Each face in the street is a slice of bread
—W.S. Merwin, from “Bread”
Don’t eat it on the street.
You’ll be tempted. The first time you leave the boulangerie, for instance, chastened by your inability to competently count out Euro coins. You’ll have a long, fragrant, warm loaf wrapped in paper tucked under your arm, and it will tempt you to just take a nibble, whispering sweet nothings into your nose. Baguettes are sensuous, impish, living things.
But resist. Scuttle homeward, toward your sublet, and silence the yeasty siren.
As you hurry on your way, Parisians stroll past you chattering with their friends, looking elegant, clad in loafers and sunglasses and tailored Oxford shirts. They lead impeccably dressed children down the street. They do not clutch takeaway coffee cups or half-eaten donuts. Since the sidewalk is narrow, turn sideways to let them pass. Nod to their murmurs of merci. You don’t know how to say “no problem” yet. You don’t know much of anything here. You can maybe count to four: une, deux, trois, quatre.
Soon enough, you’ll realize that guidebooks lie. Parisians rip the tips off their baguettes all the time and munch on the way home. Even those for whom this is quite literally their daily bread, their pain quotidien, can’t resist the seduction. But they don’t eat more than just the knob; the rule is that you don’t eat, you dine. You sit down and notice what’s happening.
Some people thank the animal they’re about to eat for its sacrifice. That seems a little far out. But when one living thing is about to eat another, the least the predator can do is look at its prey. This is the stuff of life, the corpus of Being itself.
When you get home, don’t get out the knife.
Unless you work in a restaurant kitchen, or are making lunch sandwiches — stuffed with curried chicken salad, or Italian meat and pickles and butter, or brie — unless you’re doing those things, don’t let your baguette even see a knife. Perhaps the sight of impending violence toughens the loaf, like a lobster boiled alive or a stressed-out cow. In any case, don’t cut a baguette. Approach it stealthily, then rip it apart.
Tiny baguette crumbs will spray everywhere, into your hair, your sweater, your cup of tea. They will sneak between the pages of your books and fall into the cracks next to your laptop keys.
This act of ripping seems muscular and violent. To soften it, think of it as that long-ago relationship with the man whom you liked a great deal, but who was all wrong for whatever reason. Hold the baguette gently so as not to flatten it on either end, yours or his. Tear softly, letting the pieces come apart naturally where the cracks had already formed. After you rip, little bits of one end or the other will stick to the torn baguette.
You can never fit something like that back together. No split is perfect, but bread tastes better torn messily, and anyhow, that’s never the end of the story. Better things are always on their way.
Butter is not for dinner. In Paris, buttered bread is only for breakfast. It softens the last bit of baguette left over from last night’s dinner, something to start the day afresh. On first blush, this is a tragedy, because French butter is a creamy nectar churned by God’s own hand. You can buy it in a big block for a couple Euros at the grocery store, and it has flakes of salt in it. They crunch just the tiniest bit and taste like a secret, private joy.
If you have any sense at all, you’ll become obsessed with the butter. Every time you talk to someone, talk about butter. Tweet about it. Bore your husband with your exclamations. Hatch plans to spirit it out of the city and home in your suitcase, despite your two five-hour flights and a three-night stopover. Personally eat at least three pounds of it in six weeks.
Remember margarine commercials on TV back when you were a kid? Remember the one that featured a sunrise? French butter is what you were expecting from that commercial, instead of the tasteless plastic you wound up spreading on your toast at your grandma’s cholesterol-conscious table. French butter is captured salty starlight, and also the silk of a row of scarves hanging in a shop window, and the color of the sky as the sun sets over the Eiffel Tower you can just barely glimpse from your terrace. It only comes home in memory.
So borrow last night’s sunset to soften your morning. New mercies.
At dinner you won’t need butter anyway, because everything is delicious. All delicacies in France seem designed to be spread onto bread, or mopped up by it. It’s all puréed and mashed and turned into pastes. Eventually you’ll start to wish for food you can chew that isn’t baguette, but it will take at least a month, so enjoy the creamy cheese, stinky cheese, pâté, rillette, anything you can imagine. Eat terrines made from rabbit and prunes, or chicken and nougat, or four kinds of vegetables, or pot au feu, or duck and blue cheese. At cafés, they’ll bring you a basket full of sliced baguette so you can mop up the salty, pungent sauces, the brines, the garlicky mussels broth, the parmesan-laden dressings left over from your meal.
