Take This (Portuguese) Bread

Here is how it happens. I grow up in a place and among a people where bread is somewhat important. … Continued

Here is how it happens.

I grow up in a place and among a people where bread is somewhat important. Every neighborhood has exactly one bakery, where loaves and rolls and raw pizza dough (Fridays only) are sold. The bread you are born into is the bread you eat. Ours is light-colored, more tan than golden, thin crusted, airy inside. The old women know when to go to bring home bread that is still warm. You see them lined up, waiting. All other times the place is nearly empty. If I were born six blocks south, or four blocks east, my bread would be different. Maybe brown and hard outside, or dense and chewy inside.

I move away from that neighborhood, that city, that bread. Now my bread is dark outside, a little yeasty inside. There is no old woman to get it for me while it is warm. Still, it’s bread.
For a while we move to Rome. We live down the block from a bakery that sells to restaurants and bars. Dodging handtrucks and delivery men, I buy pizza bianca and pizza rossa and panini and loaves with olives inside from a floury woman behind a makeshift counter. I go before the sun comes up, when everything they sell is still warm. It all feels foreign yet completely familiar—the bread of breads.

Then we return home. Always there is bread. Now it arrives on a truck, but not from a factory—from a bakery somewhere I’ve never seen. It is misshapen as bread wants to be, and in a paper bag, not in plastic the color of toys.

One day, the store that sells the bread announces it’s closing. I will have no bread except what I can find in supermarkets.

“No other Italian bakeries around here?” I ask the man in the store.

“There’s a Colombian bakery,” he says.

“That’s it?”

“There’s an Ecuadoran bakery,” he says.

“That’s it?”

“There’s a Portuguese bakery,” he says.

“Where?” I ask.

Portuguese, I figure, is southern European, which is close enough. This is nothing against Colombia or Ecuador. I understand my world is changing. I’m just not ready to go that far. Not for bread.

The Portuguese baker is named Tony. He’s short and wears a white T-shirt and a gold cross on a chain. It’s a family business. All good signs.

They make loaves that are golden in color, thin crusted, airy and white inside. They also make bread with a dark, thick crust, so dense and chewy you almost need a hand saw to cut it. It is one of the greatest breads I’ve ever eaten. They also make something they call Portuguese cornbread but doesn’t taste of corn, is dark gray and cracked on the crust, like volcanic rock, and so solid inside that the center looks uncooked. I don’t see how you can eat it except toasted, but it too is a miracle of flour, water, yeast and salt. If you know when to go, you can get bread still warm inside.

I go even when we don’t need bread and buy more than we can eat. I don’t know why. The thought comes that when we find a foreign food and eat it, it becomes less strange, but we are changed, too. It’s a kind of magic, a geo-gastronomical alchemy: As the bread I eat becomes my flesh, now I am less what I was before and more Portuguese. Maybe I’m not ready to become Colombian or Ecuadoran yet. But someday that could change, too.

The fact that all this happened right before Holy Week is mere coincidence. But it makes you think, isn’t this how transubstantiation works, too? Christ said that the bread he and his friends ate at dinner becomes his body. He could have ordered steak and had body and blood all in one dish. But he didn’t. Maybe they weren’t steak eaters. But maybe he had other reasons for telling them this: Eat bread.

Bill Tonelli is editor of “The Italian American Reader,” an anthology published by Wm Morrow in 2003, and contributing editor to Conde Nast Portfolio.

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  • Anonymous

    “Christ said that the bread he and his friends ate at dinner becomes his body. He could have ordered steak and had body and blood all in one dish. But he didn’t. Maybe they weren’t steak eaters. But maybe he had other reasons for telling them this: Eat bread.”Bill Tonelli-During Passover- the blood of the sacrificed lamb is shed. The blood on the door brings salvation as the death angel passes overhead. It is the eve of the Passover and in the Exodus that follows God’s covenant people are delivered from the bondage of Egypt.This is from the book of Exodus- “It is the Lord’s Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the Lord. Now the blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you; and the plague shall not be on you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. So this day shall be to you a memorial; and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord throughout your generations. You shall keep it as a feast by an everlasting ordinance.” On the eve of Passover- Jesus was crucified. The blood of the Promised Sacrifical Lamb was shed. This is the Redemption of sin. It brings Salvation to the world, delivering us from the bondage of sin and death. During the Last Supper- Jesus was celebrating the Feast of Passover with His disciples. In Matthew 26- Jesus says, “As you know, the Passover is two days away—and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” Then- “On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Where do you want us to make preparations for you to eat the Passover?” He replied, “Go into the city to a certain man and tell him, ‘The Teacher says: My appointed time is near. I am going to celebrate the Passover with my disciples at your house.'” So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them and prepared the Passover.””Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body (which is broken for you).” Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my Blood of the Covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” To fully understand the Last Supper you must understand the Feast of the Passover. So- Jesus’ body is the unleavened (sinless) Bread of heaven and His Blood is the atoning Blood of the Lamb.Hope this gives you some help in comprehending the meaning behind the bread and wine..Blessings to you in this holy season.. “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us- therefore let us keep the feast.”1 Corinthians 5:7-8

