Bread Is Not the Devil

It turns out refined grains are making us fat. It has been noted that the staff of life has become Mephistopheles’ scepter of death. We must “fight the hellish cravings,” free ourselves from the devil that is gluten, from that most evil of all trifectas: challah, pannetone, and baguette.

Like a good many people on this planet, I was born to a mother and father who fed us adequate portions of fruits, vegetables, and meat, but knew better than to waste their money on foods that would not fill us up. Instead, they fed us starch. Bread, pasta, dumplings, pizza, perogies: these were the foods of my childhood; these are the foods I eat when I want to feel comforted and sated. Loved.

Always on that childhood dinner table, beside the main dish, green salad, and the gravy boat, a loaf of Italian bread. Before the meal, while we waited to be served, we ate bread. Out of respect for the cook, to honor and appreciate that we were not among those who went without, we wiped our plates clean with bread. For we knew, upon inspecting our barren plates, plates barely needing to be washed, plates from which nothing could be scraped, that we’d be excused, that we would be free to head out into the early evening air to play baseball with the neighbor kids, the growling in our bellies fully quelled.

In much of the world, the coveted starch is rice. In India, it’s dahl baht, spiced lentils served over rice. Across Southeast Asia, a mouth-watering porridge known as congee. In the Philippines there’s biko, a sweet rice dish topped with caramelized coconut syrup. In Spain, arroz con pollo; in Greece: dolmas; In Mexico: burritos; in Korea, bibimbap.

In the Middle East, the word for bread is “aysh,” life itself. In the Arab world, if a piece of bread falls to the ground, it is picked up and kissed, then eaten. In Spain, bread that has fallen to the floor es pane de dio (God’s bread). Saj, kmaj, marook, marquq, injera, lahoh, kisra: these are the names for the teff floured, sourdough-risen flatbread cherished across the African continent.

In the early 20th century, my great-grandmother Victoria Bullock left her native Poland and sailed to America on a steamship. When she arrived in Philadelphia, she headed straight for a small town loaded with Polish immigrants. Soon after, she met and married John Pickarski. Together they bore thirteen children, one of them my grandma Vicky. When we visited grandma and gramps in “Pennsy,” we walked down to Shenowether’s for penny candy, harvested vegetables from a substantial backyard garden, and ate huge vats of ‘vittles,’ my gramps’ expression for good home cooking. Both of my grandparents worked in the cigar factory down in the valley, but when we showed up my grandma would take time off from work to cook, sew, garden, and can with us. In their home we ate the foods of my great-grandmother’s homeland: halushki, perogies, poppyseed cake and nut-roll bread. Halushki consisted of two ingredients doused with salt and pepper: fried cabbage and egg noodles. Perogies, the mother of all starch bombs, was a giant mashed potato and cheese-stuffed dumpling fried in butter. Cabbage and starch and fat. Starch and starch and fat. Bread and sugar and fat. These were the staples served up during those memorable weeks of family togetherness in the hills of Western PA. I can’t imagine those meals not being accompanied with huge slabs of my grandma’s homemade loaves smothered in sweet cream butter. 

But it wasn’t only my mom’s side of the family waving the carbo flag. My dad’s ancestors hailed from Italy. Lucky for us he’s Neapolitan, because the only food we liked better than spaghetti was pizza. On pizza night, my father would don the orange-and-purple plaid apron I sewed in 6th grade home ec (he never once teased me about the fact that I couldn’t gather a seam), and hurl dough into the air. I watched in amazement as he rolled it out to a papery thinness, then deftly ladled and spread the zesty marinara. Next, he placed small squares of mozzarella to form a ‘margarita’ (daisy) on the pizza tray. The final touch was a healthy dousing of olive oil, then into the oven until the crust was golden and crispy. I still recall that heavenly first bite, the cheese resisting the tooth, the sweet tanginess of his homemade tomato sauce, the hints of fresh oregano and basil (we grew both in our yard). Salute, we toasted, raising our glasses “to health” before nourishing ourselves with not the devil of refinement but the angel of our most revered ancestral past.

Photo by Langdon Cook.
Photo by Langdon Cook.

Martha Silano’s books include Blue Positive (Steel Toe Books), The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception and Reckless Lovely(both from Saturnalia Books), and What the Truth Tastes Like (Two Sylvias Press). She also co-edited, with Kelli Russell Agodon,The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts For Your Writing Practice. Martha‘s poems have appeared in Poetry, Paris Review, North American Review, and elsewhere. She edits Crab Creek Review and teaches at Bellevue College.

feature image via Semifreddis.

1 Comment

  1. Beth Gylys

    Thanks for this delightful essay. I’m also Polish-Italian, and I too connected with family through the foods that we consumed together : pasta and pierogis, pizza and dumplings…Food has always been a blessing in my family, the fulcrum around which we communed.