3 Mar 2014

Bagel or beigel? Our daily bread.

I say 'baygel'. A writer friend, from a Jewish family, pronounces it 'buygel'. When I met them on a supermarket shelf for the first time, in Florida in the summer of 1988, I was impressed by their versatility: plain, onion, poppy seeded, something very speckled (this could have been what I've since discovered is called 'Everything') and cinnamon and raisin. This is a bread roll that knows how to compete, I thought. A bread roll that goes the distance.

It was Andrea, the wife of the British artist, Barry Leighton Jones, who we were living with that summer who introduced them to me: lightly toasted, spread with cream cheese, draped with smoked salmon, and crowned with fresh onion and tomato. That's tomahto not tomayto! 

Cream cheese and smoked salmon on toast is nice but it doesn't compare with a bagel, its hint of resistance when you first bite, before your teeth sink into the doughy interior. This is dough that persists, pushes and wraps into every miniature crevasse in your mouth. But no-one can resist softness, pliability; it would be just too damn rude to complain, rather like criticising champagne for its bubbles.

Hungry writing prompt
Write about something or someone that is persistent, something or someone that won't go away.

When I eat them now I always remember that surprising summer of orange
trees in the garden, a swimming pool the temperature of a warm bath, flash rain storms that could turn a parking lot into a lake within minutes. And mosquitoes. And the first words I ever wrote, the beginning of myself as a writer. And long thin lasagne sheets with rippled edges that Andrea used to roll up around a mixture of ricotta cheese and spinach and bake in a tomato sauce. I'd like to find those again. 

How can a simple bread roll be capable of reviving such rich memories, such deep emotion? Maybe because it's something that's intrinsic to our life experience, the ordinary (in its place in the past and present kitchens of our imaginations) and the reverential ('Give us this day our daily bread'). And it is capable of such weight too, such significance: hunger and revolution, fairy tales and the terrible truth of history.

The Lord's Prayer in Welsh
Here's an excerpt from my book, forgiving the rain, about bread, about its power and its glory:

"At school and at Sunday-school I closed my eyes, clasped my hands together and prayed in English and Welsh: Give us this day our daily bread: Dyro i ni heddiw ein bara beunyddiol, words I repeated by rote that meant nothing to me. 

It came to us in a van that toured the estate street by street whose back doors opened to slatted shelves and the smell of flour, where I gazed at the plump Cottage loaves and imagined carrying one home in my arms like a baby. But I always parted with the half-crown piece for the disappointingly smooth, pale crust of a Sandwich Loaf that my mother would slice with a silver knife.  

At mealtimes, unless there was gravy on our plates, it sat in the middle of the table – bread and butter, bara menyn – thin slices, cut in half, which we were expected to eat, out of habit, tradition, a memory of hunger." 

What are your memories of bread? The crusts, the crumbs?