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Bread Upon the Bayou

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Ask any New Orleans native about their recent trip to New York City, Chicago or Tupelo, and they’ll tell you what a wonderful and exciting place they visited—before adding dolefully, “But we couldn’t find good French bread anywhere.”

Illustration by Stefano MorriIt’s something a NOLA visitor can’t quite appreciate. With so much food to fall in love with, most of us aren’t able to grasp the nuances from one great dish to the next. And few would single out the bread served with their crawfish étouffée, shrimp remoulade or artichoke macque choux. But for locals, a good meal starts and ends with a fresh loaf of French—and “fresh,” by the way, is life-and-death critical.

There’s nothing fancy about this bread—crusty outside, soft but dry inside, with the nutritional value of packing popcorn and the shelf life of a female mayfly (which lives for about five minutes, so this is an exaggeration—but only if you’re not from New Orleans).

The bread takes on two different forms as it becomes stale. First, it gets soft and spongy like a flavorless marshmallow. Then it becomes hard and brittle like a Styrofoam brick. Only the fresh and brick stages have edible value—the final stage is useful for bread crumbs or a small baseball bat. Therein resides the sturm und drang of buying bread, especially when you’re a youth of great promise but little experience—one who’s been sent off on a mission with a “make sure it’s fresh!” command uttered with the severity of a Reichsführer.

These days, hot French bread is delivered throughout the city in a daylong frenzy of speeding trucks and vans, as if they’re transporting human organs for transplant surgery. Some households have recorded the daily delivery times and will immediately dispatch a family member: “It’s 3 o’clock. They just delivered to Schwegmann’s! Go! Now!” One of the more famous bakeries in the city used a flashing red light to inform passersby that a new batch had just come out of its ovens.

Where I grew up on the outskirts of New Orleans, deliveries were more erratic, especially to the corner store where I’d be sent. With no timetable, I embarked on these fretful journeys like a yeast-driven Magellan GPS, with only my emerging sense of touch to guide me.

The bread would be arrayed vertically in bins, like projectiles. I could tell from the condition of the paper wrappers and the depleted and wilted positions of the loaves which ones had already been tested and rejected. The rest were a mystery, and I’d approach each with a soft squeeze—then a firm one—looking for that almost imperceptible combination of crustiness and softness that tells you this one’s a keeper. New Orleans storeowners knew squeezing was the only way to know if the bread was fresh. That way, you knew you weren’t going to have it flung back in the direction of your face when you brought it home.

Having made my selection, I’d carefully watch the storeowner as he put the bread in a bag, looking for any hint in his expression that my selection might be outside the proper parameters of freshness. Then I’d return home with a sinking feeling not unlike when I’d deliver a report card of marginal achievement. After all, you could be a straight-A student, but if you couldn’t find a fresh loaf of French bread, you’d still suffer the scorn of your parents.

“Congratulations on your son being accepted to Harvard.”

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

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

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