Mack Williams: The smell of baking bread

  • Posted: Monday, March 4, 2013 12:25 a.m.

Just the other day, I drove to a small, local bakery to purchase a loaf of whole-wheat bread. My doctor told me that whole wheat would not “spike” my sugar as much as white bread. When she told me this, I immediately thought of an older German man who was a friend of my late wife and me in Yanceyville some years ago. He always ate rye bread and often said: “White bread just goes right through you without giving you anything.” With the increasing prevalence of Type II Diabetes these days, whole wheat bread might just as well be referred to now as “diabetic bread.” Then it can join the ranks of “diabetic shoes,” “diabetic socks,” etc.

As I approached the little bakery, I noticed that its door was open, despite the morning being quite cold. The diluted, open-air smell of baking bread became richly concentrated to me on my entry, and I also later wondered if the door was open to relieve the employees from the heat of baking, or to serve as open-air advertisement. One strange idea also crossed my mind: that rich aromas, when confined to a closed space may be much too much to withstand, possibly being in their own way deliciously noxious, on the opposite end of the spectrum from some of the deadly noxious things listed on the signage of some passing railroad tank cars.


The person ringing me up asked if I want the loaf sliced, and I said “no,” not just because slicing speeds up bread’s journey to a state of staleness, but because the sight of that whole bread loaf brought back a memory of Salisbury, my father and one of his friends. I should also say that not only the sight of that loaf, but the smell of hot bread also reached into my mind, serving to resurrect the memory of my father’s friend, in this case both the eyes and nose being servants of the brain’s recollection.

The man’s name was Odell Henderson, and as I previously mentioned, he and my father were good friends. Odell worked for Sunbeam in Salisbury, at their bakery not far from the Salisbury train station. One day in the late 1950s, my father and I stopped by to say hello to Odell at his workplace. I have a vivid memory (if a word related to vision can be applied to smell) of the richest aroma of hot bread which I had ever experienced!

Only in second place on that particular list was the smell of the old (fresh then) yeast rolls made by the ladies of the Granite Quarry School cafeteria. While visiting with Odell in the bakery, I remember seeing some of the Sunbeam loaves in pristine baked condition, prior to their coming into contact with the slicing machine and being wrapped within the face of Little Miss Sunbeam. Even though mixed and baked in assembly line fashion, this city-born bread had a “country” smell!

We sometimes visited the Hendersons at their home, to the best of my memory, somewhere in Faith. There, I observed a hobby of Odell’s, that of being a “numismatist,” a collector of coins. I recall looking at his collection in glass-topped cases which reminded me of the sort of cases in which things much more fragile than metal are also safely kept and preserved: ”butterflies.”

I recall my mother and me visiting Odell’s wife after his passing, my father having already passed away in 1966. During the course of the visit, Mrs. Henderson brought out Odell’s coin collection and talked about how it would be divided among his children. I remember looking at it and being fascinated by those coins again, but I’m sure that my fascination with them was a pale shadow of the fascination that once shown in the eyes of their collector.

Not being related to Odell, I of course received no material bequest from his estate. Despite this, there was one thing which he did leave to me, something he had actually already given me some years before. By virtue of his friendship, on that sunny day in Salisbury’s Sunbeam Bakery, Odell bequeathed to me a life-long memory of the richest smell of baking bread.

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