Slice of Life

White Bread

My Rouses Everyday, March/April 2017

Barbecue fans can be funny. Gather a few true believers together from different parts of the country, and you’ll get spirited conversations (read “borderline arguments”) over a wide range of topics. Loyalists from across the South will argue the virtues of different cuts (St. Louis-style ribs versus baby-backs), smoking woods (hickory, oak, mesquite), cooking times (the longer the better? Depends …), sauce recipes (sweet or spicy?) or any other nuance that makes their regional variation on the style absolutely superior to any other.

But ask about what bread goes with their ’cue, and there’s a near-universal consensus: sliced white bread. Period.

It’s the one area where BBQ partisans can find consistent common ground. With the exception of south Texas (where saltine crackers and tortilla culture come into play) and parts of the Appalachian South (where cornbread variations rule supreme), white bread is the undisputed King of Barbecue Baked Goods.

Soft, pliable and wonderfully absorbent, good old-fashioned white bread is the unanimous side starch for barbecue styles for sopping up spicy grease and pools of sauce. In the hand, a springy slice acts as the base of a sandwich or a utensil to grab meaty bits straight from the plate. Stylistic variations crop up — double-thick Texas toast and sesame-seeded burger buns are acceptable for sandwiches — but they’re just slices adapted to special projects.

In a proper barbecue context, pillowy squares of sandwich bread are the only real option. There aren’t choices for bread at a barbecue joint for the same reason nobody orders a shrimp po-boy on toasted pumpernickel or a double cheeseburger on a buttery croissant. Sure you could do it — I mean it’s possible — but somehow, it’s just not right.

In the middle of a meal, white bread can be a functional extension of a hungry diner’s fingers and an adult’s return to childhood — better than a fork, and a perfect excuse to eat with your hands. A “back to basics” way of connecting with your food, and the reason why God gave us opposable thumbs.

Just about every city has its own local bakery with its own beloved regional brand. Growing up in New Iberia, we bought loaves of Evangeline Maid but dug into the plastic Holsum bag at my grandparents’ in Baton Rouge. New Orleans and the Gulf Coast was all about Bunny Bread, which confused me as a kid. (I mean, bread made out of rabbits?)

But the grocery store staple was on the picnic table whenever my grandfather smoked brisket for Fourth of July. I started noticing that it was always the last thing to go on a multi-meat plate at church barbecues, or a smoke-stained backroads rib joints in Alabama, legendary pig joints in Chapel Hill or meat markets outside Austin. The soft “phhffft” of slices on the plate was always a welcome sound that meant impending action — like a ref’s whistle before kickoff.

We think about barbecue in the modern context — mostly home and restaurants these days — but for many barbecue styles, the slow-smoked specialty was inextricably linked to meat markets and small community grocery stores. In his book Legends of Texas Barbecue, author Robb Walsh describes the store-centric menu of early Texas ’cue (smoked meat or sausage, sliced onions, pickles, saltines or a loaf of white bread) as a practical workaround to racial segregation — and one of the few ways for black and Mexican cotton pickers to get a working meal in an era of segregated restaurants. When you couldn’t sit in the dining room, you built a meal from the grocery aisles and meat market so you could get back to your job.

And decades later, soft slices of humble sandwich bread are a part of the American culinary songbook and an inextricable part of barbecue culture. A little softness to go with the spice. And a knowledge that sometimes, the simplest option makes the meal that much better.