“Bread—Mother of All Food,” Friend, Sept. 1988, 43
Did you know that you are one of the artophagoi?
Artophagoi are bread-eaters, and some of the first bread-eaters were the Egyptians who, several thousand years ago, learned how to leaven bread, or make it rise.
The Egyptian artophagoi, as they were called by the Greeks, raised abundant crops of wheat and barley in the fertile lands bordering the Nile River, and their harvests were stored in huge grain houses. The story of Joseph in the Bible tells about grain being stored in Egypt to feed the people during a famine.
Although people before the Egyptians made a hard, unleavened bread, which they baked in hot ashes or on hot rocks, it was the Egyptians who learned how to make a new kind of light and tender bread by using yeast. Yeast, a single-celled fungus, grows in warm bread dough and gives off bubbles of gas that become trapped in the dough, making it expand. Today we also use baking powder and baking soda as a leavening in bread products.
It was the Romans who perfected the first rotary mill for grinding huge quantities of grain into flour. In A.D. 100 the Roman emperor, Trajan, founded a baking school in Rome, and soon the city boasted 258 bakeshops. Wealthy Roman families insisted on fine white bread which was made (and still is) by removing the bran and wheat germ from the flour. Sometimes chalk was added to the flour to make the bread whiter. Today calcium carbonate, a substance similar to chalk, is often added to household flour to make it whiter.
After the fall of Rome, breads of the common people in European countries were made from grinding coarse grains such as barley, beans, and acorns. The bread was small, round, flat, and so heavy that it had to be broken with the hands. Only the rich were privileged to eat white bread.
Some countries even passed laws that regulated the size, cost, and ingredients of bread, as well as which millers could grind grains into flour.
Not only were there laws about bread but there were also superstitions: Turning a loaf of bread upside down meant that a ship would sink at sea; if all the bread at the table was eaten, the next day was sure to have good weather; and if a loaf of bread fell with the crust down, there would be either a quarrel or a death in the family.
Rulers of European countries during the Middle Ages often sold the country’s grain in order to support the cost of war. This created great food shortages, and grains became more important than money.
Napoleon’s army in the late 1700s was said to have the best bread in the world, and the British navy at the time was said to have the worst. The British navy biscuits were made by a gang of five men who kneaded the dough with their feet. The biscuits were baked hard, and by the time the seamen ate them, the biscuits were often full of weevils, small insects that feed on grains.
The unleavened bread eaten by Jews today during the Passover over is symbolic of the unleavened bread that the Israelites took with them when they followed Moses and fled Egypt. In their haste, they couldn’t wait for the bread to rise.
A bread dish that is still popular today was developed long ago by the French and introduced into Britain, where it was known by some people as “Poor Knights of Windsor Bread.” Today we call it French toast.
Harvesting and milling processes improved, just as living conditions improved, and once again white bread was thought to be the most desirable, even though important minerals and B vitamins were lost from the flour when the bran and wheat germ were removed during milling. Then during the 1930s in the United States, there were large outbreaks of the painful diseases beriberi and pellagra, which are caused by a vitamin-B deficiency. Bakers were encouraged to enrich their bread by adding iron and B vitamins, and cases of the two diseases are now rare.
Today bread is available to us in many forms. Although some cooks make their own bread, most bread is made in bakeries. Whether your favorite bread is white, whole wheat, or a variety of ethnic specialties, such as Mexican tortillas, German pumpernickel, Danish pastries, English crumpets, Indian chapatis, or Middle East pita breads, you probably agree with the Hindu scripture: “Everything is food, but bread is the great mother.”