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Daily Gullet Staff

A Loaf of My Own

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<img src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1161134697/gallery_29805_1195_1271.jpg" hspace="8" align="left">by Diane McMartin

A nervous girl, 15 and on her first trip to France, watches as the woman who will act as her mother for the next two weeks clip-clops into a bakery in just the kind of shoes she imagined a French woman would wear. She stares out the car window at the main street of Albi, the small town an hour outside Toulouse where she will spend the next two weeks. It is more quaint and more French than she'd imagined. Her host mother emerges with a long, thin loaf of bread and a white paper bag. Full of pastries, no doubt.

At the table that evening, there is no dainty platter for this bread, not even a cloth or a spread-out napkin. Struggling to keep her eyes open, weary from food and wine and questions posited in an unfamiliar language, she breaks a hunk of bread from the loaf, and uses it to sop up the sauce from her dinner -- something she had, until then, only seen in movies. She stopped trying to understand what her new family was saying, and savored each bite. The light from the setting sun over the vineyards in the distance was painfully, brightly marigold, and as she chewed, and stared into it for longer than was probably good for her eyes, she felt something change.

<div align="center">* * * * *</div>

I moved to Pittsburgh because of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, a book I found in a used bookstore on a college scouting trip with my parents. Michael Chabon's first novel, with its Gatsby-esque June-July-August structure, and its characters, with their in-jokes and outlandish clothes, fascinated me. Even better were his descriptions of the post-industrial landscape where they got into so much glorious trouble. The University of Pittsburgh's Hillman library, the “ugly, stupid prow” of Carnegie Mellon University, the mythical Cloud Factory that belched out puffy white clouds of unknown origin, the Lost Neighborhood -- I had read so much about them that I felt like I already lived there.

I applied to the University of Pittsburgh and nowhere else. No reach, no backup, no Princeton or NYU, no William, no Mary. I'd never even met anyone who'd been to Pittsburgh except Chabon himself. (By “met,” I mean, “stood slack-jawed as he signed my book once in a hotel lobby.”) And yet, as my mother drove us over the bridge that led to Forbes Avenue via the Boulevard of the Allies, I fell for this gray time-capsule of a city harder than a 13 year-old at her first Leonardo di Caprio movie, harder than I'd fallen for Paris or New York or New Orleans or any of the other lovely cities I'd been to, cities it would have been much more normal to fall in love with.

At that time, I was more interested in the handful of bands that deigned to stop in my new home to play -- Liars, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Mono, for example -- than in food or cooking. I was, however, a vegetarian, more because I had been strong-armed into it by my best friend from high school than because of any deep-seated moral convictions. Unsurprisingly, I succumbed to the pleasures of bacon fat and rare steak only a few months after starting college, but for the time being I was still scouring labels for traces of gelatin and stearates.

The dining halls didn’t offer many options for me beyond soggy French fries and Boca burgers, and thus I was forced to forage for alternate nourishment. I discovered the East End Food Co-Op on my way to the Mr. Roboto Project , and began to stuff my dorm-sized fridge with soy milk and organic, locally grown vegetables every week. This annoyed my roommate, a very earnest Republican who liked Blink 182 and Kraft macaroni and cheese -- the vile kind you simply microwave in its own bowl. The smell would linger for days. It was a long nine months.

What saved me those bleak November days as I studied for my first college finals and braved the beginning of my first Pittsburgh winter, was Kunst Bakery on Forbes Avenue.

In the suburbs where I grew up, you bought bread at the grocery store, and maybe you bought a cake someplace fancy if it was a special occasion. But old-fashioned bakeries still exist in the neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. Living in Oakland, the part of the East End that houses both the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon, I could fall out of bed and buy a fresh cinnamon roll or doughnut for less than 80 cents. The women in white aprons, and the pastel-frosted cupcakes nestled in gleaming glass cases among Eastern European-style coffee cakes brought me a sense of joy and belonging so intense that it was silly. Kunst Bakery made me feel like I was living not just in a city, but in a community. When I found one day in 2003 after having been away for a few months that it had closed, I stood at the window and stared at the empty racks and cases for a long, long time.

