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Saturday, January 12, 2008


Give us this day our daily bread.

For the longest time, I couldn't figure out why so many cultures based their diets on or around bread. It made no sense to me at all. I had no idea that we weren't really talking about the same food.


One of my favorite anthropology books, Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, talked about how women involved in the textile trade ate:
Their food rations seem to us a strange diet: wheat and figs.
(See page 221 in the 1994 printing of the book.) The author goes on to explain that most people only ate meat rarely, if at all (and relays comments from Socrates about how festivals where animals were slaughtered gave the populace stomach aches, because the flesh was distributed to people to eat, and they had trouble digesting it), and that this odd diet was likely supplemented with wild veggies including onions and celery, and perhaps spices such as coriander, cumin, and fennel. The big question to me was: how could a person live on wheat and figs? I also recall reading novels, perhaps including Gene Wolfe's series about Latro, which related that people of the time ate wheat, olive oil, and wine. (Wikipedia on ancient Greek cuisine provides the same list.) I could not figure out how any survived on that.

What I didn't understand was that people back then weren't processing wheat into nutritionless white flour like we do today. They were using whole, perishable wheat with the nutrition-filled "germ" included. Wheat germ contains folic acid, fat, protein, a wide range of minerals and vitamins, fiber... Minimally processed wheat is and was an actual nutritious food!

Those nutrients which make the germ nutritionally worthwhile also make wheat spoil. All natural human foods (except honey) spoil: removing the germ allows the leftover bits of wheat to have a long shelf life. Processed flour can last for years; whole grain flours spoil relatively quickly. Processed flours can be more profitable, then, because you can sell the same crop for a long time without having to throw out spoiled product. It means the product isn't much of a food, however, and that's why most flours you buy in stores have to be "enriched" to put back some of the nutrients that were removed in processing. Most of the bread that I see in stores, and that I tasted growing up, is made from heavily processed flours. My parents were health-conscious, so we had whole wheat bread, but it was very, very, very soft, which makes me suspect that it was made with processed white flour with a bit of whole wheat flour added later to give it a little color.


My mother grew up eating bread made by a small, Eastern European bakery that catered to the tastes of bread eaters of her culture: most of the breads she ate you would now describe as "hard." Rye, sour rye, and caraway rye were popular, and she ate them all the time. They were firm breads, and very dark. Many of the rye breads I see on shelves now are made with a combination of white processed wheat flour and rye, making them pale and soft.

There's a bread I like quite a bit called pumpernickel. Translated from German, it means something along the lines of "flatulence goblin," based on the idea that it was whole-grain rye and difficult to digest. I tasted something close to the real thing in childhood: when I was little, my mother would buy long, tiny loaves of pumpernickel to eat with spreads - they were a lot like crackers in sturdiness, but were thicker and softer. (I don't see that bread in stores now.)

I've had quite a bit of pumpernickel in local sandwich shops, which I mostly chose for the color, but it turned out that it wasn't real pumpernickel. To quote Wikipedia on Pumpernickel:
A separate pumpernickel bread tradition has grown up in America. The American pumpernickel loaf approximates the dark color of traditional German pumpernickel by adding molasses, coffee, cocoa powder, or other darkening agents. In addition to coloring and flavor agents, American bakers often add wheat flour (to provide gluten structure and increase rising) and commercial yeast (to quicken the rise compared to a traditional sourdough). Because of the ways in which American bakers have changed the original German recipe, and for economic reasons, they tend to eschew the long slow baking that is characteristic of German pumpernickel. The result is a loaf that resembles commercial American rye bread -- a bread made with a mix of wheat and rye flour -- but with darker coloring.
That explains a few things.

I haven't been to Germany to eat the real thing, so I picked up some imported German pumpernickel made in Westphalia. You might have seen these little square bricks of bread in health food stores, near all of those odd, giant whole grain crackers from Europe. I was suspicious, because the package claimed that the bread was good for about six months if left unopened. I tested this by letting it sit in my cupboard for a couple of months, and there was no apparent change. I opened it up and ate it with soft, fresh cheese.

It's not like the pumpernickel that I've bought in stores, which was like ordinary soft wheat & rye stained a new color. This was more like... Like cooked, wild rice pressed into squares. The grains were the approximate size of the Japonica rice I eat now, but are an even deeper color - nearly black. Instead of being made up of soft, cottony bits of bread separated by a series of air bubbles, this looks like pressed rice with air spaces in between where the rice wouldn't bend. It's firm - not hard, but firm - a slice will remain straight when you hold it out sideways, even with cheese on it. You can crease it and break a slice evenly, rather than having it tear. It's dry, and well suited to spreadable cheeses. It has a clean, rye taste. And each slice of the particular brand I tried has 16% of your day's dietary fiber(!), 3 grams of protein(!), 10% of your day's iron(!), and several other vitamins and minerals. ONE SLICE.

The ingredients to this particular brand of preservative-free bread are: whole kernel rye, water, sugar beet syrup, salt, malt extract, and yeast. That's it.

I'll eat more of this, perhaps with hummus or some of my other vegan spreads.


We're lucky to have a range of artisan bakers in the SF Bay Area. They offer a variety of heavenly breads that put those sliced loaves you see in plastic bags in your supermarket to shame. Some of their breads are white, some are whole grain, and many are a mixture. Most of the bakers on this list make relatively soft breads. Some of my favorite bakers:

-Acme Bread ( They make a green olive bread that will stun you with its heavenly generosity of olives.
-Grace Baking (, "Good Bread Daily." Not all of their specialty breads are listed on their website. Their olive breads are wonderful, and their specialty breads in unexpected flavors are irresistible - if you see something unfamiliar or unexpected, try it.
-Metropolis Baking Co. ( Last week I enjoyed a whole wheat sourdough (which was a lovely shade of brown) with walnuts and scallions in it. It was amazing.
-Semifreddi's Handcrafted Breads and Pastries ( Their long baguettes are seen in many markets. If you have a chance, try out their walnut levain.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)5:44 PM

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