implement, rather than tearing it with the hands, is shocking. The association between sharing bread and unthreatening intimacy is that close. 

There's a widespread need to ask divine blessing on this central food. In Judaism, the breaking of bread is accompanied by a blessing, as it is in the Christian Eucharist. 

The ancient Sumerians made breads called ninda, mostly from barley; the Assyrians, living in wheat-growing country, made wheat breads called akalu. The ancient Egyptians mentioned a number of breads: white bread, crumbly bread, fragrant bread, date bread, sourdough bread (a distinctly sour variety called kyllastis, which the Greeks borrowed), breakfast bread, traveler's bread, hardtack, pyramid-shaped bread, obelisk-shaped bread, stamped bread --- scores of kinds, a number of them baked only for the gods. 

Medieval Arab writings mention paper-thin breads, thick breads, pocket breads, round breads, ring-shaped breads, braided breads, breads shaped like ears of wheat and like ladders. Modern Iraq has breads of its own: gursa (a flat bread for wrapping kebab), sammuna (a spongy unleavened bread), uruq (a yeast bread with chopped meat and vegetables mixed into the dough). 

It's no accident that every civilization throughout history has been based on grain. Grains are the seeds of grasses, the go-getters of the vegetable kingdom: fast-growing, stripped-down plants consisting of nothing but roots and leaves. Not terribly finicky about climate or soil, these little machines for converting sunlight into food energetically colonize something like a quarter of the world's land. Even the animals we have domesticated tend to live on grasses, so most of our meat, milk and eggs are recycled grass or grain. 

Wheat is the most nutritious of the common grains, containing carbohydrates and every amino acid we need (though not all in sufficient quantity, which is why traditional foods so often combine wheat with meat, beans or dairy products). 

It turns out you can't live on bread alone, but you can live quite well without adding much else. 

There's just nothing like the smell of fresh-baked bread to give a feeling of comfort, of being cared for, a confidence that life will go on. It's the basic comfort food. And ... it's best when shared with a dear friend -- thank you for baking, Ron!

The proverbial Egyptian description of a sourpuss is: ''He never smiles, not even for hot bread.'' 

Here's to not being a sourpuss and to friends who break bread together!


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