A Little Bread History

Historically bread has played an important role in nearly every major European culture. In the Bible the word "bread" is synonymous with "nourishment." The English word "lord" is derived from the old English "hlaford", meaning "keeper of the bread." The role of challah and matzoh in Judaism and the communion wafer in Christianity are, of course, well known. The word "companion" is derived from the Latin "companio", meaning "one who shares bread." And in our society, think about what the use of the slang terms "dough" and "bread" for money says about our 20th-century priorities.

The origins of raised bread date back to ancient Egypt, sometime around 4000 BC. Previously only flat breads, along the lines of tortillas or Chinese pancakes, were known. Early wild strains of wheat needed to be toasted before they could be threshed, and the heat prevented the gluten development essential to bread making. The Egyptians developed a strain of wheat that could be threshed without heating, and 6000 years of bread baking tradition was underway. The original use of yeast-the other key ingredient-likely came from brewers' vats, a practice not uncommon today.

The belief that white bread was superior to dark bread, a common theme in many cultures over the ages, was already taking hold in Greece by the 5th century BC. Darker, denser breads made from barley or rye were the breads of the poor. White breads were believed to be pure, more refined, more cultured. They cost more too, since growing wheat was more labor-intensive than other grains. And on top of that, removing the bran and the germ to make wheat flour white instead of brown increased the work and the cost still further. Interestingly, up until the 17th century there were even separate baker's guilds for bakers of white breads and brown breads. This prejudice against darker breads generally continued all the way until the 1960's, when growing health consciousness finally seemed to turn the tide.

The Romans baked dozens of different breads. They established a tradition, known as the "annona", of giving free bread to the poor to help offset urban poverty (maybe an idea we should bring back today). From Rome bread baking spread across Europe. During the Middle Ages it was common in urban areas to make bread dough at home and then bring it to the town baker to finish-homes at the time rarely had ovens. People took their bread seriously back then-among the most common and serious crimes of the era were shortweighting and adulterating bread. And until the 15th century, when plates were first introduced, wealthy people ate off of "trenchers," large flat slices of dry bread used to catch drippings. At the end of the meal the trenchers were either eaten or saved and given to the poor.

In North America the native grain was, of course, corn, which was used to make what came to be known as "johnycake" or "Indian bread"-a flatbread made of corn meal. European settlers brought wheat with them and planted large quantities of it wherever they settled. By the end of the 18th century, wheat had become the dominant grain of the continent. In this country and in England, home baking of bread continued to be common into the 20th century. (Interestingly, in France buying bread at the boulangerie seems to have been common as early as the 1600's.)

"...the standard American loaf, .... resembles in taste and feel nothing so much as damp hospital cotton."
-Karen Hess, The American Loaf: A Historical View

I've often wondered why bread baking in this country-descended as it is from the great European traditions-turned so . . . let's say. . . soft. The decline of good bread baking may have had its roots in the 18th century. The introduction of pan baking made bread softer and puffier. In the 19th century a distaste for "sourness" (ironically the same "sourness" that makes San Francisco sourdough and other sourdoughs so great) led to the introduction of baking soda to bread, which made it puffier still. In the 1870's industrial milling techniques were introduced. Flour became whiter and whiter, and "deader"-bakers began adding sugar to get yeasts to react as they had in the past, and bread got puffier still. Bread continued to get sweeter and puffier, until finally in the 1920's, we reached the pinnacle of puffiness-Wonder Bread. Believe it or not, the original loaves of Wonder were sold unsliced by its inventor, the Taggert Baking Co. of Indianapolis. Wonder Bread was later sold to the Continental Baking Co., equally well known as the inventor of . . . Twinkies! For what it's worth, the first sliced loaves of Wonder were sold in 1930.

Although I craved it as a kid, Wonder Bread can hardly be seen as the pinnacle of the baker's art. To the contrary, it's more like the lowest of the low. (Did you know you can squeeze a loaf of Wonder into a ball the size of your fist? And that it never goes stale? It just kind of turns yellow.) Fortunately there remained a handful of great bread bakers who didn't give in to the trend to puffy, bland bread. Over the years at Zingerman's we've put together a collection of bread bakers who allow us to offer an ever-growing selection of great European breads. I sample them all regularly. Sorry . . . no Wonder.