How else could I start a blog about food, but to talk about bread. Bread?! Bread you say? How boring! Well, its not just milktoast my friends. Think about it…from the time we are small children we have definitive ideas about bread (“no crust, please”) and it invades our cultural consciousness during all of our meals from breakfast and snacks through dinner. Every time you have a sandwich or eat a cracker you are chowing on a little piece of history.
We use bread euphemisms daily, perhaps most common is the term “bread” as used in a slang term for money. Where do you think THAT came from? Could it be that bread was so historically important that it actually translated into a currency? What about “breaking bread” the idea of sharing a meal which allows us to have shared histories and bread is an expansive part of the human experience, cross culturally and through time. So here’s a little more about the bread you eat…with the crusts and all.
It’s hard to know when bread actually made an appearance, but it is known that the bread was present in the Stone Ages and it has also been discovered in Egyptian tombs from around 4,000 B.C. So the Egyptians weren’t just good at making pyramids rise. However, during the earliest days of bread, yeast spores were so naturally prevalent in the air that the dough rose naturally, so bread may have been a very happy and important accident.
Throughout Europe through the ages bread, particularly white bread, remained “elevated” in status. In fact, From the Greeks on, Whole wheat bread or rye bread was considered “coarse” and white bread, with its refined flour became the preferred bread, of “course”. In Rome, as early as 150-168BC a Baker’s Guild was formed in Rome. Plato (c. 400 BC) actually theorized that an ideal society would be one where old men lived long lives due to their diet of wholemeal bread. Christians and Jews are familiar with the Old Testament references to bread. And still today, Jews celebrate days of religious significance with unleavened bread. Christians use bread as a symbol of often in memory of the Last Supper, where bread played a supporting role (the primary cast was already “chosen”). Laws in 13th century England included regulating the price of bread to ensure that it English citizens would always be able to afford bread and therefore catastrophic famine avoided, even for the most poor subjects. By the European middle ages, bread bakers were specialists of the highest order.
But bread’s influence wasn’t only felt in the early days of Europe. Ever been to a fair or pow-wow in the southwest and had Indian Fry Bread? You might have thought that was just another yummy fried food of modern invention. Well, that’s only partially true and in fact despite its place at celebratory events, Indian Fry Bread’s origins are quite sad. In the late 19th century approximately 8,000 Navajo Indians were stripped of their livestock and land then rounded up and relocated to Fort Sumpter, N.M. While held there, the Navajos received rations of lard, flour, salt and yeast from the U.S. government. Well, what else could they do, but make bread and fry it! Indeed, Indian Fry Bread, much like the unleavened bread of the Jews saved them from starvation during their most desperate times. Recent incarnations of Indian Fry Bread sold at fairs belay the cultural importance to the Navajo Indian community. It is said that Fry Bread should be consumed until the earth is again pure. Seems to me, we’ll be eating Indian Fry Bread for quite some time.
Bread even makes an appearance in China which is significant since wheat isn’t indigenous to the area. Even after wheat made an appearance in China (about 1500 B.C.) it was still thousands of years before the Chinese made bread. Sometime after 1200 A.D. the Chinese began making steamed breads and buns and have continued to do so for over 2,000 years; they are often filled with meats and vegetables. Their variety is astonishing and entire entry could be written about them! According to legend, they were invented by the scholar and military strategist Zhuge Liang.
On the continent of India breads are very much part of the culinary culture. Although baking techniques were introduced by the Portuguese and British, the Indians had long adopted bread into their diets. Flat breads cooked on hard, hot surfaces, or even stones rise quickly as steam emits from the bread. The air bubbles created a space for other foods while the exterior is a crispy exterior. The contrast of an soft interior with a crispy exterior is one which is sought after by bread aficionados today. Some breads from India are also fried, although different in texture and tradition than the fried breads of Native American’s.
Perhaps because of the prevalence of tortilla’s bread in Mexico hasn’t been as culturally significant. Historically, bread in Mexico Although Bolillo, a bread with a crusty exterior and salty overtone is common among today’s city dwellers.
Today’s bread in Western culture include creative variations as garlic bread, cheese bread and the holiday favorite (though not a favorite of my hips): bread pudding. As a culture, we are also enjoying a renaissance of artisan breads which have more texture and flavor than that of refined white bread, which has been so prevalent since the Industrial Age.
Around the world, “breaking bread” has been and continues to be an important part of our daily life. Breaking bread means shared experiences and despite Dr. Atkins best attempts, we continue today to enjoy bread in all it’s yeasty, yummy glory.
Bread in all its culturally significant and scientific glory has been featured on the Discovery channel a couple of times. Here are the links to the videos of those shows. Thought you might enjoy.
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