The first time I moved to Squirrel Hill, the traditionally Jewish part of Pittsburgh, I discovered not just one bakery in my neighborhood, but several. There was Rolladin, filled with hamentashen, a pastry shaped like a little three-cornered hat and filled with fruit or nuts, and stout braids of challah. There was Allegro Hearth, which bakes baguettes, artisan peasant loaves and an assortment of pastries, from lemon tarts to carrot cake cupcakes, and there was Simple Treat, selling more mainstream fare as well as bagels and other kosher baked goods. There were also produce stalls, a deli run by an older man who didn’t always seem pleased to have customers disturbing his neat logs of cured meats and lox, a and a group of pizza joints engaged in a healthy rivalry. Everyone who lives in Squirrel Hill has an opinion about whether Mineo’s or Aiello’s serves the better pizza. I was in heaven. I would walk up and down Murray Avenue buying a loaf here, a bag of chocolate chip cookies there, and bring them back to the house I lived in with four other female students my age.

They didn’t want to share my bread. They wanted me to keep all of my food in a carefully defined quadrant of the refrigerator and one small section of the pantry, an organizational system that favored neat packages of fat-free things over messy, amorphous baked goods, their awkward shapes and pesky crumbs. There was a chart of rotating, color-coded index cards for chores; mine were blue. They would roll their towels in the bathroom on the rack above the toilet, hotel-style, and were constantly rearranging the furniture.

A few months later, they asked me not to renew the lease with them the following year, because I “made everyone uncomfortable.” What they really meant was, “You’re kind of messy and your blue-haired girlfriend with two dozen piercings and a motorcycle that upsets the neighbor’s dog scares us. Just a little bit.” I moved out almost immediately, but as it was February, an off time in the cycle of student apartment rentals, the pickins, they were slim.

I spent 18 months in a studio so cramped, decrepit and messy that you were allowed in only if you were dating me or related to me. There was no bakery to walk to. Salim’s, a middle-eastern market, was right across the street, but he had no fresh-baked goods. To be honest, he was a nice guy, but the sauce on his gyros was gloppy and awful. I don’t know where he got his baklava, but it didn’t taste like anything anyone’s Armenian grandmother would touch with a ten-foot sheet of phyllo.

Eventually, I made my way back to Squirrel Hill, and back to living with roommates. Our neighbors have an adorable dog named Kip; our landlords are a kindly, older Russian couple. One of the first things I noticed was the prayer scroll perched in the door jamb of our duplex; I wouldn’t dare move it. It was good to be back in Pittsburgh's most charming, cozy residential neighborhood. Best of all, I was once again within walking distance of fresh, non-shrink-wrapped baked goods.

The first morning after the first night I spent back in Squirrel Hill, I rolled out of bed, sore from hauling boxes the day before. I tugged on the mismatched outfit that you only wear on the day after you’ve moved, when you can’t find any clothes that look normal in the pile of boxes and refuse that is supposed to be your room. For the first time in a long time, I trudged up the hill that gives my neighborhood its name.

At the top of this hilly part of Murray Avenue is Allegro Hearth, the European-style bakery. They had a help-wanted sign up in the window. I entertained the idea of quitting my job, abandoning all pretense of being a writer, and becoming a baker. I imagined myself wearing a bandana, my massive, veiny forearms crisscrossed with shiny burn scars. I bought an apricot rugelach for 85 cents and was informed that when bought with pastry, coffee was only 80 cents. $1.65 for a tasty breakfast I could eat on the bus, with discretion and a smile. Sold.

On the way home from work, I stopped at Allegro again, and bought a baguette to go with dinner. Folks from more cosmopolitan cities might sneer at what I carried home with me that evening. Its crust wasn’t as crisp as it could have been, its crumb not the most refined I’ve ever tasted, but it was baked that day, minutes from where I’d slept. I broke a hunk off the heel and chewed, smiling into the sun sinking behind the shopfronts topped by apartments with sagging roofs. It was bread from my neighborhood, a little stale from sitting on the rack all day. I felt like it was mine.

<div align="center">+ + +</div>

Diane McMartin (aka phlox) is a writer and editor who spends most of her waking hours writing those irritating ads you hear when you’re on hold with, say, the bank or the cable company. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with two boys and their approximately 8,438 video game systems. She enjoys loud music, dark chocolate, and only short, brisk walks on the beach, not long ones. Diane is also the editorial assistant for the Daily Gullet.

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Thanks for this, Diane. I enjoyed it. You had an experience I was never able to enjoy, gave me a new perspective.

I grew up in a bakery. A small Jewish bakery. I worked in bakeries. I always took this stuff for granted. It was just always *there.*

Baguettes, rye bread, salt-rising bread, coffee cakes, Vienna loaves, Danish, challah. And the ever-present doughnuts.

