Wheat from Chaff

During the 18th century the British considered the Irish to be boorish and subhuman. All they did was eat potatoes and procreate. They lacked the civility and culture of the ‘Empire’ because they did not eat bread.

There are so many cultural implications to that attitude. It has deep roots in “Civilization,” but where did it come from? How did it originate? Is it legitimate?

The big three foodstuffs (post hunter-gatherer) are corn, potatoes and wheat. (I just betrayed my Western cultural bias by omitting rice, which accounts for 20 percent of the world’s food!) The first two are Mezo-American in origin and the third one originates from the fertile triangle of Mesopotamia. This anchors wheat into the fabric and folklore of ‘Western Civilization’ like no other.

Think of all the expressions that involve ‘bread lingo’.

  • Daily bread (Thanks)
  • Break bread (Sharing), Upper Crust (Superior) Breadwinner (Support)
  • Bread and butter (Essential) Half Baked (Bad Ideas) Dough or Bread (Cash)
  • The greatest thing since sliced bread (Innovation).
  • Separate the wheat from the chaff (Biblical—determining what is useful vs worthless)

The list goes on and on. So how did we get from there to our ‘gluten free’ world?

-Wheat was originally just pulverized and mixed with water to create gruel. Someone threw it on a hot stone, made it portable and gave it a couple of days ‘shelf life.’

-Bread dates back thousands of years. ‘Enhancements’ were always prized by the wealthy and considered status symbols. Lighter, more advanced bread signaled social status.

-Yeast is a spore that is in the air. Its addition to bread was most likely accidental and probably took a while to replicate (my last loaf was so much fluffier??)

-It was then ‘discovered’ that you could add back some of the fluffy bread dough and replicate the results. Sourdough starter was born and the technique continues to this day.

-The Egyptians isolated the yeast spore and ‘modern’ bread making was born (c. 1000-300 BCE)

Next the Egyptians soaked the bread in water,
sweetened it, and beer-making ensued.

-Techniques were passed on to the Greeks then the Romans where wheat and bread became a central part of society.

-Because of the size and potential fire hazard of bread ovens, it became a communal activity. Consequently, it became a highly regulated activity. Even the poorest families had to purchase their bread.

-Upon reaching the American shores one of the first things the colonists demanded was the right to bake their own bread!

-Late 19th century, “Society” removed the crust to create tea sandwiches; “workers” might get what was left.

-The bread slicer was invented in 1917. It initially took a couple of years to catch on, but when it did …

-Fluffy white bread became the ‘ideal loaf’ until we realized we were sifting out much of the nutrition.

The baking of bread is truly an art form and a time honored profession. There is a wonderful local company that is literally dedicated to this tradition- King Arthur Flour. To honor this tradition they sponsor the “Bake for Good” program. Through educating young people to the joys of making food, they also recognize that some in the community are in need. Check out their link. https://www.kingarthurflour.com/bakeforgood/

Here at your local friendly Co-op Food Stores we carry all of the things you need to make your own delicious loaf. Our Nutrition Specialist is available to answer all your questions about bread: http://coopnews.coop/whats-healthiest-bread-eat/

If you don’t have the time or the inclination to make your own we carry the products of skilled Artisan bakers who excel at their craft including LaPanciata, Red Hen and Klinger’s Bakeries. “A jug of Wine, a loaf of Bread.”

So what does make bread and butter such an essential combination? That my friend is grist for a whole ‘nother blog!!


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Jamie King

Jaime retired from the Co-op in 2022. A chef at the Co-op for 11 years, he finished his career in inventory control and recipe development for the Prepared Foods Department. An Omnivore, his favorite food is chocolate but he will eat most anything. He lives by the lake in Grantham with his lovely wife and their dog Maddie.

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