Some old health advice from Fannie Farmer, the 19th-century culinary expert: “But for its slight deficiency in fat, wheat bread is a perfect food,” she wrote, “hence arose the custom of spreading it with butter.”
The dwindling quality of much of our bread aside, there are days when I wish we still believed that–both that bread is perfect food and that butter makes bread better. Like, baguette-, naan-, focaccia-, r’ghaif-, and pita-lovers before me, I think bread is the best side dish on the table.
Side dish? Really? But yes. If there’s not enough leftover salad to form a filling brown bag lunch, a fresh roll and some butter will turn those veggies into a real meal (plus give you an excuse to run to the local bakery and get out of the office). If vegetable soup sounds a bit meager, ladle servings over fried bread for bulk. And when spaghetti and meatballs don’t quite cut it, you know you need some garlic bread.
Turns out there’s a long tradition of carb-loving in this country. The side of bread is an old, humble, and resourceful habit finessed by early American settlers, according to Abigail Carroll in her book Three Squares.
The settlers had all kinds of adorable names for specific uses of bread on the side. There were sippets, decorative slices of fried bread, used for garnish and texture in addition to substance. Sops meant pieces of bread soaked in soup or stew–much like the Italian bread morsels on which minestrones sometimes get poured. Trenchers have the coolest explanation of all: The earliest colonial Americans didn’t have plates, so they used “trenchers,” thick slices of stale bread to hold their food, a old habit imported from Europe. Back in the old country, gentry would have donated their sauce-soaked bread to poor folk nearby. But in the hardscrabble colonies, the trenchers were valuable nourishment. Remember, bread was the perfect food.