All there, all the time. I actually longed for the insipid balloon bread my peers enjoyed at home. The bread we never had. I was a true philistine in every sense of the word.

Only later did I come to appreciate what I had.

Thanks again. :biggrin:

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AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.

Didn't mean to make anyone scream!


"An appetite for destruction, but I scrape the plate."

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Delightful!


Just a simple southern lady lost out west...

"Leave Mother in the fridge in a covered jar between bakes. No need to feed her." Jackal10

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:biggrin:

................................

That was a wonderful story, starting with a bite of the magical thing called "bread".

I can still remember my first bite of "homemade" bread as if it were happening this very moment. It was a big round sourdough loaf from a "hippy" store on a small street in Hartford, Connecticut. I was thirteen and had never seen such a thing.

It looked good, and homely, and I thought it would fit in well with the dreams of incense burners and tie-die curtains that filled my inner life.

I walked out of the store after paying for it with my babysitting money and took a bite, walking down the street.

If that moment had been recorded by a painter of the Middle Ages, there would have been angels circling my head, flying about and blowing their horns to announce the moment. :raz:

I agree with Rachel.

Aaaaaahhhhhhhh.


Edited by Carrot Top (log)

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A lovely story, Diane. Thank you. If you don't mind, I'd like to put a question to the forum -- one that you raised in my mind.

You say, in describing the most recent baguette, "Its crust wasn’t as crisp as it could have been . . . " I'd like to see some discussion on the word "crisp," because I don't think that quite captures it. Neither does "crunchy," of course, though that's the next adjective in line. A great crust is somewhere in between, and it has something else as well. I refuse to give up and say it's ineffable, inimitable, indescribable, undescribable, beyond words, inexpressible, unspeakable, untellable or unutterable. These are words of failure. We're supposed to be advancing the literary craft of cuisine here. Please discuss.

Also, please say more about Pittsburgh pizza.


Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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Speaking as someone who imitated him to great romantic success in late adolescence, I am second to no one in admiration of (or maybe gratitude for) Mr. Hopkins. But even he falls short of specificity (albeit on a different point) here. "Things"? Is this bread? Strips of bacon? McNuggets?


Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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You may be more wistful about your past than your hero, Diane, but you certainly have more in common with Michael Chabon than Pittsburgh.


Edited by Pontormo (log)

"Viciousness in the kitchen.

The potatoes hiss." --Sylvia Plath

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Count me in with Rachel and Carrot Top... aaaaaaaaaah!

I also fondly remember the first time I had freshly baked bread. I was raised with grocery bread store - baked days before, languishing on the shelves pumped with preservatives. I was fresh out of college, working in the business jungle of Makati when late one night I stumbled across a tiny deli behind the Makati Peninsula hotel. I discovered the joys of focaccia, the rapture of herbed bread and the tasty delight of crusty tomato rolls. I would save up my meager earnings (as a copy writer for a PR firm) and once a week indulge in yeasty heaven.

Now, I find freshly baked sandwich loaves in our inhouse grocery bakery and have started baking my own bread. Thank you for triggerring such wonderful memories.


Doddie aka Domestic Goddess

"Nobody loves pork more than a Filipino"

eGFoodblog: Adobo and Fried Chicken in Korea

The dark side... my own blog: A Box of Jalapenos

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Are we going to get all Gerard Manley Hopkins here? Fresh fired crackled things?

Actually think he may have been up to something gustatory with the blue-bleak embers of the baker's oven and the gash gold-vermillion of the diagonal slashes in the baguette. Of course, 4 or 5 generations of critics might disagree with me and take the wind out of my sails...

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You say, in describing the most recent baguette, "Its crust wasn’t as crisp as it could have been . . . " I'd like to see some discussion on the word "crisp," because I don't think that quite captures it. Neither does "crunchy," of course, though that's the next adjective in line. A great crust is somewhere in between, and it has something else as well. I refuse to give up and say it's ineffable, inimitable, indescribable, undescribable, beyond words, inexpressible, unspeakable, untellable or unutterable. These are words of failure. We're supposed to be advancing the literary craft of cuisine here. Please discuss.

It is very difficult to break out of thinking of the words and sounds that we traditionally associate with things. All these "cr" sounds with bread crust (in the English language anyway) crispy, crackly, crunchy. And when there's no crust, crappy. :huh:

Something might be done with the term "bloom" which is a term bakers use

The area between two slashes is called a bloom

The browned edged of the bread is called an ear.

