History of Bread

The cultivation of wheat predates recorded history. Anthropologists conjecture that hungry hunter/gatherers first used wheat as a stored food source. Grown in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, wheat was probably chewed at first. Later, industrious and inventive — or at least observant — people discovered that the grain could be pulverized and made into a paste. When set over a fire, the paste — with water added — hardened into flat bread that could be kept for several days. Then early man observed that when yeast was accidentally added to the paste the mixture would leaven, or rise.1

The realization that food could be made which would keep through the winter months contributed to the rise of civilization. Early man's awareness that he could store food to ward off hunger and starvation ultimately gave him time to develop other useful skills besides hunting, fishing, and herding. That knowledge set the stage for subsequent social, economic, and political developments: the rise of cities, the stratification of societies, and the evolution from bands of hunters to tribes to nations.2

As man and society developed, so did bread making. Bakers learned that instead of waiting for leaven to accidentally enter their dough the process could be somewhat regularized if they saved a piece of dough from one batch to put in the next. This is the origin of sourdough, and it is still used today. In Egypt, around three thousand years ago, someone isolated yeast and discovered how to introduce the culture directly into dough. At the same time, a new strain of wheat was developed which permitted refined white bread. This may be said to be the first truly modern bread.

The Greeks learned break-making from the Egyptians; from Greece the practice spread over Europe. The Roman welfare state was based on the distribution of grain to Roman citizens. The government of Rome ran public bakeries for doling out bread to the poor. In 168 BCE a Bakers' Guild was formed in Rome which established rules and regulations for bread-making. The Collegium Pistorum did not allow bakers or their children to withdraw from the guild and enter other professions; but it did protect the special privileges the state granted bakers. Bakers were, for example, the only freemen in the city of Rome; all other trades employed slaves.

Through much of history the color of bread revealed social status: the darker the bread, the lower a person's status. This was because white flours were more expensive and harder to adulterate with other products. But preferences change; today, darker breads are more expensive and prized for their taste and nutritional value.

Throughout the Middle Ages and well into the modern era the price and availability of bread was often linked to social stability. During much of European history, for example, there were recurring periods of famine which affected the availability of bread, a dietary staple. The ruling classes — aware that rebellion often followed famine — regulated prices to avoid the cost rising too high. Still, bread riots frequently rocked the stability of Europe, most notably in the events leading to the French Revolution.

1 This discussion is informed by the following: Bernard Dupaigne, The History of Bread, trans. Antonio and Sylvie Roder, (New York: Abrams, 1999) and the following Web sites: "The Story Behind a Loaf of Bread: The History of Bread, <http://www.botham.co.uk/bread/history1.htm> (Accessed April 27, 2006); Breadinfo.com, "History," <http://www.breadinfo.com/history.shtml> (Accessed April 27, 2006).

2 For a riveting account of the rise, and fall, of civilizations, see Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997).


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