Review

On Bread and Circuses

A new book traces the rise of bread with government.

By , a lecturer in history and fellow of Gonville & Caius College, University of Cambridge.
Parisians buy bread in August 1944, after years of living off of rations.
Parisians buy bread in August 1944, after years of living off of rations. STF/AFP via Getty Images

One of the fascinating things about the history of bread is it clearly demonstrates the ways societies are interconnected. In fact, it’s hard to tell which came first: the development of bread or the emergence of the states that made the division of labor possible. Different kinds of bread—emmer, wheat, barley, rye, teff, oats, maize—all emerged alongside different early civilizations around the world at roughly the same time. Ancient Egypt and Rome became strong states because of their ability to feed the masses through careful regulation of supply chains. Feudal lords in medieval Britain had the power to tax laborers who grew their wheat supplies, but they also had to regulate the price of the milling so as not to have a bread riot on their hands. The French Revolution was the result of poor bread policy combined with the monarchy’s overreach. Eric Pallant, a professor of environmental science, makes these connections in his new book, Sourdough Culture: A History of Bread Making From Ancient to Modern Bakers. His argument comes down to this: Bread comes with government.

The Roman government provided 320,000 free loaves per month to citizens of the city. Truly epic supply chains connecting North Africa to Rome brought one ship per hour every day of the year to provision the city. These supply chains rivaled the scale of modern commerce. What happened to all the grain Egypt and North Africa had been producing for Europe after the Roman Empire fell?

Raised in the Philadelphia suburbs, I couldn’t help but wonder how Sicily and Campania—two regions with long ties to North Africa—kept those links alive between the fall of the Roman Empire and the mass migration of 4 million immigrants from the region to Philadelphia, New York, and Boston in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Did ancient traditions carry over from North Africa to Rome to my hometown? Should I really be eating my hoagie on sourdough?

One of the fascinating things about the history of bread is it clearly demonstrates the ways societies are interconnected. In fact, it’s hard to tell which came first: the development of bread or the emergence of the states that made the division of labor possible. Different kinds of bread—emmer, wheat, barley, rye, teff, oats, maize—all emerged alongside different early civilizations around the world at roughly the same time. Ancient Egypt and Rome became strong states because of their ability to feed the masses through careful regulation of supply chains. Feudal lords in medieval Britain had the power to tax laborers who grew their wheat supplies, but they also had to regulate the price of the milling so as not to have a bread riot on their hands. The French Revolution was the result of poor bread policy combined with the monarchy’s overreach. Eric Pallant, a professor of environmental science, makes these connections in his new book, Sourdough Culture: A History of Bread Making From Ancient to Modern Bakers. His argument comes down to this: Bread comes with government.

Sourdough Culture: A History of Bread Making From Ancient to Modern Bakers, Eric Pallant, Agate Surrey, 320 pp., .00, September 2021.

Sourdough Culture: A History of Bread Making From Ancient to Modern Bakers, Eric Pallant, Agate Surrey, 320 pp., $29, September 2021.

The Roman government provided 320,000 free loaves per month to citizens of the city. Truly epic supply chains connecting North Africa to Rome brought one ship per hour every day of the year to provision the city. These supply chains rivaled the scale of modern commerce. What happened to all the grain Egypt and North Africa had been producing for Europe after the Roman Empire fell?

Raised in the Philadelphia suburbs, I couldn’t help but wonder how Sicily and Campania—two regions with long ties to North Africa—kept those links alive between the fall of the Roman Empire and the mass migration of 4 million immigrants from the region to Philadelphia, New York, and Boston in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Did ancient traditions carry over from North Africa to Rome to my hometown? Should I really be eating my hoagie on sourdough?

In the past two decades, we have seen a lot of commodity histories—books that follow a particular item like salt, cod, a T-shirt, or my personal favorite, rum, around the world—looking at how their pursuit or use shaped the world. Pallant’s book started with this premise: He wants to discover “who invented bread and who invented sourdough?” To do that, he traces the history of sourdough bread from the very origins of human agriculture.

Food innovation is a melting pot, but influence follows lots of unusual, and often untraceable, pathways. In telling his story of the history of bread, Pallant leaves the Roman and North African world behind as the medieval period begins, choosing to trace potential French or British lines of origin for what began his “love affair with sourdough.” But, as he discovers, there was no one “inventor” that made its way from Cripple Creek, Colorado, in 1893 to his kitchen in 1988. Many different people brought the tradition of sourdough with them to the United States at many different times.

Sourdough Culture is a fast-paced, anecdote-filled romp through Western Civilization 101, playing all the old audience favorites (Ancient Egypt, Revolutionary France, the California Gold Rush) while carefully exploring the ways food systems and our connections to the production of bread have changed over time.

Pallant’s argument comes down to this: Bread comes with government.