(from a word reference site).

Last night the term "blowsy" came to me, like a woman - who is slightly coming apart at the edges. There's underlying tones of fragility (like bread is, inside), perhaps an aura of danger as if she might start to crackle if touched - and a sense of that yeasty femininity that all good bread holds.

Oh well. That's as far as I got with your task.

P.S. I wonder if the English language has this potential, really, to do it in one or two words. When I think of crust as it should be, my mind goes to Italian, with all the "sbr" and "ch" and "ttt" sounds all in the same word possible, like the sound of crust breaking. Then I wonder if it is the fault of our language that our breads are so often as they are or if it is the reason of the way this tribe baked breads way back in time that shaped our linguistic sounds of them. Maybe the ovens weren't hot enough due to whatever, or the wheat was too soft wherever.

I think I'd better stop now. :laugh:


Edited by Carrot Top (log)

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Leave her alone. I knew what she meant, so did you.

The difficulty of finding an alternative indicates that one may not prove necessary, though "chewy" comes to mind. "Crisp" means firm and suggests the dark outer layer ought to flake off a bit with each bite as opposed to being a thick impenetrable surface or spongy. It says a little more than "chewy" does and therefore is superior.

From Bob Brooks: "Is there a truly great baguette to be had in L.A.?"

When I was a young boy, living in Barcelona, I used to buy bread for the family every day at the local panaderia. It was a medium blonde crust with a relatively light and airy interior that had a nice bite without being the least bit chewey. It was perfect.

And:

So, what I'm looking for is a very crisp and somewhat dense golden crust with a light interior with lots of taste and yeasty holes.

See? Bob likes "crisp" and sees "chewy" as an undesirable quality.


Edited by Pontormo (log)

"Viciousness in the kitchen.

The potatoes hiss." --Sylvia Plath

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I totally relate to Dave's desire to find the exact right word, but in this case I think I'm right!

It's my party and I can crisp if I want to!

As for pizza, I vastly prefer Aiello's. The sauce is delicious. They import a certain brand of canned tomatoes from Italy. The dough is the perfect texture - not too doughy and spongy like gross take-out brands (I'm looking at you, Pizza Hut!), but it's not all overly cracker-like and full of itself, like it should be covered with a mound of hydroponic arugala and, I don't know, basil-infused sea salt.

Mineo's is certainly tasty, but the sauce isn't as good, and the cheese has a tendency to congeal into a solid, rubbery sheet across the top if it doesn't stay piping hot.


"An appetite for destruction, but I scrape the plate."

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I'm perfectly happy with Diane's choice of words. A bit of disclosure: I edited this piece. I put the question to her, and he stuck by "crisp." That's fine; around here, push goes to the author (usually). She gets credit for forthrightness and determination, as well.

I'm not asking for this discussion because I lost the argument. I'm asking because I think either 1) describing a baguette crust as "crisp" is inaccurate, or 2) my definition of "crisp" needs calibration. (A third possibility: a crisp-crust baguette is the ideal, and I've just never had one. We'll set that aside for now.)

So let me go at it another way: to me, a potato chip is crisp. Describing anything that's not crisp in the way that a potato chip is crisp requires qualification -- or another word. But when you start qualifying ("very crisp and somewhat dense golden crust"), you step in ambiguity, especially with vague words like "very" and "somewhat." I don't think you're really talking about "crisp" any more. Can something be both crisp and dense? Seems to me that's not a potato chip. That's one of those baked imposters.


Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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I think I understand what you're getting at now! You are right, there should be a way to describe the difference between crisp like a potato chip and crisp like bread crust. Although to me, the crust is a thin layer compared to the rest of the loaf.

Crisp, crust, crusp, dense, argh, I'm confusing myself! :P


"An appetite for destruction, but I scrape the plate."

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Thanks for a delightful story, Diane. I lived in Squirrel Hill for an angst-filled five weeks in-between starting and quitting graduate school at Carnegie Mellon in 1970. I sometimes wonder what life would have been like had I stayed. Now, in a small way, I know.


Gene Weingarten, writing in the Washington Post about online news stories and the accompanying readers' comments: "I basically like 'comments,' though they can seem a little jarring: spit-flecked rants that are appended to a product that at least tries for a measure of objectivity and dignity. It's as though when you order a sirloin steak, it comes with a side of maggots."

 

-The mosque is too far from home, so let's do this / Let's make a weeping child laugh.

