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The Staff of Life

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There’s a reason scholars and historians, religious and secular, call bread the staff of life. Historical records reveal the making of bread goes back 30,000 years with prehistoric humans transferring handsful of gruel made from grain and water to fry on a hot rock. Bread transcends time, culture, and religion. Whether made from ground grains or other starchy dried vegetable, it became a dietary staple around the world. Its importance cannot be understated.

Ancient bread bore no resemblance to the fluffy, yeasty goodness we enjoy today. For one thing, those breads had no yeast to leaven them. The closest modern day breads that harken back to those ancient doughs include the pita of Middle Eastern tradition, Indian naan, and tortillas from Central America.

Long before yeast came in handy foil packets or glass jars, bakers set bowls of dough out to capture wild yeast floating on the wind. When sufficient yeast spores found their home in the moist sponge, it ate the sugars in the grain and produced carbon dioxide in return, which added volume to the dough. Being that bread formed a significant portion of human diet, historians trace commercial yeast production to around 300 B.C. in Egypt.

In addition to the haphazard procurement of yeast to leaven their dough, the flours used by home cooks and skilled bakers were coarse. Today, we pay more for the chewy, nutty, whole grain breads that people just two hundred years ago would have considered common. The dark, rustic breads of Europe, such as pumpernickel and rye, remind us of those hearty, coarse-grained breads.

Around 800 B.C., the Mesopotamians refined the grinding process to produce finely milled flour. Continual refinements took place over the millennia as more and more people demanded and could afford the much more expensive, refined flour sifted free of bran, germ, and other debris and then bleached to the desired white color. In Greece, bakeries emerged around the 2nd century B.C. Even then, bread achieved diversity: Athenaeus referred to 72 types of bread.
In 1917, Otto Rohwedder created the first machine to slice bread. Until 1928 when the first machine was installed in a factory setting, commercially made bread came only in whole loaves and women received detailed instruction on the proper slicing and presentation of bread. Within two years, says, 90 percent of all commercial bread was factory-sliced.

Today, we enjoy perhaps a smaller variety of bread than did the ancients, mainly because most of our bread is made from wheat flour, although other grains such as millet, oats, barley, flaxseed, corn, rye, and other grains also make for flavorful breads. Whether we spread something over a slice of bread or dip a chunk into seasoned oil, bread remains a central part of the human diet.

The World Library offers a plethora of traditional bread recipes. Try them out for a taste of the past.

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