"The Land's End Christmas 1988" catalog, which reached my mailbox just before the holidays, contained a page of customers' letters, as many such catalogs do. One of the letters endorsed the mail-order firm's products by telling a story based on an urban legend.

The writer, an Illinois native, explained that he, while wearing one of the company's shirts, was harvesting wheat. Suddenly the shirt was pulled off his back by the combine and drawn straight into the machine.Six months later, the writer claimed, he bought bread in a Chicago supermarket. "Imagine my surprise," he wrote, "when I found my undamaged shirt in the loaf of bread!"

The lost item that is later found, still intact, is a theme of many tall tales - such as the story about a fisherman who drops his watch into a lake and discovers it later - still ticking - in the belly of a fish.

What is usually found inside a loaf of bread, though, is a rodent, not a Land's End shirt. We folklorists call this legend "The Rat in the Rye Bread."

Back in 1945 the Hoosier Folklore Bulletin noted that this was a common legend of the time, saying that storytellers always specified a certain brand of bread, though the name varied from teller to teller. Generally the rat was said to show up in a loaf of rye bread.

A 1948 book called "The Affairs of Dame Rumor" recounted the same legend, attributing it to a bakery in Toronto. And I occasionally receive other accounts of the rat-in-bread episode supposedly happening farther east - in Maryland and New Jersey, in recent versions.

It seems suspicious to me that it's always rodents that are found in bread loaves, and usually in unsliced rye bread at that. Perhaps rye is considered more folksy, or just more "natural," than white or wheat loaves.

Often it's said that the bread buyer actually bit into the rodent, then reported the contamination. And it's claimed that when the bakery that produced the loaf was inspected later on, numerous health violations were discovered. And allegedly the victim won a huge monetary settlement in the case.

Although people often say the incident was reported in the news, I have no actual clippings about it, so far - at least not from the United States.

I do have a news story from an Austrian paper dated March 18, 1988. It describes a "side dish found in the toast" by a man in Vienna. The dish he found turns out to be a mouse baked into a loaf of sliced white bread that almost - but not quite - ended up in his toaster.

The man who bought the loaf saw the minced mouse in time to avoid toasting and eating it. Only his first name and the general location of the bakery were given in the news item, leaving me to wonder whether or not I really have found an authentic breaded-rodent incident.

Even if such a thing did happen, the story must get some of its punch from people's memories of similar legends, such as "The Mouse in the Coke" and "The Batter-Fried Rat." People usually tell "The Rat in the Rye Bread" with the same blend of humor and horror found in these legends of contamination.

Casting further doubt on the incident's likelihood is an apparent prototype for the story, found in a parody of a children's primer written by journalist and popular humorist Eugene Field in 1881 or '82.

Field's version of the rodent in the bread loaf was originally published in the Denver Tribune, and later in a book called "The Tribune Primer." Field described a mouse falling into a flour barrel, in a style that parodied the capitalization system of New England grade-school primers:

"The Cook baked him into a Loaf of Bread, and here he lies on the Table cut in two by the Sharp bread Knife."

Field concluded his tale with this comment:

" . . . we will not Eat poor Mouse. We will eat the Bread, but we will Take the Mousie and Put him in the Cistern."

C) 1989 United Feature Syndicate