  • Linda

    I guess all of us Baby Boomers here in American are “Wonder Bread” then, because that’s what we all ate, when Bread stopped being something you got at a little neighborhood Bakery, like the one my parents went to in St. Louis, Mo in the 50’s, & became something you got at the KROGER supermarket.Now, I guess we have all become WALMART SuperStore bread. And we are BECOMING Communist Chinese food, I guess, which is contaminated by poisons.A big change from the little Neighborhood Bakery on Main Street, back in the 50’s!Where did my “AMERICA” disappear to?And why the more we all eat exactly the same Breads from the big box Superstore, are we more DIVIDED than ever, as a people politically?And, why would I ever worship a “God” which was Genocidal? Didn’t God love the Egyptians, too?

  • Little Johnny

    You folks still don’t get it and what they don’t tell you is that:The last supper was a roast of Jesus.What Jesus really said was “Bite Me”. Everybody cracked up.

  • Monte Haun

    “Take This (Portuguese) BreadPosted by Bill Tonelli on March 21, 2008 11:31 A”Monte Haun mchaun@hotmail.com

  • Monte Haun

    “Yeah, but for transubstantiation to work properly you need some Port to go with it.”Actually, Victoria Port works best for the Anglicans and High Churchers.Monte Haun mchaun@hotmail.com

  • jjbauer

    Those of us who can’t face “store bread” buy flour and have learned to make bread at home. Like most things, practice makes perfect, but the only thing that is sacrificed is the time it takes to make it and it is always hot and ready for butter or jam straight out of the oven, or the bread machine if you have to be a tech head.

  • Henrique

    I am Portuguese so do not need introduction to our great bread. I was so happy to read your article, simply because it’s true. In Manhattan, where I live, now even the small delicatessens sell Portuguese bread – the big supermarket chains have their own section of Portuguese bread – lots of different varieties. If you go there after 4:00 pm, most of the times it’s gone… The new yorkers, like you, love the Portuguese bread and it is all over. The Portuguese bread in Manhattan comes mostly from bakeries in Newark, NJ, where a huge Portuguese community is based.

  • words to live by

    And thou shalt remember all the way which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no.And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live.– Deuteronomy 8: 2-3 (KJV)

  • Todd

    Consider as well, so many breads but one humanity. So many loaves, but only one Body. May we remember that in the coming year better than we did last year.

  • don

    recommend the sweet bread. once you have, you will not forget it. this is a staple with the portuguese.

  • Kathryn

    Having grown up in Rhode Island with a surplus of Portuguese bakeries I understand the appeal of Portuguese bread. I once worked with a woman whose mother-in-law made the most amazing sweet bread, and she would bring warm loaves to the office every so often. She teased me last week by e-mailing to tell me she had a loaf on her desk.

  • P J Tramdack

    Try this: In a big bowl sift 3 cups of King Arthur unbleached bread flour with 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon dry yeast. Pour in 1 1/2 cups of water and mix with a rubber spatula without kneading. Cover the dough closely with plastic wrap, put a dish towel over it and put the bowl in the oven with the light on.Let rise 18 hours. That’s right, 18 hours.Without kneading, make the dough into a compact package by folding one way, then the other. Make sure the seam is sealed. Work in the bowl or on a board. Flour well.One hour later, take the bowl OUT of the oven, put the Dutch oven or other heavy iron casserole in the oven and turn the oven on to 550 or as hot as the oven gets. Wait one hour.Put a handful of corn meal in the Dutch oven, and using the rubber spatula pour out the dough into the oven. You don’t want it to stick to the bowl when you are transferring it.Turn the oven down to 475. Put the lid on the Dutch oven and bake for 45 minutes.You may find this burns the bread a little. If so, cut back on the time. The baking time depends on the color of the inside of the vessel you bake the bread in.Try it and experiment with different times and temperatures, but this is the principle.

  • frank burns

    Yes, transubstantiation indeed — eat a lot of bread and you wind up with a lot of flesh around your midsection.

  • Katja

    “He could have ordered steak and had body and blood all in one dish. But he didn’t. Maybe they weren’t steak eaters.”Steak was hugely expensive back then, and not traditional for Passover. As I recall, they did have a Passover lamb, though. But bread was always the staple, and some sort of grain food generally has been since humans developed agriculture (rice, tortillas, bread, oat porridge, whatever).

  • Vaughn

    You might also consider bakng your own, Italian bread -at least if the Portugese bakery is turned Hispanic someday.