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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The story behind that famously perplexing M*A*S*H quote, ’’I smell bread’’

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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Pacificsun 3 days 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.
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Zai 10 days 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 3 days 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?
HonortheMB 10 days 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 11 days 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 11 days ago
Sometimes the answer is simply, "I don't know." That is a part of why this episode works for me.
Mooz 12 days ago
Simply thought it just meant he was "going home." Or, something like when some stroke victims smell burning hair or whatever.
Vsherrer 12 days ago
I thought he was finally home, and could smell the bread his mom was baking. Just a peaceful passing.
Mary 12 days 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 12 days 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 12 days 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 12 days 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 12 days ago
And sarcasm is completely lost on you, you moronic fool.
RickBox PaulKellogg 11 days 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 3 days 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.
JKMallaber 12 days 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.
Christine 12 days 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 13 days 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.
MistyLevenick 13 days 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 13 days 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 12 days 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.
LeslieAnn 13 days ago
I honestly always thought he was smelling something that hadn't been washed in ages, or food gone sour... You've never had that? Picked up, like, a pair of unwashed pants that you found hiding behind the dresser for months or opened a container of, maybe, steak and onions that had been left out in the sun all day and just looked at it and asked yourself... "Why do I smell bread? Where did the yeast bacteria come from? Hun! Have you been cheating on me? Your pants smell like they've been rotting in a bakery! What! I don't have a yeast infection you jerk! You take that back! I-" err, yeah, something like that...
TinaMarieHaddadRhodes 13 days ago
The solider saying “I smell bread’’ never made me wonder why he said that. I always thought he smelled bread in his mind because that was a good memory from his childhood. He would probably come home from school or wake up to his mother or grandmother baking bread and it was special to him. I would think someone dying might have a good memory from their past pop up in their mind. I guess the jokes on John Rappaport and Alan Alda.
P.S. It was excellent writing .
I completely agree. When the soldier uttered this line, it meant to me that he was going home. I found it to be very satisfying.
MutilatedMoogle 13 days ago
I thought it was one if those things a dying person may say before they pass on, like it was a comfort to them in their life. So, like some may see shadows or hear something no one else could I thought it was that to the soldier but in the form of smelling bread, it was a comfort to him and it helped him pass on easier knowing he was going "home".
ChicoThorn 13 days ago
I totally got why the dying soldier said, "I smell bread." Home and hearth, basic fond memories of peaceful times as a kid waking up to that delightful smell of bread baking. They say in your final.momenta before death you relive your while life in flashbacks. Well there ya go. Very poignant.
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