Breaking Bread

The history of bread is fascinating. We don’t know the precise time that humans started making bread. We’ve found evidence that perhaps materials were stone-ground to make it long before the remains of bread and dough were found in places like Egypt and Rome.

What we do know is that bread has historically been an important part of human history and culture, with types of bread going in and out of vogue much like suntans. There were periods of history where the whitest bread was sought after while poorer people had whole grained versions with seeds. Eventually, white bread became associated with being poor as it was enriched with vitamins and things that were missing in children’s diets. There’s a great TED video about the amazingness of Wonder Bread. I was in the audience for this talk, and the talk wasn’t the only thing that impressed me. I fell for classic group think. The speaker asked who in the audience loved Wonder Bread and nobody raised their hands. Even me, and I love Wonder Bread. I looked around the room fearing being judged while others looked around doing the same. My childhood nostalgia of Oscar Mayer meats on Wonderbread with yellow mustard started feeling like a dirty secret.

She then asked who likes artisanal organic bread and overwhelmingly, everyone raised their hands. She then shamed us all for damning much of the world to starvation. One, it could not be made at any scale that could feed the world and two, lacked the nutrients of factory produced white bread. In many parts of the world, the inexpensive nature of such bread could save so many lives.

Some of us right now have the ability to shelter in place for Covid-19 and those who have turned to bread making in overwhelming numbers. Every chat, photo sharing site etc. has photographs of people making bread and pizza dough. If you try to order yeast right now, you’ll quickly find that you won’t be able to get it. There are packaged yeast shortages everywhere. However, for those who are patient, you can catch and cultivate your own yeast starter. There’s a myriad of ways to get yeast as it is all around us.

In the early days of bread making, a lot of yeast was cultivated from wine or beer, which gave bread a variation of flavors. Before the introduction of yeast in bread making however, bread was harder and not fluffy often looking kind of like pita bread. The crafty romans turned bread making into an art form.

So, why now, of all the things we could make when we have spare time in the kitchen, are we turning to bread?

I’ve asked a few people and here are the thoughts that were shared with me.

  • It is challenging to make bread, but not overly challenging. So, when you succeed at making a good loaf, you feel incredibly accomplished.
  • Bread photographs well. It makes you feel safe when you look at it.
  • Reminds you of a time where there was abundance. Now things feel scarce.
  • Makes you dream of eating out in restaurants again. It’s often the first thing that gets served – the bread bowl and bread is known for being shared socially.
  • It smells good while it is baking.
  • It’s a conduit for other things – avocados, jam, butter, vinegar etc.
  • Everyone else was doing it, so…..

There isn’t a shortage of bread in the grocery stores, so the rush to bake it from scratch is incredibly interesting. It isn’t as interesting as the need to have an abundance of toilet paper or bottled water during dark times, but interesting enough to ponder.

I do know that the future holds more bread. As dietary fads come and go, bread in its various forms is here to stay. We now have breads made out of everything you can imagine. We’re able to get flours that the Romans never dreamed were possible.

However, while we ponder this, we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that this is the “healthy” way to make bread. It is actually a luxury or a product of circumstance to make bread this way. If you are making it this way because you *have* to, then I suspect you are also spending many many hours in fields and doing other types of hard labor. If you are doing this because you don’t have to, be mindful about the bread, think of the history and be thankful that it is so abundant. Like a lot of human miracles, the mass production of bread is actually a really beautiful thing that has prevented many people from dying, while also freeing up time to do other things.

What are your thoughts on bread right now? Also, do you have any recipes you want to share with everyone? I’ve also seen funny posts about people stapling yeast to lamp posts in the street so that people can come grab a starter with social distancing. Let me know what sort of bread trends you might be seeing in the comments.

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