Our Daily Bread
Updated: Feb 7, 2019
Bread might be the most recognizable thing on a dinner table. It's safe, it's familiar, it's boring. Just about everyone knows the soft spongy texture of white bread. Pre-sliced and packaged, baked thousands at a time. My earliest memory of bread was when I was maybe seven. I used to toast my own bread in the morning and slather it in butter and top it way too much brown sugar. I lived in a busy household and no one paid too much attention to the things I would shove in my tiny chubby cheeks. My point is that everyone knows bread in some way or another, but the importance of bread really cannot be understated.
Let’s start at the beginning. The first step of civilization is agriculture. Its starts with grain. Once man figured out that planting some kinds of grass could produce food they didn’t have to go looking for, we started down the path that lead us to frozen pizza and almond milk. Farming means grain and grain means bread. The first real cuisine of humanity was bread. Empires were risen and broken over bread. A large majority of the world regularly eats bread. It is a pillar of the world diet. It is a symbol of prosperity and peace, and as varied as the people who eat it. It exists in one form or another across the world. Bread is sacred, bread is holy, bread is life. People live for it and people have killed for it. Empires have risen and fallen for bread. Bread is the kind of food people worship. But where did it come from? The current understanding is that it started in the Indus Valley, which sits between India and Pakistan and follows the Indus River. There are several steps that had to come before bread. Grain has to be harvested. People needed to figure out planting and harvesting and seasons. Then people had to grind the grains into flour. That flour needs to be mixed with water and cooked, which at first, must have looked like a grey porridge. Maybe one day someone dropped that gross ugly gruel onto the fire or a hot stone nearby and it burned and crusted. That dry cracked biscuit was the first bread and it was probably just okay enough for people to keep making it. People are pretty inventive and as long as we have been making food, we have been trying to make it taste better. Give humanity a few thousand years and we’ll turn that dirty bland cracker into a croissant, or naan, or the best possible version of bread; Olive garden breadsticks. Don’t lie to yourself, you know you want them.
It’s easy to see the attraction of bread. Make it in the morning and it’ll last all day. It has nutrition and it tastes amazing. Bread is fairly simple and the ingredients are widely available, but what makes it special? What's the real difference between bread found in the West and bread found in the East? It’s fermentation. The process of fermentation is what makes bread rise. The science of it is this; bacteria (yeast) eat the sugars present in the mix of grain and water and other ingredients. Leave it alone and the bacteria produce gas (carbon dioxide) in the mix (which is now dough). The dough rises and you bake it. Those pockets you see in your bread are made by the reaction of yeast with sugar, releasing carbon dioxide. Before the bread is baked, it’s alive. Those tiny bacterium’s are consuming and producing. If it grosses you out to think about tiny organisms living and reproducing in your food, don’t worry you kill them when you put it in the oven. The introduction of fermentation is the product of ancient Egypt. Grain and bread spread from the Indus valley, west to the Mediterranean and found fertile soil in the kingdom of Egypt. From there it spread to the Greeks and to the Romans, both of whom, imported their grain from Egypt. Bread was often used as a form of currency, alongside olive oil and gold.
The Roman Empire may have been built by conquerors, but it was sustained by bureaucrats and bakers. Bread had such value that the empire taxed every loaf baked and required bakers to operate under regulations. Size and quality and price were all uniform and loaves needed to be stamped with unique markers to help prevent bread fraud. Some bakeries would sell underweight loaves to save money and cheat customers. The stamps meant the authorities could find exactly who did it and punish them accordingly. From there bread spreads across Europe and then follows the colonizers in to the New World. Of course, they already had a bread that was widespread across South America; The Tortilla. Corn Tortillas were prevalent for a great deal of time in South America, corn was a popular grain that most civilizations grew and harvested. If tortillas can be bread, then does that make a taco a sandwich?
Skip ahead to the 1930’s and we have sliced bread as the newest thing in America. Otto Rohwedder, a Jeweler from Iowa, created the invention and it was an immediate hit. The first major distributor of sliced bread was the Iconic and well known Wonder Bread. Wonder Bread would later be acquired by Hostess, which means white bread and twinkies are being made by the same people.
Now, this was a lot of history but here’s what I think. The vast majority of mass produced bread is bland and just serves as filler to the rest of a meal. Bread can be a centerpiece of a meal with respect to the effort required to make it. It used to full of flavor and aroma. Bread is hours of mixing, rising, and baking. It might be worth your time to know the story behind the bread you eat, and how it got to you. Today, the average American eats about 53 pounds of bread every year. Bread is mass produced on an enormous scale and plenty of it goes to waste. About a third of all bread made is tossed out. I would argue that it is partially the fault of people who don't eat their crusts. I might be biased because I think if you don't eat your crust that makes you weak, but you payed for that bread. You might as well eat all of it. Although the majority of food waste is caused by overproduction. Grain and sugar and fat, these ingredients are cheap on a large scale and most supermarkets with over produce and donate day old leftovers. But this isn't a permanent solution and much of what isn't purchased will be thrown away. When you buy bread, maybe it's worth trying a different kind. Look at bread like it was precious and maybe you'll start treating it that way. Freshly baked, with a crust that is actually crusty. There's a lot of flavor in that crunch. I like things that say country loaf, I like to see grains on the surface, and never pre-sliced. Some things are just worth doing yourself.