I roll out of bed. Bleary-eyed and subdued, I stumble towards the kettle. Tea or coffee –
depending on how heavily caffeinated I need to be – is the first point of call. Bitterness in cups, sweetness in relief, intoxicating in the ritual. Then, once the brew has made its way to my stomach, food calls, as much driven by a pang of hunger as a cry for relief from the caffeine.
I open the drawer. The usual suspects line up besides one another – granola, cereal, a pack of breakfast biscuits I’ve grown steadily reliant on and bread. And not just any bread – bagels. These ones are sesame coated but I would accept any; a discerning bagel eater but not discriminatory. I reach for the bagel, so wonderfully doughy and yet strangely light in texture, substantial but not stodgy. I reach for a knife and cut around the edges until I’ve divided the ring into two. Two halves that present two opportunities for something divine to take shape in spreadable form.
I place the pieces in the toaster. These moments waiting are strangely vitalising; the small seconds when the bread toasts and the scent wafts towards me, the momentary bitterness of it ever so slightly burning becomes unusually jolting. I lay the crisped up bagel halves on a plate and press gently down with a buttered knife and spread. The bagel crumbles with every touch and I do too, drawn in by the hypnotic ritual of buttering, at the mercy of my stomach and first bite.
Everyone approaches their bagel differently. Some heap generous smears of cream cheese and thick slices of smoked salmon while others layer bacon, egg and cheese for the quintessential breakfast bagel. I change depending on the day but nothing is as pacifying as salted butter on a toasted bagel or even a slice of bread. The ritual of making my bagel, while simple, is a comfort always – and one we all share.
No matter where you are, you will find bread and somebody who loves it. You will find it in forms you never dreamed of and yet it is bread. You will find bakeries that bind communities together, and you will find people whose days are bound by bread.
Think of Paris. No day begins without a trip to the boulangerie, where golden, crusted, sticks of baguettes linger on shelves, eagerly eyed up by hungry locals seduced by their spells. Like clockwork, people line up patiently at their chosen bakery and they wait for their bread. What form it will take in the day we don’t know; perhaps it will be saved for a picnic and deliciously creamy soft cheeses; perhaps the bread serves as the basis for a jambon beurre, a simple ham and butter sandwich; or perhaps it is simply to be munched on by somebody strolling through the arrondissement, savouring one of the city’s greatest foods.
In Copenhagen, you will find dark rye smeared with light mayonnaise, topped with pickled herring and briny vegetables to complete the classic Smørrebrød. In New York, cream cheese is generously spread on poppy seed bagels, alongside smoked salmon and a garnish of red onion. In Tokyo, pillowy, fluffy milk bread is cut into thick slabs and lathered with jam or honey.
In Amsterdam, white bread is buttered before thousands of chocolate sprinkles make
themselves at home on the slice.
The toppings might vary but the base, the bread, remains. These are all different and at once the same. We form habits around our bread that ground our days and become rituals cultures are known for.
We slice it, tear it, bake it and break it. And each time we do, we imbue it with new life. Imagine the way you see bread as it is ripped into pieces at the table, many hands eager to salvage a piece to mop up the sauce on their plate. It is something to share, better divided here. It is the same food that is that solitary slice in the morning, ready to be toasted, buttered and enjoyed in the quiet hours.
Bread is familiar. It’s the getaway to the day and something to rely on. Bread forms the basis of most first meals of the day across the world. It is a staple through history. It is a recurring character in literature. It is universal and yet completely personal. It is recognisable and still continuously reinvented. It is transformative. It is a canvas we can project anything onto. It is both yours and mine – the same in name, different in interpretation, but always there.
Four ingredients to form a beautiful whole. Four ingredients that form a word to live a life by.
Essay/Article commissioned by: TDLM Editorial
Written By: Tom Flanagan
[Writer-Editor; King’s College London; Lund University]
‘Every day, bread’ First Published in The Daily Life Magazine on May 30, 2023