Our Daily Bread is a contribution to the Dog Days of Podcasting, with an episode every day through the month of August. Minimal show notes for now, because I hope to produce an e-book. Please support the show with cash, a review, or a recommendation. Or all three.
On this page, posts are in correct chronological order, so you need to scroll to the bottom to find the latest.
It’s magic, I know. First a pretty ordinary grass becomes the main source of sustenance for most of the people alive on Earth. Then they learn how to turn the seeds of that grass into the food of the gods. Join me, every day in August, as I dig into Our Daily Bread for the Dog Days of Podcasting with short episodes on the history of wheat and bread.
In the 1960s, using the most primitive of tools, an American plant scientist demonstrated that a small family, working not all that hard for about three weeks, could gather enough wild cereal seeds to last them easily for a year or more. Jack Harlan’s experiments on the slopes of the Karacadağ mountains in Turkey offer a perfect gateway to this exploration of the history of bread and wheat.
Photo of Wild einkorn, wild emmer and Aegilops species in Karacadag mountain range by H. Özkan.
When did people start to eat wheat? The date keeps getting pushed back, and is now around 35,000 to 45,000 years ago. That is long before the dawn of intentional agriculture. How do we know? Because a man who died in a cave hadn’t cleaned his teeth, and stuck in the tartar were grains of boiled starch. Which raises another set of problems that seem to have been solved by wilderness survival experts.
Maybe you heard about the oldest crumbs of burnt toast in the world. But have you stopped to wonder how the archaeologists found those crumbs? The bread they came from was a fine, mixed grain loaf that might well have been a special dish at a feast. It is even possible that bread was the first elite food that became affordable thanks to industrial technology — agriculture.
Modern bread wheat contains more than five times more DNA than people, in a much more complicated arrangement. As a result, it has taken a fair old while to decode wheat’s genome. Having done so, though, the DNA confirms what plant scientists have long suspected — that bread wheat is the result of two separate occasions on which an ancestor of wheat crossed with a goat grass. The DNA also tells us when those crosses might have happened.
Cultivation is not the same as domestication. Domestication involves changes that do the plant no good in the wild, but that make it more useful to the people who cultivate it. Seeds that don’t disperse, for example, and that aren’t all that well protected from pests and diseases. In this episode, where did people begin the process of domesticating wheat, and what set them on the road to agriculture.
Ancient grains used to be rare and hard to find not because they contained some magical secret for a long and fulfilled life, but because they take a lot more work than modern wheats. Instead of the wheat berry popping free after a gentle rubbing, they need to be bashed and pounded. Now, of course, we have machines to do that kind of thing, but our ancestors were mostly only too happy to abandon hulled wheats, unless they had no option.
Kamut® is a modern wheat — registered and trademarked in 1990 — with an ancient lineage. The word is ancient Egyptian, and the hieroglyphics may literally mean “Soul of the Earth”. More prosaically, “bread”. The story of its discovery and growing popularity says a lot about our hunger for stories. It is also quite capable of leading hard-nosed molecular biologists astray.
This short episode fails to do justice to the man who, more than anyone, first grasped the importance of knowing where and how wheat arose. It does, however, explain why Vavilov wanted to collect the building material of future food security, for wheat and many other crops. In more than 60 countries, Vavilov and his colleagues gathered diversity from farmers’ fields; they died protecting their collections.
Thanks to Luigi Guarino for the photograph of Vavilov’s desk with his route across Ethiopia, and much else besides.
For more than 40 years, one wheat variety dominated the Canadian prairies. Red Fife — the red-seeded wheat grown by David Fife, a Scottish immigrant — gave the highest yields of the best quality. It almost didn’t happen, if you believe the stories. And then, having set the standard, Red Fife was eclipsed by its own offspring and slowly slid into oblivion. Until, in 1986, Sharon Rempel set about rescuing it.
Thanks to Kara Gray and Richard Gray for their help.
Norman Borlaug created the wheats that created the Green Revolution. They had short stems that could carry heavy ears of wheat, engorged by loads of fertiliser. They were resistant to devastating rust diseases. And they were insensitive to daylength, meaning they could be grown almost anywhere.
All three traits had been bred into wheat 40 years before Borlaug got going, by the Italian pioneer Nazareno Strampelli.
Photo is a 1933 medal to honour Nazareno Strampelli.
