Well-Bred Wit

Oh, some days I wonder why I bother. You try to write vaguely entertaining things about books and their owners, and along comes a volume called “120 Ways of Using Bread”. The model on the cover is eating a piece of bread. Ah yes, you may think that’s unobjectionable, but if eating the bread is one use, what are the other 119?

It’s disheartening to see how some people come up with entertainment and aren’t even really trying. This book, which is undated but comes out of the England of the 1930s or thereabouts, offers plenty of enjoyment for those who are shallow enough to mock the ways of people in other lands. You and I are far superior to such juvenile humor, of course. Far be it from us to snort at such British fare as “Bread Sauce”, “Bread Jelly” or “Toast Water”. Let others mock “Sandwich Fritters” or “Liver Souffle”. All it does is depress me. I had enough trouble making people believe there was such a thing as tapioca meatloaf. (A recipe passed along by my mother, whose birthday it is today, by the way. Hi, Ma! Now don’t say I never gave ya nothin’.)

It may all be a matter of other times and other ways, of course. (I have for sale this year a first edition of L.P. Hartley’s classic novel which opens with the line every historian is required by academic custom to use at least once: “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.”) I have marveled before at the books we get showing the work of the Chicago 27, graphic designers whose work changed the look of our world in the 20th century. These are the men and women who designed the logos and labels we grew up with, from the Uncola to the Britannica Junior.

And I was amazed at the designers of labels for canned goods back in the days before food conglomerates ran everything through market testing. Canned bread? Canned calves’ liver? Canned apple pie? (American manufacturers seem to have been obsessed with this idea, because a decade or so after that, another designer was doing the box for boxed apple pie. This was apparently as popular as the canned version.) Maybe we’ve simply had our tastes narrowed by marketers who found a larger consumer response for tomato soup than for pickled kidneys.

So I refuse whatsoever to mock a cookbook simply because it suggests deep fried sheep’s brains on toast as a breakfast dish. I might very well enjoy bacon and bread fritters if I’d grown up with those. (This is essentially a bacon sandwich which has been battered and then fried; I see nothing wrong with this.) I like to keep abreast of innovations in deep-fried food, and the Scotch eggs (hardboiled eggs floured and then coated with sausage before being breaded and fried) sound to me like something which—put on a stick—would probably enjoy heavy demand at Taste of Chicago. I might even drink Toast Water with them. (Golden brown toast is soaked in cold water until the water assumes “the color of sherry”, at which point it is strained and served in a glass jug.)

I wonder if the Millers’ Mutual Association really knew how we would one day thrill to their prose. (“Bread Built an Empire” the back cover declares.) Even the index…excuse me, I just spotted an entry for Rabbit Pudding. I do like a book you can read over and over and still find something new.

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