Staff of Life
It's been my impression that Judaism ascribes blessing to things having to do with bread, like washing the hands for it, treating it with respect, making a special long blessing after eating it, and so on. Why is this?
Your impression is right, there are many teachings that express the importance of bread, and the special blessing associated with expressing appreciation of it by dealing with it respectfully.
But this should not be a total surprise. Even in English, we find wealth and money referred to by terms like "bread" and "dough".
This is because, although in our day and age we may not fully appreciate it, bread is the "staff of life". Just as a staff simultaneously supports the infirm and is wielded by the strong, so too bread imparts life and strength to those who have it. However, because of its simplicity, it can be taken for granted.
Interestingly, the Talmud suggests that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was, in fact, wheat (bread). This is based on the idea that a person starts to be able to consume bread around the age when one starts to speak, and specifically say "Aba" which means father.
The ability to "quantify" G-d and thereby rebel against Him is thus associated with the ability to eat bread. If abusing this ability resulted in curse, appreciating it and thereby humbling oneself before G-d, results in blessing.
The Sages taught that one who meticulously fulfills the mitzvah of reciting the blessing after meals, the "Birkat HaMazon", will never starve. It was to this teaching that a Holocaust survivor who lived in my neighborhood in Jerusalemattributed his survival. The story is as follows:
After learning this teaching as a young boy, he was very careful to recite the blessing with great intent. When the Nazis invaded Poland, despite his young age, he was directed right, and to life, because of his height. There, each prisoner was ordered to report his abilities in order to aid the Nazi enemy. Young and frightened, he had no idea what he'd say. Suddenly, a voice whispered behind him, "You're a cook". He was directed to the kitchen, and needless to say, although he suffered, it was not from lack of food.
After some time, a certain particularly cruel Nazi officer was visiting the camp and became incensed at seeing such a well-fed Jew. He ordered the young man to go outside and dig a trench-hole with a hammer, or otherwise not return to his work in the kitchen. Obviously, the implication of being assigned this impossible task was death. After having attributed his survival to his continued commitment, he offered a prayer to G-d, not to forsake him such that he should die on account of food.
Just then, a convoy of Nazi soldiers drove by, and upon seeing this pitiful Jew hack away at the hard earth with a hammer, they jeered at him and wildly began pelting him with potatoes, tomatoes and cucumbers as they drove by. But the Jew saw in this seeming curse, the blessing of G-d's bounty raining upon him. Strengthened and heartened he stood up and gathered all the food in piles.
Shortly thereafter, a convoy of Polish soldiers came driving by. Thinking he was a German responsible for overseeing the food in the camp, they asked if they could have some. Quickly, the young man gathered his wits and capitalized on the situation by commanding them to dig a large storage pit there, after which they could have some food. Unloading pick-axes and shovels from the vehicles, the soldiers quickly dug a big ditch, for which the Jew "insisted" they take all the food, so none should be left.
When the Nazi officer returned, he couldn't believe his eyes. The Jew was standing over a huge trench hole holding the hammer. The officer begrudgingly said something about G-d's miraculous care of the Jews and sent him back to the mess where he stayed, relatively well-fed, until the camp was liberated by the Allies.
Till the end of his days, this man was known for his great piety in matters associated with bread in general, and "Birkat HaMazon" in particular, which he insisted was the "staff of life" to which he owed his life.