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