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.''

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?

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DavidStamper12 5 months ago
My mother used to make homemade bread when I was young...it smelled so delicious and homey...He was smelling the smells of home...he knew he was going to die and he was going to be home in heaven...
KathyMcKinny 5 months ago
His brain was losing oxygen so he was talking nonsense
Tammy 7 months ago
I also agree with those saying "home" I guess we are deep thinkers. The scene in the Dreams episode Potter says :It's been a long time since I tasted one of her home-baked muffins. They all missed home. I don't think it was a joke , they did not seem to take death lightly.

Pacificsun 7 months ago
I was about to say there were (and are) few shows on TV that aspired to the heights of M*A*S*H. A tricky show to walk the line between comedy and pathos. The show very seldom took a "shortcut" to achieve any effect. And, if this one didn't have any meaning, then they should've left it quiet. (Stand-up comedy aside) I disagree, to say there are not very many meaningful writers who permit their story to "plummet into an anti-climax, a meaningless ending that leaves the audience feeling tricked." Because that isn't the point of their hard-won work at all. In fact they often go out of their way to make sure that it doesn't happen. By crafting satisfying (or at least reasonable) endings. If in doubt, check out Alfred Hitchcock's interviews. A firm believer in genuine resolutions.

If I had to attach a meaning to that phrase, it would've been to suggest the dying soldier had a sudden, last minute longing for home! Where he remembered the smell of bread baking in the oven.
Zai 7 months ago
I took it to mean that the poor guy was obviously dying and was thinking back to his childhood days at home, Mom cooking bread,..and the familiar comforting aromas that come with it..
Pacificsun Zai 7 months ago
Obviously so. And it was a cheap shot for those writers to dodge a relevant conclusion. Attempting to be "too" clever for their own good, perhaps?
centimole 7 months ago
Fresh baked bread brings us back to our childhood, at least it does for my family and I. I vividly remember going to DeFlippos Bakery after church on Sunday mornings with my whole family for hot out of the oven Italian rolls with cornmeal on the bottom. These were the most amazing rolls I've had, nothing and I mean nothing has ever come close to these. I hope to see old lady Deflippo in Heaven making these phenomenal rolls. Definitely among my favorite childhood memories. As Charles E. Winchester said, the pure, simple days of childhood.
RickBox 7 months ago
It's not a shaggy dog story, and it's not a joke! Is "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" a shaggy dog story because the answer to life, the universe and everything is 42?

Just because a *character* is given an answer that is meaningless, it doesn't mean the viewers get a meaningless story. Besides, a shaggy dog story is one that gives the viewer a sense that they wasted their time.

Charles got an answer he didn't understand, which is perfectly reasonable. The story is an illustration of trying to fathom the meaning of death and not getting an answer. People have done that forever.
harlow1313 RickBox 7 months ago
Sometimes the answer is simply, "I don't know." That is a part of why this episode works for me.
Mooz 7 months ago
Simply thought it just meant he was "going home." Or, something like when some stroke victims smell burning hair or whatever.
Vsherrer 7 months ago
I thought he was finally home, and could smell the bread his mom was baking. Just a peaceful passing.
Mary 7 months ago
I believe that sometimes as a person is dying that God gives us a familiar vision /smell that eases the fear that we may feel as we pass from the physical world to Him.
PaulKellogg 7 months ago
Everyone thought it was a very poignant and meaningful scene. To find out that it was a meaningless, stupid, intentional random joke only reinforces how much of a vast disappointment that the MASH series has turned out to be. It showed our military in a grossly inaccurate and disrespectful fashion which my family who are proud military veterans of 3 wars found distasteful in the extreme. Alda and the other liberals who created and wrote and participated in this travesty should be deeply ashamed for foisting these lies on the American public.
modsuzi PaulKellogg 7 months ago
Such a shame MASH can't live up to the realistic, respectful portrayal of war like Hogans Heroes did. All Nazis were cuddly, bumbling teddy bears. And POW camps were akin to summer camps. MASH just can't compete with that.
Wiseguy modsuzi 7 months ago
That comment is about as silly as those that say Hogan's Heroes showed life in a concentration camp was fun. About the only characters that could possibly be called a Nazi were the Gestapo (including Major Hochstetter) and they could hardly be called cuddly teddy bears.
modsuzi Wiseguy 7 months ago
And sarcasm is completely lost on you, you moronic fool.
RickBox PaulKellogg 7 months ago
This story is wrong - it was not an intentional random joke. It was the writers acknowledging they don't know what death is all about either. People say random things when they die.
Pacificsun modsuzi 7 months ago
And you've missed the point of M*A*S*H my friend. To "isolate" any particular ideology from the show, reinforces its core principle. Namely, that division (in any format) destroys people. If not in physical ways, then very much psychologically. You had the dying, and those who were saving them. An endless cycle.
modsuzi Pacificsun 6 months ago
And you assume I give a damn what you think about this or any other topic. Go to hell.
JoeyZone11 RickBox 5 months ago
Absolutely. I'm glad somebody finally said it. When you're dying your brain is in the process of shutting down and anything could come out of your mouth.
JKMallaber 7 months ago
I figured it meant the bread of life, Jesus Christ. He was going to meet the Savior at the communion table. I figured it made sense for such a "high-minded" individual like Winchester to miss the Christian reference. Makes me sad to find they didn't intend for it to mean anything.
Kam JKMallaber 5 months ago
Exactly how I have interpreted it since the first time I saw it. Since the writing on the show was so sharp, I assumed this was the obvious (to me) brilliant move...to give Charles a reality he could not fathom when it was right under his nose. Too bad the actual story of the writing turned out to be so lame.
Christine 7 months ago
I thought the dying soldier was drifting off to his happy place.. a time when the smell of bread from a cozy kitchen made him happiest. A kind of theory of heaven as depicted in the tv show Supernatural which leads us to believe heaven is spending eternity in the best memory of your life. This soldier was entering that state.
JoeTyria 7 months ago
As a Catholic, I always thought the line, "I smell bread" was a direct reference to getting closer to Jesus as he's dying. Jesus, being the bread of life that we receive in the Holy Eucharist.
Kam JoeTyria 5 months ago
I'm not even Catholic and assumed this was the obvious meaning of the line. I'm actually shocked to find out that so many people didn't jump to this conclusion.
MistyLevenick 7 months ago
In all honesty, my uncle was studying to be a doctor at that time. Accordign to his textbooks, often as the person dies, they will see, hear or smell something that was from childhood that brought them comfort. That is what I thought this ment.
Jon 7 months ago
This episode was postponed to May 4, 1981 from its intended air date of March 30, 1981. It was postponed because President Reagan was shot on the earlier date, and CBS didn't want this fictional shooting to follow the real one.
Wiseguy Jon 7 months ago
I don't recall the details of what was shown on network TV that night, but news coverage may have pre-empted all programs that night and the episode wasn't shown for that reason not because someone got shot in it.
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