What to put on bread and how to put it on the table
In response to a title by Adrienne Rich
Objective: bread, poetry, nibbling, spreading
From Adrienne Rich’s essay collection What is Found There
It came as a disappointment, the moment I realized the “bread” in Adrienne Rich’s essay “How Does a Poet Put Bread on the Table?” is, instead of actual bread, a metaphor for money. I write this response with an almost childish sense of revenge.
Before my university campus closed, I put bread on the table by taking entire loaves of white sandwich bread from the dining hall—$13 meal swipe for both a meal and extra bread. But, finishing an entire loaf is a challenge for most living alone—I’d feel distressed watching the dining hall bread go bad, in a way I didn’t for those that were store-bought.
White sandwich bread, often puffed with unrecognizable additives, can be a bitter pill when eaten alone. The taste of gas station tires fermenting in the summer lingers in the chew.
Some spread is necessary to make the consumption more tolerable.
This past February I was in my kitchen, talking with a person who was usually quite delicate in demeanor. Abruptly, she pulled out a slice of bread from the package on my table and began forcing cubes of cold butter across its lukewarm surface. The bread, reluctant as ever, turned thinner and thinner, wrinkling under the grinding knife. She happily ate the poor thing anyway. It looked nothing short of a used wet-wipe.
There are gentler ways to treat a slice of bread, like smearing jam softly and evenly corner to corner. The most arousing combination might still be cold butter on hot toast—one melts and one absorbs—a whisper, a chemical symphony at the moment of touch. And there are nut butters, that are shyer, only ever softening a little.
Bread with “Old Godmother”
I like putting Chinese pickles on sandwich bread and seeing the chili oil dye the bread read. I always think of the human-blood soaked mantou (or Chinese for “steam bun”) in Lu Xun’s short story “Medicine.” Some friends find this composition of East on West discomforting, but I’ve never been obsessed with the authenticity of food. I know people who devote particular care to maintaining the harmony of a cultural cuisine—whether regional, national, or continental. I agree with the cultural significance of this, but find no joy in imposing a passport-visa-border system onto my plate.
I might have inherited this attitude from my grandmother, who lives in rural China and pairs her mantou with Skippy smooth peanut butter. I bought her a few jars of Australian chunky peanut butter, “Pics,” when I visited her during high school. She said it was even better than Skippy—more oily.
Around the time my grandma was my age, writer Wang Zengqi recorded mantou-condiment pairings from when he was deployed to labor in a mountain to the west of Beijing during the Cultural revolution: mantou with wild dates if they’ve ripened by then; or, mantou with grilled grasshoppers caught on site, if they happened to be in season.
In that situation, the philosophy became: eat whatever there is.
In many ways, that’s still my philosophy. There is no mantou, only supermarket sandwich bread in this Illinois city I’m in, so each day I curate what to put on bread, and how to put bread on the table. I let the loaf stand vertically, and use a long knife to cut a rectangle alongside the crust. Only the soft part is eaten. A preference that everyone, in whatever cuisine, seems to understand: the inside of the bread is always softer, lighter, tastier. French poet René Char, once wrote that a poem “sings...under the crumb of a loaf of light.” In French, the part “under the crumb” is called mie. Chinese for mie, according to the translator Zhang Bo, is “软心”— “soft heart”. Mantou is ultimately just the soft-heart part of sandwich bread, condensed into a ball, steamed to perfection.
My leftover crust is not wasted. I use it to hold grass.
Last three slices of bread with Evanston lawn grass
Adrienne Rich’s “How does a poet put bread on the table?” essay VIII in the collection of essays.
Lu Xun’s “Medicine”
Wang Zengqi’s 《草木春秋》
René Char’s “On Poetry”