A Brief History… of Bread
There’s lots going on between prehistoric flatbread and fluffy, grocery-story Wonder loaves, but here are the most interesting moments:
Genesis: 30,000 years ago, mankind started pounding cattail and fern roots into flour in Europe.
Why does this matter? Because it was the first step in turning hunter-gatherers into farmers. Once wheat and barley were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent, humans settled down and used all of those surplus calories to develop specialties like jewelry-making and standing armies.
Domestication of wheat: One of the ancestors of wheat was the diminutive grass called wild emmer. Wild emmer (and its cousin, Einkorn wheat) had two major drawbacks. Its grains were puny, to say the least. And critically, once the ears ripened they “shattered” in order to spread their seeds as far as possible.
Imagine a group of hunter-gatherers planting some seeds and then coming back a few months later to harvest their wheat, only they’re a day late.
The wheat heads have all exploded and the grains are scattered on the ground.
Luckily, whether a stalk shatters is controlled by one gene, which means there must have been a few intact stalks here and there. Some tenacious wannabe farmer planted those few seeds and he (or more likely, she) took the first crucial step in domesticating wheat.
The Real Grind: Turning the grain into flour.
Making bread seems like a tedious process, right? All that kneading and rising and pounding and baking.
Well, if you are living in a rural village in almost any developing country – and you are a woman – turning that grain into flour would be the low point of your day, every day. Mills– even simple, water-driven devices – changed everything. If you’re a woman.
Puffy Pita: Bulgy Bread? Bloated bread?
Around about 4000 BC in Egypt, someone left bread dough out too long and yeast – which occurs naturally in the air – floated down and settled on it. The yeast cells then started to eat all those yummy starches and defecate CO2, producing bubbles that caused the dough to get light and fluffy.
Egyptians, who to this day are not known to waste anything, ate the weirdly textured loaf anyway and liked it. And leavened bread was born.
Fluffy bread remained a happy accident until some truly slovenly bread maker left a wad of dough sitting out for a couple of weeks. Despite the fact that it was all bubbly and smelled horrid, she (or more likely, he) mixed it in with a fresh batch of dough and presto! Sourdough bread was born. In fact, sourdough is the mother of all leavened breads.
Commercial bakeries, bagels, pretzels – lots of stuff happened over the next several thousand years, but the next really big breakthrough was the greatest thing since…
Sliced Bread: Back in 1917, itinerant jeweler Otto Rohwedder invented the first mechanized bread slicer. Initially, nobody thought housewives would be interested, but the idea caught on like wildfire and within two years of the first factory roll out 90% of store-bought bread was sliced. Finally, after 32,000 years of happy accident and patient experimentation, the perfect bread born: the snowy white, ultra-fluffy, pre-sliced loaf otherwise known as….
Wonder Bread: Then modern science discovered the nutritional benefit of whole grains and consumers began opting for a denser, more richly textured rustic loaf. Hostess Brands, the makers of Wonder Bread, went out of business in 2012.