• #45 - Jesse Lee Kercheval

    Jesse Lee Kercheval


    May 29, 2020

    Montevideo, Uruguay

    Dear Adam:


          On March 13, when the first four cases of COVID-19 were announced in Uruguay, a friend sent me a message, “Buy a month’s worth of groceries,” she wrote. “Then don’t leave the house.”

          I messaged back, “But what about bread?”

          Uruguayans usually buy bread every day, or more than once a day. There are panaderías every few blocks, and supermarkets and even the small corner stores have ovens to reheat baguettes sent from the big central bakeries. The grocery store closest to my apartment has a cardboard cutout of a clock. The times the fresh bread comes hot out of the oven are marked in red. On this clock it’s every two hours from eight in the morning until ten at night.

          Bread is so important in Uruguay that in the summer even the smallest beach town—just four or five houses scattered on a sand road—has a store that bakes fresh bread. When my husband, son, and I went camping at Parque Teresa, the national park in the far north of the country by the Brazilian border, the store there sold not only the things that camp stores sell everywhere—matches, batteries, sun screen—but also freshly baked bread. Because in Uruguay, you have to have it—for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner.

          Up until March 13 when the first four cases were diagnosed, Uruguayans had not seemed worried about the coronavirus. Or not as worried as I was. Just the night before I had been at a poetry festival with poets from Spain, Argentina, and Brazil, half a dozen other countries. I had gone with the firm intention of not kissing everyone—which is the normal way to say both hello and goodbye in Uruguay. I got as far as stiff-arming the first friend I saw, while apologetically mentioning the pandemic. She laughed and turned with a shrug to the poet standing next to her who was open-mouthed with surprise, “She’s from the United States,” she explained. After that I just kissed everyone. I probably kissed a hundred people.

          The next day the government announced that the novel coronavirus had arrived in Uruguay and everything changed. Schools, the university, malls, movie theaters, and government offices all closed. All public events were cancelled. Soon nothing was open but supermarkets and pharmacies. The busy boulevard below my apartment was quieter during the day than it had been before in the middle of the night. Quédate en casa! was the official government policy. Stay at home!

          My friend messaged me again, “A month’s food!” But even putting aside the question of fresh bread, it’s harder to buy enough food to last a month in Uruguay, where frozen and even canned food are not as common as in the US. No taking your car to Costco to fill your freezer. There is no Costco. And we don’t have a car and only a small freezer. So my husband and I settled on shopping once a week, or if we could stretch out what we had, every nine days. This covered the staples we stocked up on from one of the small supermarkets in the neighborhood: pasta, canned tuna, lentils. We even bought and froze meat, another thing Uruguayans traditionally buy fresh daily at the butcher or the meat counter. We also limited our trips to the feria, the street market where Montevideans buy their fruit, vegetables, and cheese. There is a feria set up on one side or other of our apartment building every day of the week except Monday, which is the feria workers’ day off.  I had been going daily and buying what I wanted to cook for dinner. But armed with a list that I struggled to read as my glasses fogged because of my face mask, I now went only once a week and bought everything I would need until the next time, with an emphasis on things that kept, like cabbage and apples. I went early, when the produce was just coming off the trucks and bought all I could from a single stall, no longer wandering to look at all the pears and every tomato before making my choice.

          But at first, on top of these shopping trips, we kept going out for bread every day. I love bread. I was born in France and grew up hearing my mother’s stories of how I cut my teeth chewing the heel from a fresh baguette. After we moved to the US, to Florida, my mother couldn’t get used to the bread. It was the Sixties and anything in the supermarkets labeled “French Bread” was just Wonder Bread in disguise. “How can a nation be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?” Julia Child said, and my mother agreed. She bought frozen Pepperidge hard rolls and baked them in the oven, trying to duplicate the brittle crust, the taste of real bread. Now, I found myself thinking of her every time I weighed the risks of going into a store just for a fresh baguette.

          For our daily bread runs, we settled on a small outpost of the large Uruguayan supermarket chain, Ta-Ta, where the bakery was right by the front door and there was automated checkout. But, as the cases of coronavirus rose from single to triple digits, we switched to buying bread every three or four days and freezing the loaves. We put each frozen loaf out to thaw at night, toasting pieces in the morning to try to bring it back to life. But it was just sad. Each morning, we sighed as we ate our toast. I knew how selfish and silly each sigh was. I knew and I know we are very lucky. Already ollas populares, community soup kitchens, have sprung up in Montevideo to feed people who are suddenly unemployed and have no food, not even bread. So I chewed my bread and felt fortunate to have it while having nearly nightly dreams where I ran through a strange city, smelling fresh bread baking somewhere, waiting for me, if I could only find it.

          This week my husband said, “You know, I think I will try to bake foccacia.” So, on supermarket day, he bought flour and the yeast, and at the feria he bought rosemary. Then he made the dough late at night, struggling to mix it in the only bowl we had, which was slightly too small. Then putting it in our only pot with a lid and leaving it on the counter to let it rise overnight. In the morning, a yeasty miracle, it had doubled in size. He put it in the broiler pan from the oven—we didn’t have a baking sheet—to rise again until nearly lunch time before putting it in the oven to bake. Oh, the smell of bread baking! Wheat and yeast and from this loaf olive oil and rosemary. It was the smell of pure happiness. And the taste was even better. The hard crack of the crust. The pillowy inside that let out tiny puffs of steam. We had it for lunch. We had it for afternoon tea with a bit of honey on it. We finished it at dinner and I went to bed happier than I had been in weeks.

          I dreamed about bread. But this time I was standing at the window looking out at the city and it was raining bread. It fell like gentle mercy from the sky on the poorest neighborhoods and the richest neighborhoods whose residents had bought this plague to Uruguay flying back from vacations in Italy and our own neighborhood somewhere in the middle where two Americans, unable to return home, wondered if they dared step outside and hold out their hands. Except as I looked through the window, I saw it wasn’t falling so much as flying, zipping in through the open windows of the city, like very clever baguette-shaped drones, landing on kitchen tables so that everyone would wake up to fresh bread. So that everyone in the city woke up to something hot and good to eat. In my dream, I opened the window so our baguette could come in.

    Stay well,

    Jesse Lee

    In lieu of payment, our friends and contributors to the Corona Correspondences are dedicating donations to nonprofits and independent businesses in their communities. Kercheval's contribution will be directed to Arts + Literature Laboratory.

    Jesse Lee Kercheval is a writer, and translator, specializing in Uruguayan poetry. She is the author of America that island off the coast of France, winner of the Dorset Prize, and the memoir Space, winner of the Alex Award from the American Library Association. Her latest translation is Still Life with Defeats: Selected Poems of Tatiana Oroño.

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