'Staff of life' dates back 30,000 years
Aside from “harbinger of brotherly love,” bread is distinguished for its ancient use worldwide as a staple and because it, more than any other food, identifies with specific cultures.
Bread can be leavened or unleavened, baked, fried, steamed, griddled or boiled, and dough can be as basic as a mixture of flour and water.
The “staff of life” did begin simply, and is thought to be the world’s first processed food, with evidence suggesting that a primitive form of flatbread made from roots was baked on rocks in Europe as long as 30,000 years ago.
Grain became bread’s main ingredient during the Neolithic Age, around 10,000 B.C., when cultivated wheat and barley spread from Southwest Asia to Europe, North Africa and India.
The first breads were unleavened and cooked quickly . Versions of these early flatbreads are still eaten today, including Iran’s sangak, Armenia’s lavash, Bedouin fatir, India’s naan and roti, the Middle East’s pita and Norway’s lefse.
Bread didn’t get heft and volume until around 4000 B.C., when the Egyptians starting rising dough with wild yeasts.
Bread has always been an important part of religion, with Jews beginning Sabbath meals with braided challah and Christians believing that bread symbolizes, or even turns into, the body of Christ.
Back in Ancient Egypt, loaves accompanied the dead in tombs.
Bread can also be a source for strife.
At the time of the French Revolution, the average adult Frenchman supposedly ate up to an astonishing 3 pounds of bread a day. If supplies ran short or quality was bad, riots resulted.
Across the channel, the English thought bread was so important that they equated it with money, coining the term “breadwinner” — the person who earned a living for the family.
In the New World, corn tortillas had been a staple in Mexico since at least 10,000 B.C. Columbus brought sourdough to America, and subsequent waves of immigrants adapted old-home recipes to what grew in their regions. Breads considered American included popovers, Native American fry bread, sandwich buns for hot dogs and hamburgers, doughnuts, quick breads made with baking powder or baking soda, the South’s many variations on cornbread and New Orleans’s own airy and crusty French loaf.
Breaking bread is the universal sign of hospitality and harmony.
Whether it’s a knot-topped French brioche, a dimpled Italian foccacia, a griddled East African chapati, or your grandma’s fluffy white rolls, homemade bread is sure to tighten any bond.
Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is a member of the Newcomb College Culinary History Writers Group and the author of LSU Press’s title “The Delta Queen Cookbook.” You can contact her through cynthianobles.com.