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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58 Comments

VAC 14 months ago
Sometimes when watching a TV show/series and even a movie, it is better just to enjoy it and not analyze every little aspect of how it came to be.

I enjoyed MASH when I watched the reruns after the series ended but now find it hard to watch now and even worse after learning this.
TimRoof 14 months ago
I just took it as a "life flashing before my eyes" type of event where the young man's memory took him to the place he most wanted to be; at home with fresh bread from Mom baking in the kitchen.
SonjaGatlin 14 months ago
The thing left out of the story is Winchester was traumatized as a child losing his small brother. It obviously left deep wounds and probably was not handled right by his family since he was left wondering what death meant. This opened a grievous wound in him and he had to find the answer. Yet there is no simple answer since its different for everyone. Smell of bread for that soldier was very strong in his memory and as he is dying his brain is processing it.. possibly memory of home and family.
GordStewart 17 months ago
This soldier's last word brought me comfort as a child. I was scared of death. I was thinking this was typical of something that brought a person utter joy. IE: The baking of bread in the home was a beholding adored aroma upon arriving home or at gramma's house. The epitome of something to look forward to savouring. As a believer in Christ now, I see this as the marriage supper of the Lamb mentioned in Revelation 19:7-10. This Heavenly banquet awaited the dying soldier.
IanHastings 21 months ago
I just presumed it was a reference to home, happier times, etc.
hm2durkee 21 months ago
I always thought of it as meaning, like the smell of heaven. Like smelling fresh baked cookies. Something that brings peace to ones mind in a time of need.
RonJelinek 21 months ago
My interpretation of "I smell bread" was the idea of the soldier going "home", and the smell of bread was something he associated with home.
WILD RonJelinek 21 months ago
I had a similar interpretation.
DavidStamper12 42 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 42 months ago
His brain was losing oxygen so he was talking nonsense
VAC KathyMcKinny 14 months ago
WOW You must be fun at parties. I feel bad for you.
Tammy 43 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.

CouchPotato19 44 months ago
Charles had a yeast infection?
Pacificsun 44 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 44 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 44 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 44 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 44 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 44 months ago
Sometimes the answer is simply, "I don't know." That is a part of why this episode works for me.
Mooz 44 months ago
Simply thought it just meant he was "going home." Or, something like when some stroke victims smell burning hair or whatever.
Vsherrer 44 months ago
I thought he was finally home, and could smell the bread his mom was baking. Just a peaceful passing.
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