You might be deceived into thinking a baguette exists to soak up the flavors of whatever is around it, some kind of chewy popular pushover that will be whatever it’s asked to be. But baguette is no weakling. It’s white bread, technically, but wholly unlike American sandwich bread, about which Julia Child remarked, “How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?” If you vary your supplier, you’ll start to notice that every place has slightly different tasting bread, with a different texture. Some are saltier, while others favor the grain or the yeast. Some are dense, and others are cake-like, and some have huge holes in them.
This variance is surprising, because the recipe for baguette is fixed by French law. There are some sanctioned varieties, like the more expensive traditional version versus the cheap one most everyone eats, but for the most part they stick to the rules. So what explains the variety? A lot of things: the quality of the ingredients, the skill of the baker, and the ovens, the places where the dough becomes bread.
One day you’ll find yourself walking down the street, not eating baguette, and wondering what you’d be like if you had been raised here, in Paris. Whether you’d be more elegant, less angular. Whether you’d take life more in stride — work to live rather than live to work, as people keep telling you the French do. Hold your own in loud, smoky conversations about philosophy. Pronounce beurre properly. Wear heels. Be bilingual.
Like baguette, soon enough you will take on the flavor of Paris. You will drink café at the end of your meal and realize nothing is open on Tuesdays. But the dough of you was raised in New York, and it is salty. You walk a little too fast and you smile politely at anything called a “bagel.” You secretly judge shopkeepers when they close for two hours mid-day. You can ride the Metro skillfully, but you forget to bid shopkeepers bonjour and au revoir, and get grumpy when there’s no air conditioning in the movie theater.
You feel just a little friction. You are not quite as adaptable and urbane as you imagine. You rely on security more than you’d like to admit. Stranger, don’t get too comfortable in a strange land.
Pain looks like “pain” when you write it down. When you were a kid, the mall had an Au Bon Pain that served lukewarm soup and soggy sandwiches. Every time you read the sign, you wondered what people were doing in a place that said it would cause pain.
Then one day, your church got a new pastor who had lived with his family in Paris for ten years. In talking about the parable of the loaves and fishes, he explained the French words pain and poisson, and said he got a chuckle out of Jesus multiplying pain and poison to feed the masses. Ah.
So eat a baguette while thinking about all the people for whom bread actually does cause pain. People with celiac disease. Calorie-counters at Italian restaurants. The people whom Gandhi said are so hungry that they can only see God as a loaf of bread. Jean Valjean, losing nineteen years of his life because he stole a loaf to feed his family.
There are a lot of stories about hungry people getting miracle bread. In the desert, the children of Israel ate manna, bread from heaven. The story says it appeared every morning, enough for everyone, whether or not they were grumbling for quail or cucumbers. It looked like bdellium, a sort of oily dark brown rock, and tasted like wafers made with honey. It would melt in the sun, and anything stored overnight would “breed worms and stink.” They could only gather what they needed for the day, except on the day before the Sabbath, when they were allowed to gather twice as much; even the bakery in heaven takes the day off. (A text in the Sunni Muslim tradition suggests that truffles are part of the manna sent from Allah.)
Every morning, without fail, the smell of the baguettes baking at the boulangerie across the street wafts through your open window and whisper you awake.
One afternoon you make a mistake. You buy two baguettes, worried you won’t have time to buy one tomorrow, and how hard can one baguette get in 24 hours, anyhow?
Then tomorrow comes. The squirreled-away baguette’s crust is so hard you can smack it on the counter and it won’t break. It is like a crouton — one big, long, stick of crouton. It has not bred worms and it does not stink, but you can’t eat it either.
In your real life, you like to stock up, relying on your own ingenuity and foresight. Wince as you try to break the baguette one more time. Maybe right now you’re in Paris, dining while sitting down, saving butter for the morning, learning to count to five, but probably you’re just the same person, wherever you are, same fear, same neuroses, same old tired you.
Then, all at once: a miracle. The baguette cracks. It cracks and cracks some more, till the pieces are smaller. Follow your nose. Cut up some tomatoes and cucumbers, and put everything in a big bowl. A generous helping of olive oil, some salt and pepper, a little minced garlic. Mix it all up. Let it sit all night on the counter.
At dinner the next day, the baguette will be soft again, flavored with everything around it but back to its chewy cheerful self. You’ve made panzanella from your mistake. Not a French dish, but a delicious one. The shards of your worry, mixed with the generosity of summer and tomatoes, together are delight.
Alissa Wilkinson is the chief film critic at Christianity Today and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. Her writing appears in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Pacific Standard, Movie Mezzanine, Books & Culture, and other venues. Her book How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World, co-written with Robert Joustra, is due out from Eerdmans next spring.