There's a classic country song called "Please Pass the Biscuits," made famous by Jimmy Dean, in which a young boy seated around a huge family dinner table laments about the struggle to get a biscuit from the bread basket going 'round. He makes it clear to the listener that he has every other food item on his plate, and is ready to eat, but can't begin to think about enjoying his meal until he gets a piece of bread. He almost cries out in desperation as each person around the table takes a biscuit, or even two, while he hasn't even had one. Toward the end of one of the verses, he puts it plainly, "I just can't eat without bread." The background singers join together to restate his dilemma at the song's conclusion: "There's something the matter / No bread on the platter / And he just can't eat without bread." As far back as I can remember, I've always loved bread. It was a fundamental piece—or slice—of daily life. Eating it when I was hungry was second nature. It seemed so obvious, like drinking water when thirsty, or going to bed when tired.
I ate bread in many different forms. I regularly consumed as much pizza as I could, always eating the crusts, sometimes even saving them for last, savoring their pure unadulterated bready goodness. The toppings were basically like icing on a cake—just an ornamental flourish to pay tribute to the regal bread base beneath that made the whole meal worthwhile. Bread was one of mankind's earliest forms of prepared food. In a very real way, it was an early form of alchemy—taking these crude plant materials and transforming them into something valuable and nourishing. Going back to the early days of civilization, bread was very much like gold, but even more crucial—mankind could survive without gold, but not nourishment. It's no coincidence that we sometimes use the word "bread" for "money." It's like the currency of life. It is symbolic of sustenance, of body and spirit—the biblical daily bread.
And it is a tragedy of biblical proportions that we now busy ourselves with doubting the value and goodness of bread. In America, we've declared war on our old dietary companion (in other parts of the world, it's much more literal). We've developed an aggressive skepticism about our need for it, and a sudden suspicion that all along it's been causing us more harm than good, that it makes us fat or wrecks havoc on our blood sugar. Our increasing wisdom seems to be teaching us that some of the things we assumed were propelling us forward were actually holding us back. This desire to better ourselves, even when unnecessary, is integral to human nature. We are never satisfied or satiated. We believe we can know better and know more, and that the things we once knew to be true are indeed false. Like coffee before it, bread is no longer a sustaining staff of life, it is now the enemy, something that should be avoided.
That's so strange! Most people I know like it! There's this kind of punishment in keeping these simple, innocent pleasures like bread from oneself. Whatever potential harm we now believe bread is doing, if it's so satisfying, so enjoyable, and so pleasurable to eat, why would we be quicker to doubt those impulses than the supposed "progress" that tells us how harmful it is? Especially given there's no consensus on its negative effects?
The games many of us play with food in our daily living—making ourselves feel guilty about the times we eat "bad food," building whole structures of activity around our avoidance of certain behaviors—are understandable. We have such limited abilities when it comes to controlling the world we develop superficial techniques to strain and sort out parts of life—like bread—and think that by engaging in this pathetic editing effort, we're somehow gaining dominion over the otherwise chaotic whirlwind of being alive. I even bought into it myself for about a year, trying to eliminate bread from my diet after I'd heard that this thing that has been around for ages and given me much pleasure over my entire life was likely harming me. During my abstinence from bread, I didn't feel any physically better, but I definitely felt psychologically worse.
We devote ourselves to rules and rituals about what to eat and what not to eat. From bread, to corn, to meat, to almonds, it changes often. It gives structure and purpose to our otherwise flailing attempts to carve out meaning and clarity from a seemingly desolate and indifferent universe. We're under the impression that we're systematically eliminating risks and reducing harm, and that with careful study and research, we can keep hacking away at life until it conforms to our particular desires. Deep down inside, we realize this is nonsense. In the end, we understand that it's just another futile distraction keeping our larger, looming existential anxieties at bay. When I tried to carve bread out of my own life, it took on that special trait anything you try to ignore is imbued with: It became taboo. Suddenly it was more sacred and prized than ever. My avoidance of bread ended up placing it atop an inverted pedestal. By trying to eliminate it, I empowered it. Our ancestors in the Victorian era achieved something very similar with sex. Today, I enjoy bread more than ever, and without guilt—trying to eliminate it for a short time has only increased my appreciation for it. I can't really think of any type of bread I don't like: crackers, cakes, cookies, loaves, dense multi-grains, crusty loaves, airy whites—all things baked. One of my favorite go-to snacks is eating a loaf of sliced sandwich bread, one piece at a time, straight out of the bag. No mayo, no butter, no nothing. I don't even bother to toast it.
I'm willing to do whatever it takes to be able to eat the foods that bring me joy. I would rather eat bread and exercise for three hours than not eat bread at all. Bread is a riddle that doesn't need to be solved. Some things in life make it worth living, even if they are (supposedly) killing you. Long live bread. Long live joy.
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