Evangeline Maid & Bunny Bread

Louisiana Born & Bread

For at least 30,000 years, bread has been the center of human civilization. It nourishes the body and, across cultures and religions, nourishes the soul. A country’s most fertile soils are called its “bread basket,” and the person who makes the money in a household is the “breadwinner.” The breaking of bread is the first act of solidarity between people. (The word “companion” derives from the Latin com, which means “with,” and panis, which means “bread.” Bread is the thing you eat with your friends.) In the Catholic Church, bread is consecrated as the literal body of Christ. In ancient Egypt, it was a form of currency. In 18th-century France, Voltaire said of his people that they need only “the comic opera and white bread.” If you somehow managed to create the most impressive and dazzling new thing in all the world, it would still only be the greatest thing “since sliced bread.”

Every civilization has independently discovered its own form of bread. It is life, and the reason we have thrived since the dawn of humanity. It is also a hyper-localized product. Regional soils nourish different types of wheat in different ways, and different water goes into the making of bread. This affects taste and texture when the dough rises and is baked. (It is one reason New Orleans po-boys are so distinctive — our water somehow yields a bread both fluffier and crisper. Have you ever ordered a po-boy in New York? It would be a war crime.) And because bread is of the Earth and of the local community, people have very strong opinions about their local brands!

In Louisiana, two of the most popular types of bread are Evangeline Maid and Bunny Bread. The uninitiated think the two are the same, but an enthusiast will tell you in polite, but in no uncertain terms, that it is time for you to leave. I will discuss the reason below.

Evangeline Maid bread was born over a century ago in the heart of Cajun country: in Youngsville, Louisiana just outside of Lafayette. A baker named Joseph Huval had learned his trade in the Army during World War I, came home, and opened a little bakery for $50Evangeline Maid was thus born. Indeed, it is a family affair. The slender maid that’s always been on its logo is a sketch of Joseph’s daughter, Mary.

And the logo isn’t the only thing that hasn’t changed. The recipe for the bread and the way it is made is the same as ever, only on a much, much larger scale. It is what the people of Acadiana grew up on, and what their kids will grow up on as well. (When I think back to my childhood, I only remember GIANT bread — I can still see it there, those big blue letters on a yellow bag. But GIANT brand it was not. Rather, it was Evangeline Maid; the large loaves were simply given a giant, well, GIANT label.)

Bunny Bread, meanwhile, is not a local bread per se, but everyone sure knows its trademark smiling rabbit on the bag of every loaf sold. The company was founded in 1925 by a trio of brothers — Amos, Arnold and Jack Lewis — who wanted to open a bakery in Illinois. Bunny Bread, as the world now knows it, came along 20 years later, and soon came to be as emblematic of the American Midwest as the wheat fields that yielded it.

Here is where it gets interesting, though. Bunny Bread is made fresh in regional bakeries, including — perhaps more famously even than its Illinois birthplace — in the city of New Orleans. Which means, for the discriminating Louisiana sandwich eater, the bread aisle at your local Rouses can be a flavor competition between Lafayette and New Orleans. After all, we take our food pretty seriously here.

It is worth recognizing that in addition to being great bakers, the Lewis brothers and Huval family were entrepreneurs. Bread was not always a grocery store staple, sliced perfectly and wrapped in plastic bags with twist ties on the end. A hundred years ago, women baked the bread in most family households. The idea of unburdening mothers of that responsibility was pretty radical, with no guarantee of success. How recent is pre-sliced bread? Pop-up toasters were around before bread-slicing machines were invented.

In many ways, bread is like wine. The reason Italian food tastes better with Italian wine, and vice versa, is that the two were created in conjunction, from the same local terroir, by people with similar palates, flavor preferences and cultural backgrounds. Sometimes intentionally and sometimes subconsciously, chefs and winemakers work toward similar ends, adapting to each other, pushing each other and finding new ways of elevating each other. They achieve balance and harmony without even thinking about it.

In the case of bread, consider Evangeline Maid’s old-fashioned white bread. It is soft and fluffy and absolutely perfect for wiping your bowl after finishing a Cajun dish like gumbo, for which Acadiana is so famous. Did Joseph Huval set out intentionally to make the perfect mop for remnants of crawfish étouffée, or did he naturally come onto the solution because that is the kind of food we eat around here? It is probably a little of both.

If you thought the sometimes bitter rivalry between fans of differing breads was already intense, then brace yourself. Bunny Bread partisans and Evangeline Maid enthusiasts, I beseech you to show restraint and not hurl your pillowy soft loaves of enriched white bread at each other. Because — prepare yourselves for this — both brands are owned by the same company: Flower Foods, out of Georgia. In New Orleans, the bakery that makes Bunny Bread also bakes Evangeline Maid in Acadiana.

