And the crimes against it

Wednesday, Feb 11 1998

I love bread. I'm drawn to it the way a love-starved child is drawn to anyone remotely kind. I love its soft, fragrant interior, the random structure of crumbs, the color and shalelike texture of a good crust. If there is no bread in the house, to my mind there is nothing to eat, and I won't even try to assemble a meal without first going to the store. Coming back with baguette in hand, the eggs and bacon and salad greens and carrots and chicken parts and rice in my larder suddenly come into focus. Bread, it would seem, is the necessary primer, the underpainting, the very heart of my every meal.

As a restaurant reviewer, I meet many baskets of bread, always with high hopes that are usually dashed. Many chefs, for inscrutable reasons, insist on making their own breads, and little of it is memorable. I favor naturally yeasted artisan loaves for their depth of flavor, their true heft, their superior crumb and crust. This means, of course, that my favorite restaurant for bread (and all else, too) is Campanile, where the city's one great bread-maker, Nancy Silverton, supplies baked goods from her La Brea Bakery: dinner rolls with tantalizing sourness and good weight; multigrain studded with shiny, wonderful-to-chew flax seed.

I also love, in descending order of preference, the adorable small rounds of fresh bread served hot from the pizza oven with cold butter at Angeli, Da Pasquale, Osteria Nonni and Toto Spaghetteria. At Joe's in Venice, I'm helpless before lightly toasted, faintly sweet brioche, and Patina's rich and close-crumbled brioche also stirs my affections. The basic thickly cut, crusty, snow-white-crumbled sourdoughs at the Grill, the Daily Grill and Musso & Frank are classic, irresistible and possibly the best butter vehicles in town. Julienne's often imitated, never matched rosemary raisin bread has a positively addictive balance of herb and sweetness. And over Il Fornaio's bread or nothing, I'll take its whole wheat. a 17

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The list of restaurant crimes against bread is exhaustive, however, from lackluster, lightweight baguettes to loaves overloaded with oil and herbs, or strong, inferior olives, or, most inexplicable of all, sun- dried tomatoes. Since butter and high-grade olive oils are bread's perfect mates, I'm continuously befuddled by an ongoing culinary competition to come up with alternative toppings, especially low-fat ones. Tapenade can be passable, and I'll eat a good white-bean paste if there's no other choice on the table, but in the course of my dining career, I've sampled enough bizarre vegetable purees, and tahinis, and liver spreads, and chimichurras, and salsas, and infused rancid oils that I've grown phobic at the sight of a ramekin holding anything but pale, beautiful butter.

My love affair with bread has been a long one, marked by various specific obsessions. Bread and butter. Bread and butter with brown sugar. Bread with peanut butter and jelly. Sliced bread. Bagels. White bread, dark bread, challah and hot cross buns. I've made bread. French bread. Squaw bread. Coffee-can bread. Sourdough bread. Tassajara Bread Book bread. Hippie bread so heavy you could brain the dog if you dropped it.

This lifelong devotion is a result, no doubt, of a bread-deprived childhood. Oh, we sometimes had toast at breakfast - one piece was considered sufficient - and sometimes had sandwiches in our lunch boxes, but we never had bread at dinner. My mother deemed bread unnecessary, overly filling and fattening, and also believed it made my father sneeze. His sneezes were terribly loud and resonant and accompanied by a short, involuntary howl. My mother had almost refused to date him because he'd been sneezing when she met him, and she clearly reconsidered the match each time he howled anew. He blamed his sneezing on a wheat allergy, and bread was his scapegoat, thus regulating the family's intake. (Looking back, I realize my father always ate pancakes and flour-thickened gravy to no obvious ill effect. And everybody knows that most rye breads contain a percentage of wheat flours.)

My father worked in East L.A. and patronized the great Jewish bakeries there. He brought home those breads he claimed he could safely eat: weighty discs of pumpernickel, oblong loaves of seeded rye with shiny varnished crusts and caraway seeds; murderously heavy, dense, moist a rounds of chewy corn rye. All the breads my father selected made sandwiches that were peculiarly shaped, pale grey or dark brown in color, and proved most embarrassing in the Altadena school yard, where anything but Wonder Bread was considered un-American. I yearned for the soft, snow-white, perfectly square bread of my sophisticated schoolmates.

On Saturday mornings, leaving my parents to sleep late, my sister and I would slip around the corner to our grandmother's house. She baked her own coarse, dark, fragrant bread, which we ate in toasted, uneven slices with butter; homely as it was, even we children recognized it as a superior product. But my grandmother died when I was five, and her baking legacy is now only a nagging, imperfect memory - how did she get the bread so dark and flavorful? Molasses hasn't worked, and neither have dark flours. Perhaps sometime before I die I'll have one of those great food epiphanies I've read about. M.F.K. Fisher, for example, longed for years for the egg sandwich of her childhood, only to discover its elusive signature flavor came from the wax-paper wrapper. Perhaps I'll discover that the bread was dark because my grandmother burned it. Voila!

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