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
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!
la recherche de pain perdu.
During college I spent one miserable summer in San Francisco at the house of family friends. There was a big stainless-steel bread box and matching toaster in the kitchen, and an endless supply of Orowheat Wheatberry bread, which I ate compulsively, half a loaf at a time, toasted or made into peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The father of the house was a cheerful drinker who, after downing five or 10 gin martinis, began to recite Shakespearean monologues. His own children fled, but I, desperate for company, would hear him out. Together we performed a kind of clumsy kitchen ballet. He'd thunder forth while unobtrusively gliding between the ice tray, the gin bottle and the olives, while I'd listen rapt during peregrinations to the bread box, the peanut butter and the jelly. I gained 15 pounds, not to mention verbatim knowledge of several famous monologues, including Falstaff's paean to sherry (“sack”) and alcoholism in Henry IV Part 2: “If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them should be, to forswear thin potations and addict themselves to sack.”
Back at school in Iowa, I learned to make quite a good French bread, from a woman named Rosalind, the art-history professor's wife. Because there was no decent bread available at any price, she felt forced to make her own. Rosalind's bread was white and dense and crusty, quite good, especially toasted. Yet, it is not Rosalind's bread recipe that has stuck with me all these years, but her toast-making technique, which remains, to my mind, the apex of all toast-making techniques, and as an act of great generosity, I'll now pass it onto you:
Cut bread into 3/4-inch slices and toast one side under the broiler. Open broiler and turn toast. On the untoasted side, lay not-thin squares of cold butter. Stick slices back under broiler until the butter is melted and the toast browned. Eat, if desired, with additional slices of cold sweet butter.
Twenty years later, when I quit smoking for good (knock wood), such toast comprised a significant portion of the 20 pounds I gained. One minute, I'd be working at my desk; the next thing I knew, I'd be three blocks away in the checkout line of a supermarket, a bag of French bread and a half-pound of butter in my hands. Heaven. Better than smoking. Worth every added ounce.
In the last decade, I attended seminary for two years and there, at chapel services, they used bread for communion. Large, round, unsliced loaves of white were broken at the altar, the pieces dipped in grape juice and handed to the supplicants. I, personally, didn't partake. When I was 11, I spent Saturday night at a friend's house and the next morning went with her family to mass. My friend encouraged me to take communion. Later, her older sister authoritatively declared that I would go to hell for receiving communion a) unbaptized and b) without going first to confession. This set me against communion for life. Once, at chapel in seminary, there was a big kind of multiculti communion where different ethnic groups – Samoans, Africans, Mexicans et cetera – brought their different breads and, well, it was simply irresistible to a bread lover, hell or no hell.
Bread is the staple, the comfort, the great love of my eating life. If I had a thousand sons, the first humane principle I would teach them would be to forswear thin potations and addict themselves to BREAD.
Recommended breads: La Brea Bakery, 624 S. La Brea Blvd., (213) 939-6813; Angeli, 727 Melrose Ave., (213) 936-9086; Da Pasquale, 9749 Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 859-3884; Osteria Nonni, 3219 Glendale Blvd., Atwater, (213) 666-7133; Toto Spaghetteria, 11047 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A., (310) 312-6664; Joe's, 1023 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, (310) 399-5811; Patina, 5955 Melrose Ave., (213) 467-1108; The Grill, 9560 Dayton Way, Beverly Hills, (310) 276-0615; The Daily Grill, 100 N. La Cienega Blvd., (310) 659-3100; Musso & Frank Grill, 6667 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (213) 467-5123; Julienne, 2649 Mission St., San Marino, (626) 441-2299; Il Fornaio, 301 Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 550-8330.