    Nida Fazli, poet, 1938-2016 (translated, from the Urdu, by Anu Garg, wordsmith.org)

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Great story, Diane. We lived in Pittsburgh for 18 years before moving to NY/NJ a year ago, and your story really captured Squirrel Hill.

With that said, I have to go with Mineo's. For me, the perfect ratio of crust to toppings to cheese. Thinking about it now, we must have easily consumed hundreds of these during our time there. Thinking about it now, I want one. Now.

It's interesting that you mentioned both Mineo's and Aiello's. While everyone had a definite opinion on which was better, I don't ever remember the conversation degenerating into "no, they suck" call-and-response. It was always pretty clear which places occupied the one and two slots, and advocates of one were still OK with the other.


Jeff Shufelt

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Hi Diane (phlox):

Wonderful story, flowing prose ... and almost poetry. What a wonderful piece to read in the morning!

My daughter is in Pittsburgh, Shadyside to be exact, although she is spending more time in Squirrel Hill with friends. She's into ballet, which often seems incompatible with fine food and especially bread, but I remember taking her to Paris a few years ago and watching with pride and delight as she discovered real croissants and especially pain du chocolate for breakfast ... I will email this article to her, hoping it will brighter her day as well ... and hopefully we're going back to Paris this summer, so she can re-sample and reminisce ...

And, Dave the Cook, thanks for editing this piece, for leaving it as Diane wrote it, and for raising the question of crust, both gastronomically and entymologically. English is a poor language, compared to Italian or Chinese, for describing food textures and tastes. We call fresh, cold lettuce "crisp", we describe a seared steak as having a "crisp crust", and yes, non-stale potato chips are "crisp", as are pommes frit (French fries all too often and limp and non-crisp!!) ... but I don't want my steak to snap like a potato chip.

I think of the texture of crust on bread as analogous to the mouth feel (tooth feel?) of "al dente" pasta ... it provides a resistance to tooth and fingers (when tearing bread), it has a different flavor (and sometimes different ingredients) from the interior, and it protects the interior, allowing it to develop its crumb and delicacy. How to describe an ideal baguette crust in one or only a few words? resilient, resistant, smooth and inviting ... if really done right, promising and seductive ... amazing for such a "simple" food ...


Edited by JasonZ (log)

JasonZ

Philadelphia, PA, USA and Sandwich, Kent, UK

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I enjoyed your piece very much having been originally from Western PA, graduated from Pitt many, many years ago, and lived in Squirrel Hill (North of Forbes) in a lovely apartment on the bottom floor of a charming house on a cobblestone street. Some of my favorite memories!!! Though I left there in the early 80's, the diversity of the local food establishments was amazing. One of the things I miss now that I no longer live in an urban area. Sure do miss City living. The suburbs do not measure up. Nice when, on a walk, one can come upon so many wonderful diversions, especially involving bread!!!!! Not the same when one has to make plans, climb into a car, drive long distances and make many stops. You have brought back memories of experiences I did not appreciate at the time but certainly do now. Thank you.


Donna

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Great story, Diane.  We lived in Pittsburgh for 18 years before moving to NY/NJ a year ago, and your story really captured Squirrel Hill.

With that said, I have to go with Mineo's.  For me, the perfect ratio of crust to toppings to cheese.  Thinking about it now, we must have easily consumed hundreds of these during our time there.  Thinking about it now, I want one.  Now.

It's interesting that you mentioned both Mineo's and Aiello's.  While everyone had a definite opinion on which was better, I don't ever remember the conversation degenerating into "no, they suck" call-and-response.  It was always pretty clear which places occupied the one and two slots, and advocates of one were still OK with the other.

A nice story made even more special to me by the fact that the East End was my home for the the first 18 years of my life and where I still have family.

Mineo's pizza may be better, but Aiello's has better subs.

Dumb factoid of the day - Dan Marino grew up in the "lost neighborhood" otherwise known as Panther Hollow.


If someone writes a book about restaurants and nobody reads it, will it produce a 10 page thread?

Joe W

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Diane,

What a wonderful story. My son was graduated from Pitt two years ago & I really miss visiting that city. The food, the neighborhoods, not to mention the campus were such a pleasant surprise on my first trip there. Although my son lives not too far from me now (in NJ) I sometimes wish he had stayed in Pittsburgh so I'd have an excuse to visit! (By the way he majored in writing and hopefully he'll get that career going soon!)

SusanP

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