The dark history of bread
In the peak of the coronavirus lockdowns, I noticed a wave of articles about baguette. NPR reported, “In France, Bakeries Remain Essential.” The Washington Post wrote, “French flock back to bakeries for comfort.” In a hard-hitting interview straight from the front lines of a Parisian boulangerie, the NYT quoted a man tucking a baguette under his arm: “We can’t live without bread here. You can’t take that away from the French.”
I’m not going to lie, I found these articles irresistibly charming and a much-needed respite from the real (i.e. nightmare) news of 2020. And I totally understand why Americans savored these lovely little human interest stories. When we’re punching each other in the face for a roll of toilet paper in a gigantic Costco warehouse, what could be more delightful than reading about Parisians leisurely strolling into a quaint bakery for a morceau de pain? No cussing out, no black eyes, no condescending glares from the keto/paleo cult member with nothing but mercury-stuffed salmon and sodium-packed beef jerky in his cart. Instead of a value-size pack of 72 microwavable bagel bites and a plastic bucket of mac n’ cheese, somewhere else in the world a French woman is spreading freshly whipped butter across her toasted baguette with a light sprinkle of sea salt. It sounds like the ultimate French dream, doesn’t it? (Though I wouldn’t be surprised if “the ultimate French dream” means something much more erotically adventurous. If so, French people, please let me know if it involves miming or funny hats because, if so, I am obviously in.)
The point is, when reading about Parisians tucking their baguettes under their arms, I close my eyes and my imagination submerges into a universe where there is no COVID, no police brutality, no mass refugees, no Trump, no forest fires, no hurricanes, no QAnon, no race riots, and no 80s sitcom reboots on Netflix. I get it. These articles are delightful.
Yet as much as I love this escapist baguette fantasy, I can’t help wondering if our exclusive obsession with baguette is a tad racist. I know, crazy jump. But stick with me.
The message behind every one of these articles is that the French are more cultured and refined than us. That the French do it better because they bake better bread. But do they? Is French society more civilized because they bake baguette?
Hypothesis: Bread could break us apart
As I’ve written in previous articles, people have used bread as a proxy of civilization for millennia. Even in the Odyssey, Homer uses “bread-eaters” (sitòfagoi) to describe the human characters, thus distinguishing them from the various beasts. Humans are human because they create their own nourishment. While beasts must forage and hunt to fill their stomachs, humans bake bread.
As I’ve also written in previous articles, bread is the foundation of human society. No single person has the time, tools, and resources for every step of the breadmaking process. The intensive labor and resources required to make bread — harvesting, threshing, winnowing, grinding, kneading, baking — force people to collaborate. To become a community. And everyone who participates in the production then participates in the consumption, which further binds people together. As anyone who has gathered around a table and passed the bread basket knows, it bonds you in a primal, ineffable way. There’s a reason that almost every major religion has a ritual of sharing bread.
Yet I’d never thought about the flipside of the coin. Sure, bread can create societies, bring people together. That’s a given. But can bread divide too? Can bread tear people apart?
Turns out, the power of bread goes both ways.
Exhibit One: The Great Schism
To look at the most dramatic example of bread’s divisive powers, we have to go back almost a millennium, back when all Christians used regular bread during the Eucharist, what we today would call sandwich bread (even though those poor fellas didn’t have sandwiches yet).
Then, suddenly, around 1050, a bunch of Italian clergy thought, “This is way too delicious to be the flesh of Christ. We should make something we’re not tempted to dip in olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt, something more reminiscent of wood shavings.” Thus the flat wafer was born. This way, no one would confuse their daily bread with the holy Eucharist, avoiding the awkward situation of sopping up leftover soup with your savior’s flesh.
The Italians also liked that the wafer could be more easily franchised, having more or less the same look and taste in any church anywhere on the peninsula. The wafer even lasted longer, so you didn’t need to toss out any stale leftovers or waste firewood on daily baking. Just one bake session a week would do.
In the East, however, clergy found the flat wafer backward and unchristian. They accused the Latin clergy of reverting back to Judaism. (Side note: Jews at the time only consumed flatbreads, like most Mediterranean cultures. The soft, yolky-yellow Challah bread we now associate with Jews didn’t come into existence until the 15th century.) Most importantly, the Eastern clergy believed leavened bread to be imbued with the Holy Spirit’s hot breath. Microscopic fungi converting sugar into carbon dioxide? Ridiculous! Bread rises because the Holy Spirit blows it.
