There are many things I miss about San Francisco, after living there for 33 years. The ocean, the bay, the hills, and Karl, to name a few. Yes, I even miss Karl, especially during the blazing hot summer months here in New Mexico. If unfamiliar, Karl is the local name for the fog. But there’s something else uniquely San Franciscan that I miss dearly aside from the art museums, the symphony, and the amazing restaurant scene. What do I pine for? Bread. More specifically, sourdough bread as can only be found in the City.
I love bread. Always have. When we were kids, the six of us could easily hoover an entire loaf in one sitting. So mom bought bread in quantity and froze loaves in multiples. The brand of bread didn’t matter. It was whatever was on sale along with the five pound cans of MJB coffee in the big green can. Like any commercial ground coffee, MJB always smelled good when you first opened the can. Later when I started drinking coffee and tried it, the stuff tasted like a cross between bile and battery acid. But Martin, my dad, loved his pot of MJB in the morning. As much as the coffee, he loved his hour of peace and privacy with the morning paper before the rest of us got up and all hell broke loose, which happened on the regular.
A few times Mom splurged and bought a loaf of Wonder Bread. I remember the white package with the festive red, yellow, and blue and balloons. Also the perfect slices with a spongy texture that reminded me of large flat marshmallows without the sugar. Even then I thought the stuff was like science gone wrong. But at least it provided more interest than the bland loaves of cheap white bread from the freezer that seemed to go instantly stale on the rare occasion they weren’t inhaled on the spot.
I still eat impressive quantities of bread, usually with peanut butter. Some years ago I went cold turkey on the huge jars of Jiff I was buying at Costco after reading how much palm oil and salt they contain. Then the great peanut butter shortage of 2020 happened when the pandemic created a new syndrome called blockheadia putzbrainia. A condition that caused erstwhile intelligent adults to buy a lifetime supply of paper products in a single shopping trip leaving the rest of us in a wipe-twice lurch. The same malady soon mapped over to other consumer goods including my beloved peanut butter. Mind you it was a local phenomenon because a friend in Seattle had no problem masking up, going to her local market, and picking up a large jar of Skippy. She then generously sent it to me. Bless her for that.
After the peanut butter crisis passed, I eschewed the big commercial brands opting instead for crunchy unsalted organic from Sprouts (also a good personal description). It’s pricier and needs refrigeration after opening. But now I’m only getting peanutty goodness and not chemicals, which is always a good thing as one ages.
Back to bread. Aside from sustenance, it’s the ultimate food vehicle. With it, one can launch into an infinite number of possibilities including spooning, spreading, and slathering condiments, comestibles and sustainables. Sandwiches are a given. There’s the classic Reuben with savory corned beef piled high accompanied by tart sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and creamy dressing on earthy Jewish rye. Surely the Reuben occupies a spot in the top ten sandwich hall of fame. Curiously, the best Reuben I’ve ever had was not in New York, but at Charlie’s Kosher Delicatessen in Los Angeles. It’s also the largest sandwich I’ve ever consumed—and easily the most delicious.
There’s also the classic BLT where the bacon is always the star with the tomato and lettuce in supporting roles. Hopefully the tomato is ripe and the lettuce dry. As for the bread, it just needs to be good and doesn’t have to change your life. With the tried and true grilled cheese, the bread can also just be of good quality. But the cheese has to be melty for the magic to happen. Velveeta would probably win the competition. But I sometimes think it’s two molecules away from plastic.
I didn’t experience bread as an art form until Carla and I went to Europe for the first time in 1987. Then the simplest ham and cheese on baguette was a revelation. The croissants with our morning café au laits defied the laws of physics with a buttery density near that of dark matter. It was during the trip that I first realized that fresh bakery loaves are the coin of the bread realm.
For me, no artisan-baked loaf can top that of fresh sourdough, especially right out of the oven. There was a Boudin bakery store in the City in the Richmond District on 10th Ave. just up from Geary from where Carla used to work. Many times I stopped there to pick up a sandwich on sourdough or a loaf baked earlier that morning on premises. It doesn’t get better.
Here behind the adobe curtain those who crave bakery bread usually flock to Whole Foods. Sadly, there is no Whole Foods on this side of the river in Rio Rancho, city of impaired vision. This, despite the fact that our humble metropolis accounts for over 15% of the state’s entire population. Perhaps someday. In the meantime, the pursuit of good bread has us driving 25 minutes to one of two Whole Foods stores in Burque Flats (Albuquerque). My son Patrick and I did that last week, hoping to pick up a loaf of sourdough. We opted for a loaf of rosemary sourdough, even better. And we didn’t pass up on the large brown butter chocolate chip cookies. Why would you?
Over the years, Carla has told me that when she was growing up one of the catch phrases when her family was starting a meal was being offered toast or Kleenex. The idea must have been that either or both would have made the meal complete. I couldn’t agree more.
Bread-wise, rumor has it that there are now additives being used in commercially produced bread that make a loaf smell fresh long after opening it. Those same additives keep the bread soft and pliable even in Sahara-like conditions like here in the high desert. I wonder how long it will be before the same additives find their way into supplements for geriatrics. But I think the freshener-softener thing is completely unnecessary. One can always make toast. Or if feeling a bit fancy, one can always cube the bread and make croutons. Et voila!
These days the media is filled with warnings about AI and how it will take over our lives in years to come. How there may come a time in the future when humans are no more necessary than the pre-packaged condiments you get at Wendy’s. Hopefully, I won’t be around then. But I have a feeling that bread will be. Even sourdough. And peanut butter too. Which means there will be toasters. And spring rain. I think Ray Bradbury said that. He was right.