In defence of white squares...

Once upon a time, there was a boy in his back yard, kicking a soccer ball against the side fence. He was still too young for school, but probably too old to be still at home with his Mum. The boy's universe was beginning to stretch beyond the back yard, into the street. 

From his vantage point of the front gate, the boy could see the white Holden EH panel van. The driver would park just a couple of houses back from his, open the rear swing up window, and remove a large square wicker basket with a tea towel neatly folded over the handle. He would carefully load the basket up with white squares of bread - these were actually rectangular in shape, but the cross section was totally square. He would cover his load with said tea towel, and would walk from house to house, chatting with any one at home on his way. He dropped off a loaf or two to each residence; he knew where to leave the bread if the owner wasn't home. Money rarely changed hands, except on a Friday, when he would deliver the weekly account, along with the bread.

Eventually, he would get to the boy's house. With a wink, the baker, basket in hand and surprisingly nimble of foot, could lightly direct the boy's soccer ball expertly up the drive, and pass it across to the boy. Without missing a beat, he would hand the boy's mum a loaf, and divide one expertly in half for the boy. The squares had a seam, which tore neatly. This exposed the 'crumb', the absolutely best part of the bread. The boy would sit, soccer ball beside him, and proceed to remove the internals of the crusty, warm 'white square', absorbing the dough with a kind of primal relish. 

These memories provided the boy (me) with some indelible lessons; and these lessons are ones which I'd like to share with you in this post.

The first, and most important lesson was generosity. The baker gave me some bread. A simple gesture, but coupled with the baker taking the time to play with me, made it all the more generous. Giving is not something we see as an everyday thing now. It's reserved for occasions - birthday, Christmas etc. And then, it's overdone - we make a theatre of the whole event. Or, we are given something in order to sell us something else - a ‘free gift’. Yet I remember being given not one, but many loaves; it was just something a kid came to appreciate, simply by virtue of being a kid. People looked after you. My world has been forever shaped by this act; my default position has always been one of generosity. My default position is to look after kids. It's in deep. 

The next lesson was trust. The boy saw that the baker left everybody their bread each day; there was no question, no payment. The baker knew everybody would look after their bill, and he would never have to think about it. He knew how much bread they needed too - there was no ordering system. It's just the way things were. All our groceries were delivered, because many people didn't have cars (yet - though this would rapidly change). And everyone had a 'bill'. Each week, or whenever it needed to occur, there would be a cup of tea in the kitchen while Mum counted out the exact sum for each person - the grocer, the baker and so on.  It was a social thing, more than a financial one. Yes, there were no cards. Cash was currency, and that’s all there was.

Another, more primal lesson, was how good a thing really fresh bread is. I understood it by dipping my hand into it, and tearing out what was inside the crust. The crust was a wrapping for this magical, doughy substance. It wasn't sliced - that was the part you did yourself. We saw it as the ultimate convenience, simply having fresh bread every day - slicing it wasn't even something we thought about - one just sliced ones own bread. I'll hasten to add that this particular bread was tasty. It wasn't overly white - more sort of creamy than white - but it tasted like, well, real bread. 

Every meal involved bread. Breakfast was toast and Vegemite. Lunch was a ham sandwich. Dinner was meat, veg and buttered bread on the side. Bread was affordable, staple food. It was a stomach filler.  Everyone ate it, and no one complained about their various stomach issues.

Years later, my Dad would take me on his own rounds. He wasn't a baker - he was an accountant. We would jump in our own red and white Holden station wagon (FB, I think; Dad’s pride and joy), with Dad's 'portable' adding machine in the back, along with his 'ledgers' (whatever they were; green hard covered journals in a big box), and head off to the inner west of Sydney. 

In those days, the heart of Australia's thriving Italian community began in Croydon, and extended as far as possibly Auburn or Strathfield. Leichhardt was not yet settled - it was more of an industrial outpost back then. It would have been a Sunday mission - Saturdays were usually spent attending soccer games; soccer was considered a 'safe' game, compared to the rugged rugby league. I presume my mother would have been guided in this decision by many Italian mummas. 

Dad was a trusted go between; a member of the Anglo world who was also accepted by the Italians. Many of these people had done work for Dad at different times - Dad used to have a grocery store in Croydon, which was in the epicenter of Sydney's first 'little Italy', back in the 1950's. Some of them supplied Dad with vegetables from their market gardens in Auburn; others painted the shop, or did repairs for him. Dad and Mum and I would be invited to Italian weddings, which would last for days at a time.

