A Brief History of Bread

Baker's hands kneading a bread dough ball

Where to start? Some sources maintain that people have been eating cooked grains for 30,000 years. But it wasn’t until the Neolithic period, 10,000 years ago, that grains were first cultivated in areas near the Nile Valley. The shift from being hunting and gathering nomads to farming societies was a significant turning point in human history. That change spread out from the Fertile Crescent to North Africa and Europe, and resulted in the development of towns and more complex social relationships.

As towns grew into cities, baking bread became a commercial activity. Free standing stone or brick ovens with doors seem to be a Greek idea. Bakeries flourished in Athens 2500 years ago and Greek bakers were making and selling bread in Rome three centuries later.

During the Middle Ages, bread was used as a plate. A square piece of bread, called a trencher, served to hold other foods and soak up the juices of the stews that were common fare. After the meal, one could eat one’s trencher, but because it was very course and dense and purposefully stale, it was more often given to the poor, or fed to dogs.

 Many cultures around the world produce flat breads which combine flour, water and salt- but no leavening agents which make the bread rise before baking. The most common natural agent is yeast. Others are baking powder and baking soda.

There are many varieties of wheat and each produces a different type of flour. Bread can be made with a wide range of non wheat flours, everything from amaranth to teff. Specialty non-wheat flours, such as chestnut, chickpea, potato and soy must be used with wheat flour to make a yeast bread because they lack gluten. 

By the mid 1920’s in the United States, white bread was being produced commercially by Wonder Bread and distributed nationally. The company began shipping pre-sliced bread in 1930, two years after the invention of the commercial bread slicer by Otto Frederick Rohwedder. (More about that in July, when the town of Chillicothe, Missouri celebrates the 85th anniversary of the machine that made it “The Home of Sliced Bread.) 

 White flour came to be regarded as being healthier than dark flours when people recognized that mold and fungus possibly present in grains were eliminated in the process used to make it. However, that process removes both the bran and germ of the grain seed. In the 1920’s, the loss of essential nutrients was documented and a movement grew to replace them by enriching the flour. Starting in the 1940’s, both the British and U.S. governments began
to enrich flour because food was rationed and nutrients scarce. Today, The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for ensuring that regulations for enriched flour are followed.

The 1960’s and 70’s brought a backlash against white bread and the longing for breads with more character and nutrition. James Beard drew Americans back to the kitchen to make their own bread with his classic cookbook, Beard on Bread. Last year, Aaron Bobrow-Strain, professor of food politics, wrote a fascinating book about the surprising cultural wars fought over bread: White Bread, a Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf.

For an even deeper dive into the history of bread, see Gerard Paul's post on his
web site manyeats.com: https://manyeats.com/history-of-bread
Like the Nicer Slicer, he blogs about making and eating food at home.

Which brings us to today. Of course you can use your Nicer Slicer to cut pre-sliced homemade artisanal breads (and we encourage you to do so- better bread makes better recipes). But the convenience of using store-bought sliced bread or bagels cannot be overlooked when planning your menus. So slicer on!

Tina Bozzuto 

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