Saturday, August 25, 2012

Runty Bread

     Just when you think you know something, you find out you don't.  I thought I knew pretty much all there was to know about bread.  It's made either with or without yeast. It comes in loaves. It can be round, oval, rectangle,square, even triangular. Bread can be light and fluffy, hard and crusty, or just plain flat. You can add spices, nuts, raisins, herbs, seeds, chocolate chips, in fact, just about anything you want, in order to change the texture and flavor. There are sweet breads and beer breads, cheese breads and fruit breads. Bread can be cooked over fire, in an oven, on a griddle, even in a microwave. You can fry bread, make it into stuffing, add it to casseroles and meatloaf as a filler.  Cupcakes, crackers, croutons...all are bread in their infancy. Every culture has a regional adaptation of bread.  Italians have their long, crusty loaves. The French favor baguettes for their jambon et fromage. Americans love their overly processed and somewhat bland white bread for pb&j's and tomato sandwiches. Germans are partial to dark ryes and hearty pumpernickles with their cheese and sausages.The English prefer to nibble on scones while sipping their afternoon tea. Nothing compliments hummus like pita, hotdogs have to have a bun, tacos aren't tacos without the shell,  and you just can't have pizza without the perfect crust. Oh, I love bread in any way, shape, or form, and  thought I had just about tried them all. Until I stopped at a roadside vegetable stand in the mountains of North Carolina and ended up coming home with a loaf of runty bread.
     I wasn't even looking for bread as I drove down the mountains that Saturday afternoon.  We had spent the day rambling through the hills, stopping for a picnic by Linville Falls, then searching the surrounding towns for orchards that had Honey Crisp or Mutsu apples ready for harvest.  We got lost on a road outside of Spruce Pines that ran out at the top of a mountain and had to backtrack all the way down the same hill. A quick but severe summer storm forced us to pull over as lightning crackled across the hills and rain pelted down in blinding sheets. We stopped by a swollen creek to watch the muddy water rush over boulders that created little waterfalls and swirling eddies.  We didn't mind all the delays as we really had no agenda, just one of those weekend drives with no true destination, a meandering mountain journey on backroads through small towns with names like Cranberry, Hawk, Minneapolis. As we wound down the road towards Grandfather Mountain, my dad wanted to look for a vegetable stand that had some of the sweet, local mountain corn that you just can't find in a grocery store.  I passed such a spot as we approached Linville, did a u-turn at a gas station, and pulled up as close to the shed as I could. Rolling down the car window, I leaned over and hollered at the young boy inside.
     "Do you have any sweet corn?"
      "Yes ma'am, we sure do!" he hollered back.
      I put the car in park, got out, and walked inside.
      "Bet you didn't know this was a drive-through store, did you!"I joked to the boy sitting on a stool behind a make-shift counter.
     He just laughed and said, "Well, I never knew I could work at a McDonalds!"
     With a natural, nice smile and a pleasant disposition, he was the rare teenager that you instantly liked. He pointed out some of the local produce, smiled as he chatted with me, and told me to look around.  None of the surliness or disrespect that so many of the city teens suffer from marred his character; he was as fresh and pure as the mountain air he had been raised on.
      I walked through his little stand and checked out the produce. Homemade birdhouses with bright red roofs lined the entrance, and I wondered if he had crafted them with his own hands. There were shelves made out of boards on top of cinder blocks that held baskets of squash, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, okra.  A fresh batch of muscadines were spread out on a counter beside jars of apple butter, local honey, and blackberry jam. The corn was piled high beneath a sign that read "3 ears for $1.00."
   " Ï'll take a dozen ears,"I told the boy as he lined them up by the register.  And that was when I saw the loaf of bread.
    It was obviously home-made, wrapped up in a plastic bag, and tied up with a little green wire twisty.
    "Is that sour dough?"I asked.
    "Yes'm." he answered.
    "How much"?"
    "Five dollars a loaf."
    I yelled to my dad in the car, "Do you want a loaf of sour dough?"
    He nodded "Yes," so I told him to add it to my pile of corn.
    As I got ready to pay, the boy told me that he was only going to charge me four dollars for the bread.
   "Well, that's really nice,"I said.
    "That just don't look like a five dollar loaf," he replied.
     "Do what?" I asked
     "Oh, it's real good,"he answered. "My momma makes it fresh every morning and it tastes great, but she thinks she can get five dollars a loaf. I don't know why, but that's what she thinks.  I think five dollars is high for a loaf of bread to begin with. But this'un here just don't look like a five dollar loaf. It's a runty bread."
    "A what?"
    "A runty bread. See how it's kinda flat on top? It ain't fluffed up all high like most of the ones she makes, and I just don't think this'uns a five dollar loaf. It ain't puffed up, so I'm only gonna charge you four dollars for this ole runty bread."
    I loved this boy! Not only had he taught me something I never knew, but he gave me a bargain to boot. I love a deal almost as I love a good slice of hot, homemade bread, and if runty bread was a dollar less, then it was my new favorite. ''
    "Well, OK, but you keep the change and that'll make us even", I laughed as I gathered up my corn and runty bread.
     He smiled his sweet smile and told me to come back again.
     "You bet."
     Good food, good manners, and runty bread.  I was certain I'd be back again.

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