By Anthony Deyal
The love of bread is deeply engrained in me. Naan or pan, salt or malt, patty or pita, rye or dry, hops or drops, bagels or baguettes, croutons or croissants, they are all bread, the staff of life on a musical scale that begins with dough, goes far, and then ends with dough. I am a well-bread, bread-minded, well-endoughed, Caribbean man. If I were to be reincarnated as a fruit or vegetable, I would return as a bread nut. Even in my extreme old age, I can be described as “well bread”. As I travel through the Caribbean, when people call me “Breads” or “Breaddah,” I marvel at their perceptiveness and insight. How do they know that bread is my favourite food?
My preferred hymn is “Oh Breadder Man” and my supplication of choice is the Lord’s Prayer which includes, “Give us this day our daily bread.” From the day I left school, I religiously obeyed the dictum about eating bread by the sweat of my brow and had more perspiration than inspiration. Now, with increasing age and high blood pressure, I have mellowed so much that people who once ran from me, now refer to me as “the salt of the earth”. While the sodium chloride has turned into “Sodium and No-morrah,” the bread, bake and roti are still my self-rising, all-purpose, flour power. Whatever the bread, whether it rises or falls, is hard or soft, sweet or sour, they are all like my children, full of Bajan pride and the good life.
This is why, when I heard a BBC news story about “panis quadrutus” in Pompeii, I made sure I had got the first word right. “Panis” is bread and while the great Roman satirist, Juvenal, preached that if you give the people “bread and circuses” they will never revolt, as far as I am concerned you can keep your circuses. Give me the bread since there is no bread so revolting that I will not eat it. “Quadrutus” means “four” and that is the exact number of people in our house all locked down together so there is a slice of the good life for each of us. Worse, there is no bread joke so revolting that I would not use it today to provide some comic relief for my friends who, like me and my family, are going through a truly tough time.
Bread has long been associated with core human values. It is not accidental that we call money, the basis of our economic transactions, “bread” or “dough”. Gratitude has always been expected from someone who breaks bread with you and this is the lesson of the last supper where Christ broke bread with his disciples and called it his body. In Trinidad, we call those we treat like brothers – “breds”. One of the great miracles occurred when Christ multiplied a few loaves of bread and a few fish into a feast for thousands who followed him. The birth of Christ was heralded by a star in the yeast. It was a rising star and the three men who followed the trail of crumbs were truly wise to do so. After all, you can’t eat gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Interestingly, like all food, bread is closely associated with sex. A bakery in Kingston hired a young lady with one eccentric characteristic. She wore extremely short skirts. The bakery had a small storefront so it was necessary to have the various products on shelves and then use a ladder to reach the highest items. Even though the favourite bread of Jamaicans is raisin bread, the owner of the bakery, whether unthinkingly or deliberately, kept the raisin bread on the uppermost shelf. One day a young man came in, saw the young woman and glanced at the loaves of bread behind the counter. “I’d like some raisin bread, please,” he said politely. The girl climbed up a ladder to reach the raisin bread.
As she came down the ladder with the bread, a small group of male customers began to gather around and pretty soon they were all asking for raisin bread, just to see her climb up and down. After a while, she got tired and irritated by all this, and from the top of the ladder, noticed an elderly man standing in the middle of the group. “Is yours raisin too?” she asked. “No,” he replied cheerily, “but it’s starting to twitch.”
The Jamaican love for raisin bread has spread to the rest of the region. A dying Trini who knew that his time would soon come, called his wife, Linda, who was in the kitchen and told her softly, “Darling, I know you’re busy baking but I smell some of the wonderful raisin bread that you’re making and I would really like a piece of it before I go.” “You can’t have that,” she scolded him, “I am saving it for the wake.” Then there was the Barbadian who kept going to the doctor because he thought he was a slice of raisin bread. He had written in his will that he wanted to be placed in a baking sheet and pre-heated to 6,000 degrees. The doctor took one look at the man and said crustily, “You’ve got to stop loafing around and attend to the kneads of your family.”
My Jamaican colleague and friend, sociologist Dr Fred Nunes, once came up with a syllogism that showed the power of bread. He deduced, “Half a loaf is better than nothing. Nothing is better than justice. So, half a loaf is better than justice.” In fact, just to show how right Fred was, there is the story of a lady who picketed the Governor-General’s mansion in Australia demanding that her husband be released from jail. When asked, she admitted that he had been imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread.
The Governor was touched. “He must have been a very good husband and father,” the Governor reacted gently. “No,” the woman replied frankly. “He beats me when he gets drunk, he bullies our children, he’s unfaithful, and really not much good at all.” The Governor was concerned. “It sounds to me as though you’re better off without him,” advised the Governor. “Why on earth do you want him out of jail?” “Well,” she explained, “we’re out of bread again.”
I had a rye smile when I heard this especially since my Trini friends insist that “man cannot live by bread alone” but needs some bake and saltfish too. My Guyanese family and friends go a little further. They have a distinct lemon-flavoured bread known as “Tennis Rolls”. I love them so much that when Guyanese friends brought a bagful for us a few years ago, I started on it immediately knowing that if I didn’t my daughter Jasmine would eat all when she woke up. Unfortunately, Indranie decided to disrupt my delight with a demand that I help her with some chicken she was cooking for the visitors. Even though she is Guyanese, and knows how much I love her and the bread, she was unimpressed when I responded, “I too busy to stop now girl. I’m on a roll!”
*Tony Deyal a crusty old man, recalled the two poor insects who left home to make some dough. One became a roll-model and the other, whose life was filled with many turnovers because of his half-baked schemes, died before knowing how much he was kneaded. He was known as the lesser of the two weevils.