Wheat has a hugely diverse genetic background, being made up of three different species, and genetic diversity is what allows breeders to find the traits they need to produce wheats that can cope with changing conditions. But because the accidents that created wheat might have happened just the once, plenty of diversity that is missing from modern wheats is still in wheat’s ancestors. Trouble is, crossing a wild wheat with a modern wheat is almost impossible. Solution: remake modern wheat.
Photo shows a commercial variety, wilted and collapsing, while behind it a synthetic derivative copes just fine with the drought. By Maarten van Ginkel, who headed the Bread Wheat Program at CIMMYT. Thanks Maarten.
That kernel of wheat isn’t actually a seed or a berry, at least not to a botanist. I have no intention of getting into the whole pointless is it a fruit or a vegetable debate, so lets just agree that no matter what you call it, the wheat thing is made up of three major parts: bran, endosperm and germ. In this episode, a little about each of those parts and what they do for wheat.
It’s a good thing the Egyptians believed strongly in an afterlife and wanted to make sure their dead had an ample supply of bread. The bread and the tomb inscriptions tell us something about how grain was grown and bread baked. To really understand the process, however, you need to be a practical-minded archaeologist like Delwen Samuel, who first set out to replicate Egyptian bread.
Photo of a model from the tomb of Meketre, Metropolitan Musdeum of Art, Rogers Fund and Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1920.
It has been a long time since anyone who wanted to eat bread had to first grind their wheat. Grinding, however, was absolutely fundamental to agricultural societies, and still is for some. Archaeologists can see how the work left its mark on the skeletons of the women who ground the corn in the valley of the Euphrates. Then, about 2500 years ago, in the area now called Catalonia, an unknown genius invented the first labour-saving device.
Photo from the Mills Archive.
August 15th is Ferragosto, a big-time holiday in Italy that harks back to the Emperor Augustus and represents a well-earned rest after the harvest. It is also the Feast Day of the Assumption, the day on which, Catholics believe, the Virgin Mary was taken, body and soul, into heaven.
Is there a connection between them? And what does it have do with wheat?
Apologies to listeners in the southern hemisphere; this may not reflect your experience.
The rotary quern was perhaps the first labour-saving device. Using water power, rather than muscles, to turn the millstone made it even more efficient. Without watermills, it is doubtful whether ancient Romans could have enjoyed their bread and circuses. Because they require capital investment and skilled workers, watermills also set the trend for concentration in the food industry.
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Grinding grain by hand has always been considered women’s work, or, in the absence of women, suitable for slaves and suitably demeaning for prisoners of war. Maybe the most famous of those was Samson. The book of Judges (16:21) says, in the King James version:
But the Philistines took him, and put out his eyes, and brought him down to Gaza, and bound him with fetters of brass; and he did grind in the prison house.
I thought it might be fun to find an illustration for the series, and I did.
There’s something very wrong with these depictions though. Samson’s mill would not be much good for grain (unless he were making something liked rolled oats). It is more like an olive or grape press.
Looking at a whole bunch of translations, many do not specify what it was that Samson was made to grind, but those that do specify grain. The original Hebrew is טוֹחֵ֖ן (thanks, Luigi) which Google Translate renders as “mill”.
I conclude that those painters, many others, and even Cecil B. De Mille, got it wrong. Some, however, did get it right.
I’m particularly charmed by this little picture.
And yes, my nerdiness knows no bounds.
Stone mills served us well in the business of turning grain into flour for thousands of years, but they couldn’t keep up with either population growth or new and better wheat. The roller mill came about through a succession of small inventions and the deep pockets of a few visionary entrepreneurs. They turned Minneapolis into the flour capital of the world.
In case you think my account was oversimplified …
Diagram from Wheat Foods Council.
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Size brings benefits to bakeries as much as to flour mills. The episode tells a small part of the story of how George Weston turned a bakery route in Toronto into one of the biggest food companies in the world, responsible for more brands of bread than you can imagine. And not just the bread, but many of the ingredients that make megabakeries possible.
Small bakers couldn’t compete with the giants created by Allied Bakeries, so they turned to science. That produced the Chorleywood bread process, which gave them a quicker, cheaper loaf. Unfortunately, the giant bakeries gobbled up the new method too. More and more small bakeries went out of business as a loaf of bread became cheaper and cheaper. Was it worth it? You tell me.
Photo of Beaumont House, former HQ of the British Baking Industries Research Association, where the Chorleywood Bread Process was invented, by Diamond Geezer. It is now a care home.