Dad continued these relationships long after the shop was sold (to one of them - beginning a long tradition of Italian fruit and veg shops in the inner city - but that's another story). Dad had, by this stage, started working a day job, as a company accountant. He still managed to keep all these long time immigrant friends on the right side of the tax man - they didn't understand Australia, or our complex tax system, but Dad did. Again, this was an act of generosity; money was not a primary motivation - at least that’s not how it looked to me, as a kid. Money was only used where other commodities were unsuitable, in the Italian scheme of things. Even then, they would paint your house at the drop of a hat, if they thought it needed doing. Or a mysterious box of vegetables would appear on the front door step, whether you wanted them or not. If all else failed, and there was simply no other way to show the necessary gratitude, a tidy wad of notes would emerge from the back pocket. The commonly accepted technique involved peeling off one note at a time, and gathering each together in an untidy bouquet before handing them over; the standard facial expression offered during this process looked a bit like when removing a thorn from one's foot; unpleasant, but necessary. So very Italian.

These people taught me about respect, about loyalty.  This was the underpinning of their world, and it simply would not run without it.

I learned about the 'other' from these people - first hand. Young Italian girls pelted overripe tomatoes at me from a distance, giggling; simultaneously teaching me about survival and lust. And, scraping tomato from my face, I learned about tomatoes. Tomatoes were a very important thing. Dangerous, yet delicious. Ripeness is everything.

Onwards Dad and I would go, until our rounds ended up in Parramatta, at the Fielders Bakery. He would perch me on top of huge hessian bags of grain, and leave me to whoever was working in the bake house at the time to keep an eye on me. Dad would go into the office, and set up his adding machine on the table. For many hours, I would hear the mechanical whirring of the machine as he pulled the handle after each entry.  I would pop my head into the office from time to time as Dad worked - and I'd be gone again, into the wilds of the factory with my pump up scooter (something my Dad never forgot to bring when we did our rounds) underneath me.

My memories from this time are a bit muddled - I think the bakery also milled flour, because I distinctly remember these hessian bags full of wheat. I also remember watching the bakers at work, hand turning dough in many large, stone troughs; they would work from one dough to another, using a kind of rotation system. Some of the bakers would squeeze off a little ball of dough between their fingers, and hand it to me. At that age, I had no idea of what was going on in front of me - indeed, it wasn't until many years of running bakeries myself that I was able to piece together these random fragments of memory to make some production sense of them.

These days, the Fielders bakery, which was its name, is long gone - though I think the brand has been absorbed into the conglomerated company that Fielders eventually became. Holden cars are no longer, with the current government ensuring that any automotive industry we may have left is well and truly second or third tier industry, entirely subsumed by the Chinese manufacturing juggernaut.

The Italian community is so well integrated into our own that it is often almost invisible, having newer emigres in ever bigger numbers landing in our old stomping grounds of the inner west of 1960s Sydney.

Change is our only constant, inevitably. 

White bread, and in particular the white square, is deeply unfashionable these days - it has become symbolic of all that is wrong with our food system. I hasten to add the white square remains the backbone of the bakery business - it's just that the machines are bigger now; bakers in factories wear white lab coats and monitor systems on a screen. The packers do the dirty work of stacking tins and moving bread crates around. The manufacturing time, per unit of bread, has gone from minutes to seconds. 

On the other end of the scale, the franchised retail bakery continues to thrive, while trading on the image of the village baker - which to a certain extent is true, as the bakery is part of the 'shopping village'. The product is uniform, coming from uniform chemistry; the chemistry itself is controlled by the corporation. The franchised baker gets their product range from a series of bags, supplied by the corporation.

These bakeries are little more than a modern form of servitude for all that work in them. Strangely, while many franchisees feel this way, others thrive in a controlled environment. Certainly, these operations are not about skill, or tradition, or quality, and do very little to bond a community - but the illusion is enough, it seems.

I have known many 'died in the wool' bakers who have purchased one of these franchises in the mistaken belief that it would be more profitable than their existing operation. These people will tell you that a profitable franchise is also an illusion; compared to their previous businesses. However, I digress... 

It seems to me that the idea of a bakery is powerful in our psyche - but for more reasons than simply to make bread. A bakery is a force for stability, for daily nutrition, for reminding us of our connectedness. It's a place of exchange - ideas, gossip, conversation. For some reason, people feel comfortable around a bakery. They get their daily renewal there. It symbolises constant change, yet also constancy. What is yesterday is gone, like the unsold bread; and today is fresh, and still full of promise. The community square, if you like - though it certainly doesn't have to be white.