in Extra Matter

But there were people starving in China …

… and the Romans did knead

Bread Matters magazine recently linked to an interview with Jim Lahey, “inventor” of no-knead bread. I eventually tracked it down[1] and gave it a listen, and on the whole it is very interesting. Two things, however, irked me.

One, relatively trivial, is an idiot comment on the Serious Eats website. In the course of discussing Lahey’s memories of his childhood family table, he mentioned having to clean his plate. Host Ed Levine butted in “because people are starving in China”. Which was, exactly, the reason we were given, as children, for needing to clean our plates.[2] A commenter called luosha was incensed:

“… because people are starving in China.” Levine, 2016. I can’t decide whether it’s worse that Levine is perpetuating outdated stereotypes, or that he thinks this is a funny thing to say.

Worse, the pusillanimous Levine bothered to reply:

My apologies for an obvious perpetuation of of outdated stereotypes. I should not have said it. Won’t happen again.

Sheesh. They were talking about a time in the 1950s or 60s, when there actually were people starving in China and in India. Lots of them. That there aren’t as many now (though malnutrition remains worryingly high in India despite everything) is a wonderful thing. But are we to ignore history completely? I hope not.

And speaking of ignoring history, Jim Lahey offered his opinion that the Romans too did not knead their bread, prefiguring his own success by a couple of thousand years.

I don’t know how he came to this notion, but a lot of archaeologists would disagree. Kneading by hand is shown on various bits of sculpture and, as befits the production of bread on an industrial scale, there were also kneading machines. The Tomb of Eurysaces near the main Rome train station has what are probably the basins of kneading machines as part of its decoration. Kneading machines have been found at Pompeii and elsewhere. A recent book A Handbook of Food Processing in Classical Rome has an entire section on kneading.

I’m all for letting time and water do the work of giving structure to my bread, though I don’t actually go the whole no-knead hog any more. But to add no-knead bread to the litany of things the Romans did for us seems a stretch too far.


  1. The audio here is not what it ought to be. []
  2. I suspect I am a little older than Lahey, and in my case it was India, rather than China, but hey. []