I know I love black bread even though I have not had any in 30 years. My 8 year old self assures me of this with a memory of me sitting in front of the toaster demolishing a whole loaf with lavish amounts of butter. It is a cherished memory, a happy memory from the time before The Great Upheaval. One of the memories I keep like a secret treasure in a box and pull out when the darkness threatens, to reassure myself I once had a normal life. And in that assurance find a promise that it can be normal again. Memories I never share least a careless word and the harsh reality of a merciless life in the village tarnish them, diminish them make them seem less real or less relevant, bright points of solace in a frightening strange world that I bring out with all the care and secrecy of a miser gloating over his gold.
And so at my first meal in Russia more than 30 years later when I reach for the black bread it is with some fear. Will it taste the same? Will it live up to that cherished memory? I cling to memories desperately; I cling to my past self resolutely despite the deliberate and merciless efforts to obliterate it, to make me finally and unequivocally an Igbo girl, a Nigerian. I put a piece on my plate and stare at it, it’s like a test. A test of whether what I remember is real or just my imagination because I really don’t remember all the people that surround me at the table. But I remember black bread. I stare at it, afraid to test the memory against the reality before me. Afraid I will be disappointed and the precious memory will lose its lustre and shine.
Bread isn’t just bread in Russia, bread is life – “Bread Is a Head to Everything” Russians say. They believe that people who share bread will be friends forever. Russians welcome guests with a presentation of bread and salt. An old Russian saying warns that when you die, all the bread you’ve ever wasted will be weighed and if it weighs more than your body you will go to Hell. “The quality of bread is the quality of our life! …The culture and civility of a people is defined by its relationship to bread… Bread will always live and be animated by our memory and consciousness, this bitter and sweet bread of our whole life and history… To be with bread is constantly to feel the warmth of life.”
I take the first bite without butter, I taste the rich, nutty, slightly sour flavour, it is dense, moist and chewy, and it fills my mouth and my mind. For a moment I panic, then I cover the slice with butter and take another bite and everything is alright. My old aunt dislikes black bread, when it’s mentioned or put on the table she squeezes her face in a way that makes me wonder what memories it conjures for her. During Russia’s numerous wars black bread was sometimes the only thing that kept people from starving. Some consider it coarse bread for serfs, peasants and the lower classes. At tea my aunt wonders how I could possibly prefer it to sweet pastries.
I’m learning to identify the different types of black bread and learning about the one in my youthful memory called borodinsky the only one I eat now, but most of all I’m learning to cherish my box of memories without a fear of sharing them.