“My bread shall be the anguish of my mind”
-Edmund Spencer

I reached up to the top shelf of the wire rack in my kitchen hoping to grab a fistful of napkins. Grasping toward the back of the shelf, I pulled the clump to me. Instead of napkins, I found something even more revolting. My hand held the plastic bag of a favorite regional baker, known for their distinctive hamburger rolls. Contained within the bag was, indeed, hamburger rolls. Perfect, fresh, hamburger rolls. “Strange, I don’t remember getting these.” I checked the bag for the freshness date: nine months had passed. This was not good. How is it possible for bread to stay this fresh, this long? It isn’t right. It isn’t natural. “Give us our daily bread.” Daily? Really?!? It doesn’t seem necessary.

I recall a trek I made to the Middle East several years ago with a high school friend to visit another high school friend. We had two goals: 1.) to have a good time, and 2.) to not get strip searched. We were only partially successful. We spent some days in Jerusalem, seeing the Holy Land sights and taking in the ancient culture before heading across the wall into what is now Palestine. One overcast morning the three of us hired a sherut in the village center and headed into the nearest big town, which happened to be Jenin. Along the way, we gained a new appreciation for the driver’s lack of appreciation of life as he decided to overtake a dump truck and then make a right-hand turn onto another road just as we cleared his bumper. There isn’t a much more thrilling moment in life than to look out the passenger window of a large ’83 Mercedes sedan to see only the grill of a Renault dump truck bearing down on you at a very rapid pace.

Safely in Jenin, we decided to take in the sights. (Both of them.) After several hours of doing absolutely nothing productive other than enjoying the simple pleasures of drinking tea, playing chess, and enjoying several sessions of shisha, (although a case could be made for these being therapeutically productive) , we decided to head back to our small town flat in hopes of finding dinner.

So we piled into another sherut – this time a Ford Cargo van – along with about 15 other people and headed out of Jenin. Or at least we attempted to. Our driver had to make a quick stop before leaving town. He pulled the van over to the side of the street and went into bakery to get some fresh bread. It still baffles me why he didn’t pick up this bread before he picked up his 10 toll-paying passengers. I assumed it was a cultural norm to inconvenience your patrons. My fellow patrons were nearly as impressed as I was with the lengthy conversation the driver and the baker were getting into. After about 5 minutes of solving the world’s problems and a quick bread purchase, he returned to the driver’s seat to the mild grumbling of the occupants. He was then asked where his bread was. “He is out of bread!” he laughed in Arabic. (Since I speak no Arabic, this was interpreted for me by my host.) The van fired up, and we purred for several minutes–fighting rush-hour traffic–to the very edge of town, just before the quarry.

Palestinian Bread Oven

Again, the van pulled to the side of the road, and the driver quickly got out, dodging several insults and jabs in his hasty exit. He ran across the street into another bakery, and we could observe through the windows that this one was well-supplied with freshly baked bread. Mr. Driver bought a bag full of the warm discs and turned to head out the door as quickly as possible. Wait…no he didn’t. Again, we watched as he and the baker exchanged theorems on the shortcomings of the International Monetary Fund and the defense lacking in the Vancouver Canucks’ blue line. After another 5 minutes, a passenger from the middle seat leaned against me, barely able to reach the horn long enough to give it a 3-second blast. Mr. Driver paused and looked out toward our Cargo and saw the frustrated looks of his victims. He had a look of complete confusion and bewilderment. Who was honking the horn of his van? Turning back to the baker, he continued on with his point–and I winced at the words coming out of the mouths around me. Another two minutes went by before the horn blower let out a snuffling grunt like an annoyed boar and gave a mighty lunge so he could lay on the horn for a good 10 seconds. Mr. Driver took the cue and politely ended his conversation within a few minutes. He entered the van under a barrage of hisses and mutters that I needed no interpreter for. I’m rather certain that I blushed. It was an ugly scene, but there was a bag of stacked bread next to the front seat: the ultimate goal was achieved. His children would be fed tonight. I sensed that the disdain of his passengers would not begin to compare to the harsh ridicule he would receive if he arrived home to his family without their daily bread: the cherished staple.

This bread that we sampled over there is relatively common around the Mediterranean. Flat, round and baked on stone. You can also stuff it full of the meat of a shawarma, and it holds everything neatly together: lamb, vegetables, and yoghurt sauce. A balanced meal in your hand. Without the bread, it would just be a pile of….something. Certainly, it is not the same delectable experience that a warm and crusty pain au levain offers when combined with a lot of butter and a bit of sea salt. However, when scooping up hummus, this flatbread comes into its own. What is it about bread that makes it such a requirement for living? Why is it that stale bread just isn’t the same as fresh? You can still make a sandwich with stale slices. They would serve their purpose of getting the ingredients into your mouth, but the experience would not be enjoyable at all. If you think about it, America seems to be the only culture in the world that does not depend on a daily supply of fresh bread. (I suppose you could include Canada and the United Kingdom in there as well, but who looks to them for culinary inspiration anyway?) Everywhere else around the globe people rise with the sun and look to their baker (since both he & his yeast had risen with the moon) for the gluten-based hope that gets them through the day. My friend from Djibouti claimed that his family had a baguette delivered to their home each morning for just pennies. I was more than a bit jealous.

Shawarma in Syria

We, as a society, are doing something wrong. We are missing out on the wonderful experience that fresh bread (actually fresh—not just mold-free) offers us. There is an awakening deep within our souls every time we break bread. The universal language of “Ahhhhhh…” I can’t help but believe that Jesus knew our dearest needs when he uttered those words. “Give us our daily bread.” Indeed. And pass the butter.

Jansen Herr lives in rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania with his loving Norwegian Elkhound, Mika. When not writing, he occupies his time attempting to save old European rolling stock from the jaws of the crusher, as well as from himself. If not ruining fine machinery, he is likely found in the saddle of an obscure motorcycle. He also attempts to play bass, cook, and is usually successful staring at walls.