The Symbol of Bread & Butter

“Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.” – James Beard

The world of hospitality is riddled with pineapples. You may be staying in a nice hotel room and see the lamp lighting your bedside table is designed like a pineapple. The ornately folded napkin  at your restaurant table may be checkered with them. You may even look up and see your waiter with a golden pineapple pinned to their shirt. Why this obsession pineapples?

It all goes back to the American colonists. Pineapples were quite rare and exotic, as it took a great deal of time for trade ships to come back (if at all) from the Caribbean islands. So, at the time, it was quite a gesture to offer your guests a pineapple. Which is why, today, pineapples are the ubiquitous symbol of hospitality. 

What does this have to do with bread and butter? I’m glad you asked.

If I walked through the threshold into someone’s home and was offered a plate of cubed pineapple, it would be a little odd no? I have nothing against pineapple. When you take a bite, their sweetness almost forces a smile. Finely diced over some salted pork and I’m smitten. I understand that pineapple was the caviar of the colonial era, but times have changed, and symbols should change along with them.

I’ve always been fond of a particular scene in The Count of Monte Cristo (2002). As Edmond returns to Marseille under the alias of Zatara. In an attempt to discover what has happened while he was imprisoned, he visits the home of his former employer, M. Morrel. A man who was once a wealthy owner of a trading company who, like Dantes, has fallen on hard times. Despite the very late hour of Zatara’s visit, he grants him entry. The house is cold, poorly lit, and looks a mess. Morrel eagerly tends to the fire in hopes of drawing as much heat out as possible. As Zatara sits down to talk with him, Morrel pours sherry for his guest. This gesture has always knocked me out. The man was betrayed by his a close business partner, and now, lives in financial ruin. Despite that, he offers a stranger the meager luxury he can share, a glass of sherry.

My grandmother grew up in the 20’s and 30’s. She was part of a large family, and, like most people, was hit hard by the depression. Everyone worked hard to provide for everyone else, and you learned new habits to muddle through. Some of her habits from those days never died, like stretching soup with water, using the same tea bag 3-4 times, and only breaking out the ketchup for special dinners and holidays. But like all parents, she wanted to give her children (and grandchildren) the things she didn’t have growing up. So when I entered her house, I’d hear the gentle sawing of a bread knife against a crusty loaf. By the time I reached the kitchen to say hello, she’d have already spread a wealth of butter onto the slice and had it outstretched to me. I’d try to refuse it, but no one was going deny her the privilege of sharing what she didn’t have at my age.

After the first bite I remembered why I could never refuse bread and butter. The sweetness of the butter contrasted by the burst of sesame seeds and toasty crust was wonderful. I’d sit on a tall stool in her kitchen and swing my legs in glee as I scarfed the bread down. She’d smile, breathe deeply, and return to whatever was slowly simmering on the stove top. I didn’t understand why she was so happy. I didn’t know the years behind it. To me, it was just a nice snack. 

Bread is such a humble and ubiquitous food. Yet, everyone knows its value. Rich and poor, north and south, metropolitans and suburbanites, almost everyone grew up with some kind of bread. You might heave smeared it for breakfast, sandwiched it for lunch, or cracked open a hot roll of it for dinner.

Butter is a bit of a paradox. It is an extravagance, and rarely a necessity, but makes almost anything taste better. Yet unlike other luxuries, it is easy to find and has a relatively low cost.

Combined, they make something so simple and satisfying.

When I welcome someone into my home. I don’t want to impress them with something flashy. I want them to know that I am glad, in earnest, that they are here with me to share a meal.

A pineapple is eye-catching and exotic. These are wonderful traits for a fancy centerpiece of a feast. But bread and butter is the feast offered from the outstretched hand.

– Savory

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