The Case for Bread

This story appears in the Pre-Spring 2014 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below.

Story by Jaime Lin Weinstein | Photography by Charlie Watts

There is something special about bread. From the basic combination of ingredients flour and water, it can then take on infinite flavors and forms: baguettes and focaccia, brioches and croissants, loaves of marble rye, country white, honey wheat, sourdough, challah, pumpernickel, multigrain ....

And it ignites so many senses with almost erotic undertones. Just imagine its fresh-from-the-oven warmth. Envision the crackly crust that, when sliced, exposes its soft, delicate interior and escaping aroma; that indescribable fresh bread smell, and its complex tastes that linger on the palate. It’s no wonder bread is one of the most popular foods worldwide.

But in the past few decades, the arousal of bread seems to have given way to notions of weight gain and autoimmune disorders, thanks in part to Dr. Atkins and his low-carb constituents. And more recently, the gluten-intolerant community has managed to propagate an ailment into a gastronomic trend.

For those with Celiac disease and true gluten intolerances, I know it can have adverse effects on the body, and you have well-merited objections to the product. But many have merely jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon for alleged health and weight-loss reasons. I’m calling you out on your misguided bread boycott. According to market research firm Mintel, 65 percent of consumers who eat gluten-free foods don’t have any gluten allergy but simply think it is healthier. Furthermore, 27 percent maintain a gluten-free diet because of the perception that it aids in their weight-loss efforts. Neither belief is supported by any credible evidence.

But I digress. Let us rewind a few millennia to really evaluate the important role this food has played throughout human history.

Bread first became a staple in the daily human diet during the Neolithic Era, roughly 10,000 years ago. Up until this time, ancient man relied on hunting and gathering to survive. The discovery of grains like wheat and barley in the Fertile Crescent led to the beginning of farming, and with it, the emergence of a non-nomadic way of life in which basic societies were able to form. Granted this prehistoric flatbread (made by frying a mixture of water and grains on stone) was far from what you’ll find in your local bakery. But its part in the shift to an agricultural diet marks a very important turning point in history.

Those light and fluffy loaves (aka leavened) that we know well today came about in Egypt by around 3000 B.C. No one is quite sure the exact way leavened dough was discovered, but there are two equally plausible theories. Yeast, the most common leavening agent for bread, is a naturally occurring fungus that needs a source of energy (like a bowl of flour and water) to grow. The first theory involves some airborne yeast finding a home in a bowl of forgotten dough, which was later found and baked. Egyptians started brewing beer (which also involves yeast) around this same time, so the second theory speculates that some clever little Egyptian decided to swap the water in his dough mixture for beer and voilà — the world’s first leavened (beer) bread.

Bread not only became essential to the ancient Egyptian diet, but to their culture and religion as well. Bread assumed great significance and was offered to the gods — namely Isis, who guaranteed the fertility of the fields, and Osiris, known as the giver of bread. It was even used as currency, such as payment given to the laborers who built the pyramids.

And we cannot omit what is arguably the most culturally and religiously significant bread-relevant event to come out of the land of Egypt: the Exodus. The Old Testament tells the story of the Israelites’ escape from enslavement by the Pharaohs. They left with such haste there was no time to allow their bread to rise. The bread, thus, when baked, resulted in an unleavened flatbread known as matzo. Today, Jewish people observe Passover, a holiday commemorating their people’s liberation, in part by ridding their homes of all leavened products and eating only matzo during the seven-day remembrance.

From there, bread spread from the areas along the Nile to the Greeks and the Romans and all across Europe. Legend has it bread finally made its way to the Americas thanks to Christopher Columbus.

Then in the modern era came the invention by which we measure all subsequent inventions — sliced bread. The single-loaf-at-a-time, bread-slicing machine was invented by Otto Frederick Rohwedder of Davenport, Iowa, and was first commercially used by the Chillicothe Baking Company of Chillicothe, Mo. in 1928. “So neat and precise are the slices, and so definitely better than anyone could possibly slice by hand with a bread knife that one realizes instantly that here is a refinement that will receive a hearty and permanent welcome,” reads a quote in the city of Chillicothe’s local newspaper on July 7, 1928. Americans quickly took to this consumer convenience, resulting in increased bread consumption. And today, every innovation of convenience is touted as “the greatest thing since sliced bread.”

The bad rap of bread, though, can be attributed to the likes of such modern-day technological advances. Traditional breadmaking is extremely time-consuming, requiring several cycles of kneading and resting. Using chemical additives and inferior grains can reduce necessary fermentation time, but it also reduces taste and nutritional value. This widespread practice even led the French government to decree a special designation for “the bread of French tradition” (baguette de traditon) in 1993, meaning the bread is made exclusively with flour, salt, water and leavening, and sans any additives.

But bread consumption is still declining in France; the average Frenchman today eats half a baguette daily compared with almost a whole one in 1970 and more than three in 1900 — statistics so concerning that France’s bakers’ and millers’ lobby, Observatoire du Pain, started a campaign in June of last year to promote bread. Modeled after America’s “Got Milk?” campaign, the slogan, “Coucou, tu as pris le pain?” (“Hi there, have you picked up the bread?”) has been printed on billboards and bread bags all over the country. Its website, tuasprislepain.fr, emphasizes bread’s role in everything from health (“It is rich in vegetal protein and fiber and low in fat.”) to family (“Remember that buying fresh bread on the way home is a simple way of showing loved ones that you have thought about them and of giving them pleasure during the day.”).

The idea that bread plays a familial part is not unique to European culture. Bread is significant to family gatherings and celebrations in Mexico, for instance. The “Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) holiday is a good example of that,” says Dale Ralston, co-owner (with husband Eric Arillo) of La Calavera Bakery in Atlanta, referring to the annual holiday during which family and friends gather to remember those who have passed. “A beloved deceased person’s favorite foods are prepared for them on the first days of November by their loved ones so that they might visit from the spirit world and once again enjoy earthly delights,” she explains. This includes pan de muerto, a soft, lightly sweet bread flavored with orange blossom water (and a Calavera specialty).

Yes, bread is pretty amazing when you stop to think about it. Even aside from its role in family, diet and religion and purely as a food, it’s a truly legendary obsession. For better or worse, for weight gain or survival, it has been the showstopper of our tabletops for generations, and it’s not going anywhere. So do yourself a favor, and break some bread today. The carbs are so worth it.