Reflections on Affluence

Lovers of Continental breads and pastries constantly wonder why there are so many more bakeries in France than in the United States. The simplest answer is that the French outsource more of their baking than we do. Historically we Americans have done most of our baking ourselves. The more you bake at home, the less you need bakeries. That’s the general rule.

Yet the old Central European neighborhoods to the West of Chicago didn’t abide by that rule. The Polish and Czech kids I knew in high school came from the some of the baking-est families I ever saw. Their grandmas made cookies, pies and buns by the dozens during the week…yet they and their parents still went shopping at the Cermak Road bakeries on Saturday mornings.

Why, I can only speculate. Central Europeans are well known for their love of good bread and pastry. When they got to America and became affluent, they probably just decided that things like cookies and kolache needn’t be a once-in-a-while treat. America is the land of plenty — so why not have them every day?

Italians did likewise. Back home, their nonnas slaved on Sundays making small quantities of pasta by hand. A little pile of it with a scraping of Parmesan was a treasure as a starter for Sunday dinner. But when you’re a rich American, why be miserly? Have a whole plate of pasta — in fact have it for a main course! And instead of a dusting of cheese I want a lake of it melted over the top — now that’s living!

I’m not trying to make fun here. At least these immigrant populations had some happy culinary memories to build on. Going all the way back, we Pastrys are Scottish. The fact that there’s no hyper-indulgent American form of haggis is testament to the fact that “good riddance” was the general attitude of my ancestors. When they arrived in the New World they dropped everything and started from scratch.

What’s my point? Simply this: gourmands love to sneer at the way Americans eat. I’m not saying that the condescension isn’t justified in some respects. Excess as a way of life is an unhealthy thing. Yet it’s easy to see where that American tendency to go hog wild comes from. Once upon a time, Americans really were tired, poor huddled masses, denied just about everything. Presented with jobs, good money and a never-ending smörgåsbord, it’s no wonder they went a bit too far.

I’ll tell you that if I were born in 1915 in Olomouc, the dirt-poor son of a miner, and I emigrated to Chicago between the wars, I know I’d have gone shopping on Cermak Road every weekend. Probably every day, and for the rest of my life!

7 thoughts on “Reflections on Affluence”

  1. Yet haggis is delicious! I’m guessing haggis was forgotten because, although it is delicious, it is also what you eat when you’ve got nothing else. Not a treat at all where it came from, just a way of making a meal from stuff the rich folks wouldn’t eat. Come to think of it, traditionally haggis contains lungs, which are considered unfit for human consumption here in New Zealand, and I’m pretty sure in the States as well.

    The French outsourcing their baking is something that’s fascinated me since I read Nana etc. by Émile Zola. It seemed so foreign to me that these extraordinarily poor people (whole families living in one room) would buy their food from a restaurant, and get their laundry done by someone else too. Maybe it’s because they were so poor – no money for cooking implements. It’s interesting to compare Zola’s poor people with Dickens’s. Around the same era, and geographically very close, but culturally completely different.

    1. Yes indeed it is fascinating. I can’t speak to laundry, however I do believe that the outsourcing of baking is a holdover from feudal days. Ovens were under the control of fief lords and their families, who did the baking for everyone on their lands. In fact I think I read somewhere that the word “lord” itself is derived from “loaf ward” or something like that…I need to look it up. Over time many of those feudal ovens became communal ovens, where people brought their dough every week or so, paying an operator a small fee that covered the cost of fuel, etc.. Eventually the communal ovens became bakeries. That’s a very general and greatly abbreviated history of European baking, of course. But you can see why, at least in some places in Europe, average people have never made bread.

      To you other point, I confess I like haggis too. It’s rich stuff. Just a few mouthfuls and you’re full. No wonder the Scots relied so heavily on it. It wasn’t just economical, it provided a high energy return! But yes, most haggis has sheep heart, lungs and liver in it. You can’t get any of that in States, which is why my first visit to a Scottish butcher shop was such a surprise. I’ll never forget it!

      Thanks for the email, Bronwyn!

      1. No liver or heart? We have those in the butcher’s shop, just not lungs. I make haggis sometimes, and use just liver, heart, and sometimes kidney. What we can’t get in New Zealand, and I have no idea why, is steel cut oats; all of our oatmeal is rolled oats, milled to various sizes. I use oat groats, which are better than rolled oats but still not the same as steel cut. Also I have never had a sheep’s stomach to play with so I boil the haggis in a steamed pudding bowl or a large plastic sausage skin. One day my friend Stephen and I are going to kill a sheep and do it properly.

        1. Not from a sheep. You can get beef heart and liver, sometimes pork liver, but no sheep innards at all. And they call this civilization!

          Strange about the oats, though. I wonder why?

  2. I think outsourcing bread baking had the same reason as modern day industrial outsourcing. If you have to work on the fields and with animals whole day to get the living, you don’t have hours to kneed, raise and bake a bread. Also it would be a big waste of wood to heat up an oven just to bake a bread in half an hour.
    Much more cost effective to do it in larger scale.
    You’re right, Joe. Lord comes from loaf ward by Merriam-Webster.

  3. I think if you leave your homeland for another continent, you’ll hold on to anything that evokes the feeling of home. So why fresh pasta once a week if you can bring in Italy every day? Still you have to get accustomed to the new environment.

    A fascinating thought for me as an European, btw. All our roots can be traced to some other place… but living in America, almost everybody’s roots have been unearthed just a very short time ago… a couple of hundred years ago or less… which makes me wonder if people do hold on to the things, the food, the traditions of their origin.

    I am digressing… anyway, still today greek people bring their food in pots and pans to bakeries and pick it up again when it is done. When the bread-oven is hot anyway, while not use it for dinner as well? btw, this is why greek food has a reputation for being served lukewarm; it takes a while to bring the Stifado back home from the bakery 🙂

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