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Bread Upon the Bayou: Part I

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Nothing about New Orleans cuisine is more important to natives than bread. Ask any New Orleanian about their trip to a foreign land such as New York City, Chicago or Tupelo, and they will tell you what a wonderful and exciting place they had visited, then add, dolefully, “But we couldn’t find a good French bread anywhere.”

It’s something a visitor to New Orleans can’t quite appreciate. With so much food to fall in love with, many tourists aren’t able to differentiate one dish from the next. And few would single out the bread that was served with their crawfish étouffée, shrimp rémoulade or artichoke macque choux.

There’s nothing fancy about the bread. It has a crusty outside, a soft-but-dry inside, the nutritional value of packing popcorn and the shelf life of a female mayfly.

The bread takes on two different forms as it becomes stale. First, the loaf gets soft and spongy, like a flavorless marshmallow. In the end, it becomes hard and brittle, like a Styrofoam brick. Only the fresh and brick stages have edible value (the fresh being obvious, the final stage as bread crumbs).

It’s that middle stage where all the Sturm and Drang of buying bread resides, especially when you’re a youth with little experience who has been sent off to buy with the command, “Make sure it’s fresh,” uttered with the severity and threat of a Reichsführer.

Now, hot French bread is delivered throughout the city in a daylong frenzy of speeding trucks and vans, as if they’re delivering human organs for transplant. Where I grew up on the outskirts of New Orleans, deliveries were more erratic, especially to our corner store. With no timetable, I embarked on these journeys like a yeasty Magellan, with only my emerging sense of touch to guide me.

The bread was arrayed vertically, like projectiles, in bins. You could tell from the condition of the paper wrappers and the depleted, wilted position of the loaves which ones had already been tested and rejected. But the rest were a mystery.

You gave each a soft squeeze, then another, firmer squeeze, looking for that almost imperceptible combination of crustiness and softness that indicated a keeper. (Don’t worry about Mr. Emmett telling you not to squeeze the loaves. New Orleans storeowners knew squeezing was the only way to ascertain that the bread was fresh and that the buyer wasn’t going to have it swung at his face by a parent, as if he were a fastball, when he took it home.)

Having made your selection, you went home with the same sickening feeling you had when delivering a marginal report card. You could be a straight-A student, but if you didn’t learn the difference between a fresh and not-fresh loaf of French bread, you would still earn the scorn and shame of your parents.

“Say, congratulations on your son’s acceptance to Harvard.”

“Oh yeah? Take a bite out of the bread that idiot brought home for the celebration.”

Reid Champagne’s wife, Denise, still says her husband has the most careful touch of anybody she’s ever met.

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