Musings on the ubiquitous loaf of French bread

French bread is a national commodity that is remembered in many ways.

In French country inns or restaurants, after you select a table, a basket of bread (no butter) is the first thing that appears at your elbow, like the ubiquitous glass of water in the United States.

It announces the waiter's awareness and recognition of your presence with the tacit implication that further service will be forthcoming shortly.

You are never able to finish all the pieces in the basket because the waiter automatically refills it when the supply falls alarmingly low.

A familiar sound in the nearby kitchen is the chop, chop of the bread guillotine, a sturdy knife-on-a-hinge arrangement that easily swings a staccato rhythm down the length of a loaf of bread.

French bread is made in many shapes and sizes, but the two loaves seen most often are a long one (pain), about 30 inches long and three inches in diameter, and a smaller one (petit pain), 18 to 22 inches long and as big around as thumb and index finger circled.

Either size appears for breakfast, sometimes coupled in the basket with one or two croissants.

This is the only time butter and jam are offered to eat with your bread; otherwise, it is an unadorned accompaniment to soup and salad, a pusher for elusive bits of food, and finally a sponge to soak up excess sauce or gravy on your plate.

French bread exits unwrapped from the bakery and is carried homeward in diverse ways.

I've seen two little boys in a small village fence an imaginary duel with long, sturdy loaves; another child kept bouncing a loaf off the narrow sidewalk as if on springs to send a would-be missile skyward, but never daring to release it.

A nonchalant teen-ager sticks his loaf or two into a partially zipped jacket. Hikers are sighted with loaves extending from their backpacks for easy access. On a bike or moped? Just break the loaves in two and strap them under a carrier behind the seat.

A matron may carry one loaf in her hand, two or more in her shopping bag or wicker basket, or a number of them, for a large family, cradled in her arms like an infant.

Alongside, a toddler of three years proudly carries one as a symbol of beginning family responsibility. Staff of life? Indeed it is.

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