Saturday, February 7, 2009

Rice is Nice, but...

Bread is life.
In Uganda, one thing that came up a lot was the concept of a staple food. In Africa as in pretty much anywhere else, starch is the central defining feature of regional diet. Bill Buford mentions this in Heat, speaking of the polentoni and the mangiamaccheroni who populate the different regions of Italy.

In much of Africa, the staple starch is cassava, known also as fufu or manioc. In much of Uganda, it is matoke, steamed plantains. Rice is also common, though imported. Because food is tied to regional identity, and because this is reinforced for school children learning about exports and imports, the question 'What is your staple food?' is a fairly common one. For me, coming from New York, food crossroads of a wealthy country, the question took some thought. Is starch, in fact, the bulk of my diet? Or is it steak? Chicken? Do I prefer rice? Polenta? Maybe a new starch every night?
The answer I decided to give was wheat. I'm not sure if I eat more bread than rice by volume, or what I'd prefer under the other elements of my dinner, but I know how I feel about bread. I make it by hand, seek out special ingredients for it, plan meals around its leftovers, and seek it out everywhere I go. Bread is the starch that truly captures my cultural imagination, the metaphorical if not literal stuff of my life. Bread is places, bakeries and ovens, bread is the wheat fields waving in their endless American abundance. In this way, wheat, and by extension bread, is staple. It is my regional identity and all else is a kind of garnish.

It can't be that simple, of course. The real signifiers of my New England regional identity are apples, maple syrup, sweet corn, berries, and ice skates. But somewhere in the great mush of American identity, wheat is the base, and bread is our common understanding of how to eat. (Think, for example, of's a rare place, and usually an 'ethnic' one, that dares to skip the bread basket, or dares to charge diners for it. My grandparents were famously devoted to the bread basket, going into excruciatingly embarrassing and retrospectively hilarious shock when a restaurant failed to provide at least some crackers.)\

Bread is central, and making bread is also central--to my self-perception as a nurturing, capable, crusty post-hippie child. It is transformation and validation and it is delicious. Which is all code for--making bread is one of my greatest pleasures, and having enough time to make it is rare this season. Daniel Leader's recipe for Pane Genzanese (Pane di Genzano, Genzano Country Bread) has become my staple recipe for soft, crusty white bread. It is good every time, and keeps well, but last night's loaf was especially perfect, having avoided the usual frozen-and-impatiently-underthawed fate of most of the bread I bake. I only regret that I have a woozy cold and couldn't really smell it baking. But look at that crumb structure. I guess the fact that I obsess about crumb and hole structures and think anyone else will care means bread is definitely my staple food.

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