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The History of Bread
on January 13, 2012
Bread: A Global History begins with ancient history in the fertile crescent of the Red Sea. The use of wild grains in bread-making probably predated agriculture and the domestication of animals. This book, which is the 24th in a series of edible histories, is ably edited by Andrew F. Smith.
The primary thesis is that bread is more than merely a food or a summary of ingredients: it is also a concept. Mr. Rubel strives to enlarge the way we think about bread by taking us on a bread tour across time and through international space. He is a serious food historian, excellent cook and baker, and the author of The Magic of Fire--an encyclopedic book of fire cooking, which is sadly now out of print.
As culture develops, bread becomes a social marker--the whiter the bread, the more desirable it is. The poor consumed a more primitive loaf--darker and less desirable. Fashions in food are generally guided by a wish to imitate what is eaten by the wealthy. This still tends to be true. Although the history of bread can be seen as a steady march toward whiter and finer flour, today consumers are being drawn to more primitive ingredients and techniques because of our awareness of the enhanced flavors and healthy characteristics of whole grains.
The book emphasizes leavened, kneaded dough, but also includes relevant information on flatbreads, pancakes and shortbreads. Mr. Rubel dispels the myth that cooking over a fire is a "primitive" activity. He appreciates that the campfire provides an "infinitely nuanced oven" for baking breads at different levels of heat. If the baker knows how to manage a fire properly, he has a far greater range of temperatures available to him than he does in the modern conventional oven.
Recipes for 7 different kinds of historic breads are included, as well as a glossary defining ninety-nine different kinds of bread. My only complaint about the book is that it is too small, which makes it difficult to see the detail in the excellent photographs and prints. This is a fascinating book to read, and has succeeded in changing the way I experience a loaf of bread. I think that's what the author had in mind.