The Magic of Flour, Water, Yeast, and Salt

When did bread first appear? People call it the staff of life. And I suppose it is. Bread goes with everything, that’s for sure. While the Biblical folks were chewing on their flatbread, or even their unleavened bread, which is probably the same thing, the Chinese certainly were making steamed buns. The Ethiopians probably were pouring their teff batter on a hot rock to bake it, and then they likely topped it with simmered meat and vegetables, as they still do today.

The bread I grew up with came from <Columbus Bakery>, which was about four blocks from my house. Mom would give me a quarter and tell me to pick up a hot loaf “cooked good,” which meant with a dark crust. I’d climb the Hickory Street hill, go down the other side, and cross over the four-lane State Street, with its truck traffic and no signal light. You just had to look both ways and dash across.

Columbus Bakery

The entire set-up at Columbus Bakery, except for the sales counter.

Down one more block, and then a right turn on Pearl Street to the bakery. You smelled it before you saw it. That aroma of fresh crusty hot Italian bread could not be mistaken for anything else. The shop was small – a long rectangular space with a sales counter and bread racks at the front end, a collection of dough tables in the middle, and a huge wall oven at the back.

This wasn’t a kitchen-style wall oven. This was huge, with a big fire inside and dough that had been shoveled inside to bake. All the bakers wore white pants and t-shirts, white aprons, and white caps. Oddly, none of them was Italian. They all were Greek. But they made the best Italian bread in town. Actually, they still do. The place has been going since before my grandparents arrived in the US.

Nothing has changed – not even the recipe, which still consists only of flour, water, yeast, and salt. That’s it. No preservatives are necessary because the bread disappears before the day is done.

Columbus bread 2

Pointed-end loaves all hot and ready for the next customers.

After picking up my chosen loaf, I would walk home, trying hard not to bite into it. I was not always successful. Sometimes I would gnaw off the pointed end, which looked like an elbow, and then, before reaching the back stairs, I’d turn the loaf upside down so the bitten end was at the bottom of the bag.

Besides the pointed loaf, I loved the flat loaves that were scored, like tic-tac-toe, into nine pieces that could be torn apart for individual rolls. Stuff those with some copacolla, dry-cured salami, provolone, and prosciutto (all from Donze’s Market), and you could live the rest of your life on those few ingredients.

If you wanted, you could just go to the bakery and ask for a loaf of dough. That 25-cent loaf could be turned into a pizza or two for Sunday supper.

Columbus Bread

Not even the logo has changed.

When I go back home to Syracuse, I always stop at Columbus Bakery on arrival and again when I leave so I can take a couple of loaves back to California. Once I went through the TSA inspection, and the agent opened my carry-on. He found three flat loaves of bread. “This bakery must be really good,” he said. “You’re probably the sixth person who came through with bread in their bag.”

My siblings do the same thing. In fact, when my brother would have a layover in Syracuse, he and the flight crew would stop at the bakery for a supply of bread on their way back to the airport.

But even so, that is not the best bread I’ve ever had. That honor goes to the tiny bakery in my grandparents’ ancestral village in Italy. In the middle of this little mountain village, there is a bakery that produces the best bread on Earth. And thanks to that dough, they also make the best pizza. Just topped with fresh tomatoes, a bit of cheese, and some olive oil. Food of the gods — that’s what it is. I think they must be using the same starter from the original loaf.

As I was extolling the virtues of this lovely chewy bread, my mother’s cousin Nicola waved his hand and said, “No, no! If you think that bead is good, you should try the one in the next village.”

I can only imagine.

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