So the wafer-lovers and the leavened-breaders argued and argued, each convinced their dough best reflected Christ’s true flesh. By 1054 AD, the fighting got so out of hand that Pope Leo IX sent a delegation of wafer-lovers to Constantinople to find a compromise. But the wafer-lovers refused to accept yeast back into their lives and the leavened-breaders refused to renounce their fluffy Jesus buns. The Pope’s delegation failed to find common ground. The wafer-lovers peaced out, the leavened-breaders went back to their starter yeasts and they never talked again. To this day, the church is still split along bread lines: Roman Catholics eat flat wafers and Eastern Orthodox eat leavened loaves. The two have never reunited.
Exhibit Two: The Great Crusades
A century later, European Crusaders started their violent campaign against the Muslim empires of the Middle East. Roman Catholic writers, seeking to dehumanize their Muslim enemies, decided to hit them right in the baker’s dozen: by insulting their bread.
They’re like animals! They don’t even know how to make “real” bread. The writers of the time depicted the “poorly baked focaccia” of the Islamic world as proof of Muslims’ inferior status (which is ironic because leavened bread actually originated in Mesopotamia long before Christianity). Also, the Trump administration should study these guys, because this some of the best PR spin of all time. One day flatbread is the ultimate manifestation of Christ and the next it’s indicative of a primitive, deficient culture that deserves to be annihilated. Kellyanne Conway has got nothing on medieval Roman Catholics. Of course, this would be a much funnier anecdote if these texts hadn’t been exploited as proof of Muslim inferiority and therefore the justification for pillaging and slaughtering.
Exhibit Three: Dirty Jews
One last example. This time, let’s fast-forward to the 1910s and jump across the Atlantic, to the time when Jews, Italians, and other dark-haired immigrants were flocking in unprecedented masses to the shores of America.
Along with competitive complaining and non-existent but debilitating neuroses, these immigrants brought their dense, blackish-brown bread from the old country with them too.
Today, such artisanal bread would go for top dollar at Whole Foods, but Anglo-Americans of the early 20th century were horrified. Journalists claimed the immigrant bakers made their loaves dark and seedy in order to hide the horse manure and floor sweepings that they mixed into the dough. And the yeast! So much disgusting yeast! At the time, microbiologists Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch had just introduced the public to a terrifying new universe of bacteria, invisible creatures that can invade our bodies without us even knowing. New discoveries of microscopic germs putrefying milk and living in excrement brought vivid new nightmares to the shocked public. Which of course led to the public making a ludicrously uninformed jump in logic: if bad bacteria like Listeria is microscopic, and yeast is microscopic, aren’t they essentially the same thing? Doesn’t that make yeast evil and deadly? OMG, yeast kills babies!
Here’s a description of naturally leavened bread from a late 19th-century book titled The Complete Bread, Cake, and Cracker Baker:
“Bread rises when infected with the yeast germ, because millions of these little worms have been born and have died, and from their dead and decaying bodies there rises a gas just as it does from the dead body of a hog or any other animal.”
Some speculated yeast would keep fermenting after being ingested and cause painful explosions inside your stomach. Thus, terrified of the impurities hidden in the dark dough and the deadly potential of microscopic yeast, American consumers turned to snow-white bread from industrial factories. Refined, processed flour gave the dough a trustworthy colorlessness and baking powder acted as a leavening agent without having to poison your children with mold-like fungi. These sanitized loaves were tasteless, sure, but they were yeast-free and untouched by human hands. They were as spotless and delectable as bleach. Who doesn’t want to feed their family pure bleach?
Of course, not all the public health concerns of the early 20th century were completely illegitimate. Tuberculosis and typhoid fever still terrorized urban dwellers. But this particular fear, the Anglo-American fear of dark-looking loaves, had much more to do with the dark-looking people who ate them. In a 1911 hearing on the hygienic conditions of New York’s bakeries, a state assemblyman asks about the immigrants who make the bread: “These men you have described are naturally and inherently unclean, aren’t they? And they don’t know how to do anything else?”
In other words, the problem wasn’t the facility, or the flour, or the practices. Despite the rumor mill, the problem wasn’t even the yeast. The problem was that the people making the bread looked different and talked differently.
Conclusion: All bread is good bread
If I’ve learned anything from following the breadcrumbs of history, I’ve learned that how we talk about food matters. What may seem like an innocent comment about quality dough may in fact have insidious implications hidden underneath the crust. When we start treating one bread as superior to another, we’re already careening down a dangerous slope. I still find the baguette articles marvelously charming, but now I also see the centuries of colonialism and subjugation that created an arbitrary hierarchy of bread by which we still abide today.
Sure, baguette is delicious. It’s an excellent bread. But is it superior to a Greek lagana? Or Ethiopian injera? Do you think Moroccans are still buying hot, buttery m’semen in the medina during the pandemic? Are Indians still getting roti from the street vendors? Where are the articles about these breads?
Bobrow-Strain, Aaron. White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf. Beacon Press, 2013.
Montanari, Massimo. Gusti del Medioevo. Laterza: Rome-Bari, 2012.