Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Jean Henri Fabre


O NE day Emile showed a sulky face because, when he went to Mother Ambroisine for something to eat between meals, she gave him only a slice of bread without butter or honey or anything else on it to make it taste good. But Marie reproved him, saying there were plenty of people in the world that would be glad enough to get a slice of dry bread and would even consider it a royal feast.

"For it isn't every one can have bread when he wants it," she continued. "There are countries where the people have never even seen such a thing. Isn't that so, Uncle Paul?"

"It is only too true," was his reply. "You already know from my talks with you that not even in our own favored land can all the people have white bread on the table. In many homes rye and barley serve as very inferior substitutes for wheat; and what is true of this country is even more notably the case throughout large sections of the world as a whole."

"But what do people eat if they can't get bread of any kind?" asked Claire.

"Sometimes one thing, sometimes another. There are a number of cereals, some of them quite unfamiliar to us, that afford nourishment, though furnishing nothing like our light and fragrant white bread with its crisp crust and sponge-like interior. Asia has rice, Africa millet, and America maize, or Indian corn. In China and India the people have hardly any food but rice cooked in water with a little salt. In fact, half the world lives on virtually nothing else."

"Rice, then, takes the place of bread with those people, doesn't it?" asked Claire.

"Yes, it may be said to take the place of our bread when they have anything to go with it; but not infrequently the whole meal consists of rice."

"With nothing else, at all?" asked Emile incredulously.

"With nothing else of any description," his uncle assured him, "from year's end to year's end."

"Then they must be an uncommonly frugal sort of people."

"Yes; but the warmth of the climate makes this light diet sufficient, whereas in our latitude, with its colder temperature, we should die of consumption if limited to such fare."

"Is this rice that takes the place of bread in China and India really the same as that we buy at the grocer's?" asked Claire. "We sometimes have that cooked with milk."

"Exactly the same. It is imported into this country from distant lands. What you had last week, as soft as sugar and as white as snow, may have come from the country of the Hindus, or perhaps from China. The plant producing this article of food has a stalk not unlike that of wheat; but instead of the latter's erect ear of grain it bears a graceful tuft of weak and drooping clusters of seeds. The leaves are long and narrow, like ribbons, and are rough to the touch. It is an aquatic plant, as you have learned in one of our former talks, requiring a marshy soil and growing almost submerged in mud and water. Artificial irrigation is often resorted to in China to bring about the needed conditions, and when the harvest season arrives the water is drawn off and the reaper, sickle in hand, wades into the mud to garner the heavily laden tops of the rice-stalks. But it is a task far different from our cheery harvest; there is no chirping of crickets or song of lark to enliven the work, no display of corn-flowers or poppies to gladden the eye. The reaper plies his sickle with the mud and water reaching sometimes as high as his knees."