Bread. So simple and everyday, yet miraculous.
I pick up a slice of my own, home-made bread. I turn it around, inspect the crumb and color. Bite, and judge the yield of the crust to my teeth. The age-old smell of fermented flour. The mysterious workings of yeast on sugars and starches. It amazes me that people ever learned to harvest, thresh, and winnow wheat, grind it into flour, and ferment that flour with water to bake into loaves. How did it happen, so long ago – how did people have the wisdom to go from step to laborious step and in the end, produce bread to eat?
Bread must have been the first product of human technology. When you think of it, it was the first convenience food too, as it’s edible for days after production, unlike vegetables and meat. But not easy to get, even if the wheat field extends right up to your doorstep.
In ancient societies, people grew and processed their own bread, but it was arduous work. In ancient times, the Israelite woman probably spent three hours on her knees every day, bent over a stone quern, grinding wheat into flour. The Romans had town bakeries, and we know how their bread looked because a fossilized loaf was extracted from one of their ovens at Pompeii.
In medieval Europe, getting bread was not only back-breaking but expensive. Landowners demanded two-thirds of villagers’ wheat production and set overseers to make sure the tax was met. The physical work of milling was taken out of the people’s hands, but not with kindly intention. Grinding flour and baking at home became illegal, so that the humble were forced to carry their wheat to the miller and then carry the flour to the communal baker – and pay for the work. In kind, because they had no money.
No, bread wasn’t taken for granted. Many lived and died without ever having eaten their fill of bread at one time.
Bread will always be a moving force in history. To learn more about it, I recommend H.E. Jacob’s Six Thousand Years of Bread. Much in this book can be taken, like bread itself, with a grain of salt, but the author gives you a panoramic view of bread’s historic role, from neolithic times to modern days. It ends on a poignant reflection of what bread was to Jacobs as he struggled to keep his humanity in Hell:
“In the Buchenwald concentration camp we had no real bread at all; what was called bread was a mixture of potato flour, peas, and sawdust. The inside was the color of lead; the crust looked and tasted like iron. The thing sweated water like the brow of a tormented man… Nevertheless, we called it bread, in memoriam of the real bread we had formerly eaten. We loved it and could scarcely wait for it to be distributed among us.”
Bread is holy, Jacobs concludes. And bread is profane.
Yes, and yes.