A couple of days ago, I stopped at DiCamillo’s, a local Italian-American bakery. Recently my wife and I have been in the habit of buying freshly made Italian-style bread. This is not a new habit, but periodically we go off white bread since most nutritionists consider it unhealthy. At the moment, it’s taste over health.
There are not many bread choices locally. In twenty-first century America, most people buy Wonder Bread style bread. It keeps well, it is sliced, and it makes reasonable toast and sandwiches. But traditional Italian bread, with a crispy exterior and a soft interior is so much better.
DiCamillo’s business began in Niagara Falls in the early twentieth century, and continues there to this day. My grandparents lived across the street from the original bakery on 20th Street, and, through the Fulgenzis, I am connected by webs of affinity and kinship. Not so well connected, however, that I get my bread free.
Last Wednesday I was on my way to an appointment with my dentist, and stopped at the Linwood Avenue bakery to buy bread. I was pressed for time, and the clerk was indulging another patron who went on and on about taking the bakery’s products to her sister in Pittsburgh. When my turn finally came, I asked, as I always do, for a large, unsliced loaf. The clerk selected the bread from a stack of four, carefully taking the furthest from the front. I wondered about that, and noticed as I left the bakery that the crust was surprisingly hard for freshly baked bread. Later at home, my wife and I agreed that the bread wasn’t as fresh as it usually is. On my next trip to DiCamillo’s, the same clerk was there and I told her that the bread she had sold me had not been fresh. This did not go over well with her. “Our bread is always fresh,” she replied with indignation. I asked when bread was made, and was told whenever it was needed. And there I left things as far as the clerk was concerned. However, I had purchased the bread at about 10:30 in the morning, so the bread had probably been made the previous night to have a crust so hard. Were the loaves that she didn’t give me fresher? I hope not. A good bakery (and honest business) doesn’t push old goods at a premium price.
Now why make such a fuss over bread? The answer is that it is a staple of life, and in many places regarded almost religiously. Once some of my secular French friends told me how happy they would be to finally cross the border and leave Spain, where the bread was “infecte,” and finally enjoy a French loaf!
In Morocco, one could find well-made French bread in the large cities, as well as loaves and baguettes that looked French, but weren’t quite there. On the other hand, many Moroccan families made their own bread in the local communal oven (el ferran). In Sefrou, Gaylord Barr and I shared a maid, Khadija Demnati, who cleaned, washed clothes, shopped, and, of course, made bread every day of the week. There was a large bag of flour in the room that served as the kitchen, and the daily routine involved Khadija making bread, taking it to the ferran, and returning with it still warm and aromatic. I think she also made bread for her family, with our flour, but we did not begrudge her that.
As a result, there was fresh bread most of the time. Normal meals were tajines, eaten out of a common plate, with the bread being used to pick up the juices and small pieces. Not surprisingly, Moroccan bread is just right for that. I did not live a rich life in those days, but it was privileged. I had a couple of hundred dollars a month as an allowance, and it went a long way. What a luxury to eat freshly made bread on a daily basis!
Bread has its special status, too, but I leave commentary on that to my Muslim readers. It was considered a shame to throw away good food. If one found a piece of bread in the street, the proper thing to do was to lift it off the ground, and put it in the crook of a tree, or on a wall, so if someone less fortunate happened by, they might find it. I can remember doing it myself once.
Here is a rather unconventional use of stale Moroccan bread soaked in condensed milk: cat and tortoise food!