The story behind that famously perplexing M*A*S*H quote, ''I smell bread''
We were all Winchester when he said, ''I don't understand.''
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M*A*S*H was a complex show. It could double you over with laughter or it could sock you in the gut with tragedy. In “The Life You Save,” Major Charles Winchester III starts to lose his composure after a sniper’s bullet barely misses him. It was an emotional rollercoaster of an episode, but in its most charged moment, it threw fans for a loop by throwing out the most curious line as Winchester tries to save a soldier dying on the front lines. The scene played out like this:
“What is happening to you?” Winchester asks the soldier, his eyes swimming and a rare tear falling down his face. The soldier is on a cot, unable to feel Winchester’s hand gripping his. Before his final breath, the soldier answers Winchester’s question: “I smell bread.” His response stuns the surgeon, so knowledgeable of so many things, who can only admit, flustered, “I don’t understand.”
Fans at home also didn’t understand. What did “I smell bread” mean to a soldier making this sacrifice? Was it symbolism? Was it a joke? Nearly three decades later, M*A*S*H writer John Rappaport explained where this memorable line came from:
“Alan Alda and I wrote an episode called ‘The Life You Save’ in which Winchester becomes absurdly fascinated with death when he is almost killed by a sniper's bullet. So, he subsequently goes to the front and dramatically asks a dying young soldier what he was experiencing. Alan and I then wanted to insert a totally meaningless response to completely mystify and bewilder Charles. We came up with the soldier saying, ‘I smell bread.’ Then he dies.”
Rappaport then explained that in that ending, he and Alda were employing a form of writing known as a “shaggy dog story.” In a shaggy dog story, the audience gets swept up in a long-winded anecdote (which frankly does sound like Winchester’s style) that gets real squirrely and over-the-top. Just as the story is about to peak, it plummets into an anti-climax, a meaningless ending that leaves the audience feeling tricked, as they expected a meaningful resolution to tie everything together. Instead, they get a line like this one that will baffle them for years to come. It’s a common trick that comedians use for the punchlines of their jokes.
So if you were in the camp who interpreted “I smell bread” as a joke, you were absolutely right. Rappaport said, “Satisfied with our ‘shaggy dog’ ending, we took a break and had a snack. A week after the show aired, I got a letter from a high school civics teacher, who wrote that she devoted an entire class period to discuss the meaning of ‘I smell bread.’” (Apologies to every kid sitting in that civics class.)
Did you ever try to interpret this line? What did you think it meant?