It was only a matter of time before two such great things would come together in peace and harmony. Long, after all, is the history of bread — so long, in fact, that bread has not only been just for eating, either. Anything that has been around for several thousand years was bound to pick up a few extra uses along the way. I’ve already mentioned that it was once a currency in ancient Egypt. Before rubber erasers were a thing, balled-up bread was used to erase pencil markings. In the Middle Ages (and today as well, if you know where to look), bread was baked as the bowl for the meal eaten. This might even be how pizza was born, though the truth is lost in the sands of time. It might even have curative properties, packed as it is with proteins and micronutrients.

What is known for certain is that we all love bread. On average, an American will eat 53 pounds of bread per year. This is about the same weight as a mattress of a twin-sized bed which, yes, was the weirdest comparison I could find in my cursory Internet search. A thousand dollars in quarters also weigh 50 pounds).

But the subject of lost truths and misconceptions brings us back to Evangeline Maid and Bunny Bread. Specifically, some people believe they are the exact same bread in different wrappers. But that just isn’t so! Evangeline Maid is made in a very specific way, and each loaf takes about eight hours from start to finish. It starts the way all leavened bread (that is, bread made with a rising agent) is made: with flower, water and yeast. Of course, unlike bread made at home, bread at the Evangeline Maid factory is done in larger volume. It takes about four hours for the big blob of dough to rise, at which point it is cut into loaf-sized portions; their old-fashioned loaves are also hand-twisted, just as they were in the days of Joseph Huval. From there, it is stretched and molded into the shape you know and love, and then goes into trays for baking. After that, it gets a brief trip to the oven, and when it comes out, it is ready to eat. Before it can get to the shelves of your local Rouses, though, it must first cool for an hour. It is then sliced, bagged and tied off.

Bread is everything in New Orleans, especially French bread — and with stale such bread being considered the best of all, because you can use it to make pain perdu. Po-boy bread can only be made in the city. (You could try to make it elsewhere, but it just wouldn’t work.) Even the traditional king cake is a kind of brioche — basically bread with a hint of sweetness, mixed with cinnamon and slathered in icing and colorful sugar.

So, if New Orleans prefers Bunny Bread, there has to be something going on there. In part it is the flavor and texture. It just goes right with Creole cuisine, and a big part of that is probably due to the water. Furthermore, it is perhaps because thousands of schoolkids — who probably had sandwiches made with Bunny Bread in their lunchboxes — also took class field trips to the bakery in New Orleans, where they also got stickers of the Bunny logo.

On that note, if you’ve read this far about bread, I have a surprise for you, and it’s a doozy. Your bread contains a secret: The colors of twist ties on loaves of bread are not random. As a general rule (though, of course, your mileage may vary), blue twist ties mean the bread was baked on a Monday. Tuesdays get green twist ties. Bakers get Wednesday off, so there’s not usually a color associated with it. On Thursday breads wear red while, on Friday, white is the order of the day. Finally, on Saturday, yellow twist ties are all the rage. (Sundays are also a day of rest.) All this helps shoppers know when the bread arrived on shelves.

When hurricanes come, there’s a reason those shoppers rush the bread aisle at their local Rouses, and clean out the Evangeline Maid and Bunny Bread. When hurricanes are gone, there’s a reason why Rouses Markets makes restocking bread a top priority. In part, it’s because sandwiches are easy to make when there won’t be power for a week or more. In part, it is because when we are left to evaluate the damage and begin to rebuild, if necessary, bread offers a spiritual nourishment perhaps unlike any other food. Maybe it is a trace ancestral thing. Ten thousand years is a long time to eat something without it getting all wrapped up in our genetic makeup. But maybe it is just plain comfort. Bread means security. It means friends. It means family.

Today, on Facebook, Reddit, and all manner of social media and discussion board sites online, you can find dust-ups between the Evangeline Maid people and the Bunny Bread people. Have you ever wondered why? Or if ever there were a loaf of bread in the break room at the office, or you saw one sitting out at a friend’s house, if it is somehow different than the obviously correct bread (whichever that is for you), didn’t it sting a little? Doesn’t it feel like you hardly know this person? Feel like maybe you shouldn’t know such a person? (I see a bread loaf with polka dots on it, and I’m out.)

The reason for this, I think, is beautiful, and speaks to the innocence of childhood and the memories of parents or grandparents, of a thousand packed lunches and PB&Js. We care about the bread we grew up on because that bread in many ways summarizes where we came from, what our values were and are, who we once were and who we want to be. And obviously, the giant loaves of Evangeline Maid bread are better than Bunny — for me, anyway.