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My grandfather was a simple man, a man of few words and fewer gestures. He didn’t know how to read or write (in Italian or English); he signed his name with an X (for which there is no translation in Italian). He knew, maybe, 50 words of English, four or five words of French and a few phrases in German (he always stood at attention when he heard their respective national anthems).
To get to and from work, he relied on public transit and carried in his wallet a card with his address, just in case he got lost and needed to communicate the word “home” to the driver. He used a heavy silver comb to groom his white hair and he wore mechanic’s coveralls to cut grass. He swept his front sidewalk, driveway and walkway with pride. Sitting in his backyard, he sipped wine from a bicchiere (never a wine glass) between bites of cheese, tomatoes, olives and bread.
At night, he sat by the phone waiting for his three sons to call. Some nights he had nightmares about his time in the war. There was plenty about the modern world that he didn’t care, or make an effort, to understand: he didn’t drive, watch much TV or pay attention to the news. My father said that if the sky were falling my grandfather would simply wipe the dirt from his shoulders and help himself to another piece of bread.
Outside of his family, my grandfather took one thing seriously: bread. For him, buying bread was sacrosanct. I’ve watched him work the bread aisle in a bakery where it looked as if he were shopping for a diamond, not something made of flour, yeast, sugar and water; the way he measured the weight of a loaf in his hand, feeling for the perfect density; the way he squeezed at the crust to test its firmness and freshness; when he made his final decision, he’d tap the loaf against his hip to shake off any excess flour or cornmeal (better to have dirty pants than a dirty counter and risk the evil-eye from my grandmother). Walking home, he’d reach inside the bag, rip off a piece of bread and pass it to me as if he were sharing the spoils of history’s greatest treasure.
Sunday school for my family took place around my grandparent’s kitchen table. While my grandmother put the pasta in the water, stirred the sauce and prepped the meat, my grandfather took care of the bread. With his family bundled around the table, he would take a loaf out of the bag like a magician would a rabbit out of a hat. The way his hands, a construction worker’s hands, broke the bread – the crack of the crust demanding our attention – and passed it around as if he were offering us a piece of himself. He treated the bread as if it were the main course; in many ways it was (he also ate bread as a snack, often with a banana, walnuts or grapes. His favourite, mine, too, was chunks of bread and Maria cookies in warm milk – a whole new level of cucina povera, or peasant kitchen).
Like every classroom, there were rules that needed to be followed: never leave a piece of bread upside down; never cut a loaf of bread with a knife; never, ever, throw a piece of bread away. What annoyed him more than anything was seeing a hole dug out of a piece of bread, the crusts wasted and ignored. My illiterate grandfather was our the teacher; bread, the curriculum. What he couldn’t say to us in English, he said to us in bread.
His relationship to bread extended beyond Sunday lunches. My grandfather loved German bread because it was the only thing he was permitted to eat as a prisoner of war in Germany. Bread united his family the way it united soldiers from different parts of the world. When my family first moved to Toronto, a local baker would come by the house they rented with enough bread for all 12 people living on the premises. It was as if their very lives depended on bread; in many ways, it did. It was a baker who gave my grandmother the final $300 she needed for the down payment on their first house. As a basic human need, bread is up there with air, water and love.
Toward the end of his life, his mind ravaged by Alzheimer’s, his body assailed by Parkinson’s, we’d visit my grandfather in the old-age home, with a fresh piece of bread. Too weak to chew through the crust, we broke rules and ripped apart the insides and fed it to him tiny piece by tiny piece, leaving the crust out of his sight.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandfather and his bread since it was announced that Loblaws allegedly fixed the prices of many of its bread products in what it called an “industrywide price-fixing arrangement.” Loblaw, a company that posted a $201-million net profit in the fourth quarter of 2016, still felt it necessary to “fix” the price of a food staple from late 2001 to March of 2015. When I heard the news, I immediately thought of my grandfather.
While Loblaws tries to dazzle us with Wonder ($3.19); tries to sell us a little something of the Old World in the new world with Villagio ($3.49); and attempts to appropriate my Italiano ($3.79) culture, they’re selling an inferior product at an inflated price. In our family, you can judge the quality of a person’s life by the quality of the bread that is set out on the table. The same could be said for a store by the quality of the bread it sells and by the way it treats its customers.
As a form of restitution, Loblaws is offering a $25 gift card to those who sign up online before the May 8 deadline.
What good is that to a person that can only sign their name with the letter x?
Anthony Carnovale lives in Orangeville, Ont.