Pallant’s historical narrative weaves together personal history, experiments, travel writing, and mouth-watering descriptions of the breads he’s tried. But although he brings together a compelling, page-turning story of European-American history, we get tantalizing glimpses of the fact that there wasn’t one origin or narrative line of forward progress, leaping from the Fertile Crescent to Ancient Egypt to the Roman Empire to the Industrial Revolution. Trends in breadmaking seemed to develop simultaneously in lots of different places, in part because the long supply chains that make bread possible connect us across vast geographies, cultures, and forms of government.

People are suspicious of the idea that more than one person could have come up with bread at the same time, in part because it often just seems so unlikely. Ideas, gadgets, and yes, even bread, ought to have “an inventor.” It’s the same phenomenon with panic buying or with viral crazes: Who started it? How did it spread? Journalist Malcolm Gladwell described the phenomenon of the rapid spread of trends in his book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. But when people like Gladwell and the authors of those commodity histories look at fads, trends, innovations, and influential products, they tend to want to identify an origin, a carefully ordered series of events.

In the 19th century, the turn from sourdough to yeast-raised white breads appeared at roughly the same time in a variety of different countries. This move was facilitated by industrialized bread production. The uniformity, efficiency, cheapness, and “clean” taste were championed as the products of scientific modernity. Sourdough was out; mass-produced white bread was in. By the early 20th century in the United States, modern bread was marketed as the opposite of preindustrial ways of making bread, which harkened back to “old world” lives of traditionalism and poverty in places like rural southern Italy or which relied on the labor of servants and enslaved people. For bread modernizers, industrially produced bread gave people a sense of self-sufficiency: Just pick it up at the store! No need to rely on extended households or engage laborers in your home.

Yet the allure of baking sourdough as its own statement of self-sufficiency and withdraw from the market economy has had enduring traction too. The idea that early colonists of the future United States, the readers of mid-19th century cookbooks, or miners at Cripple Creek were self-sufficient turns out also to have been an illusion. Colonists relied—to their chagrin—on British imperial supply chains. Many literate, 19th century women buying and reading cookbooks relied on enslaved labor. The miners at Cripple Creek were employees of large companies, who spent their wages on bread baked by someone else at one of the boomtown’s eight bakeries.

Of course, the sourdough craze in the early days of the pandemic relied not only on flour supply chains but also on the externalized labor of essential workers. At that time, bread recipes topped Google searches, not just in the United States but globally, from Britain to Turkey, New Zealand to Nigeria, Canada to Qatar. The flour shortage was so acute that Ethiopian teff saw a rise in demand as a replacement. Articles explaining how the pandemic had permanently changed our diets proliferated.

The pandemic—and the bread-making trend that went with it—gives historians a real-time example of an interconnected global cultural moment. People turned to bread-making as a connection to the past, a way to escape dependence on global supply chains, a way to occupy time and slow down, a way to be in control of something: These things happened all over the place, all at once, as though everyone woke up with the same idea.

The appeal of home-baked sourdough bread in the spring of 2020 was proving self-reliance, even as the act itself demonstrated a longing for connection. Bread, after all, is meant to be shared with other people—ideally not just on social media. Pallant’s delicious-looking recipes, appearing at the end of each chapter, detail the labor required to turn flour and water into a sourdough culture and then to turn that sourdough culture into a wide variety of breads. The recipes also perfectly encapsulate the myth of breadmaking as an autarkic activity: You don’t need to buy yeast because sourdough culture is self-perpetuating and natural.

In reality, a sourdough culture requires constant care to thrive. One 18th century observer referred to the constant maintenance of sourdough baking as a form of “slavery” in which bakers were unable to have more than three hours of rest at a time. And then to make anything with the sourdough culture, you still needed access to more supplies of wheat, the labor to harvest and thresh it, someone to mill it, some kind of fuel for a fire, and all the other divisions of labor and supply that entangle bread and human civilization.

The pandemic—and the bread-making trend that went with it—gives historians a real-time example of an interconnected global cultural moment.

Breadmaking as a therapeutic means of being in control of something also turns out to be a myth. Pallant’s investigation of the DNA of his Cripple Creek starter leads him through a series of experiments and down a rabbit hole of scientific literature that shows how little we actually know about bacteria and the microbiome we—and sourdough—are part of. As one experiment found out, making sourdough changes the microbiome of both the person making it and the sourdough starter. As Pallant writes, “sourdough bakers and their starters share the same species of yeast and bacteria, a microbial ecosystem entirely distinct from that of non-bakers and largely unlike the microorganisms living on the hands of a baker using a different starter.” The living sourdough and the person caring for it become infected with each other’s bacteria. And new information about what those bacteria are is discovered every year. But we still don’t know exactly why sourdough is sour or to what extent the lineage of a sourdough culture really matters in the present.

Heirloom, artisanal sourdoughs with a lineage connecting us to traditions and people of the past are supposed to be the opposite of the sterile modernity of Wonder Bread. Pallant visits one of the artisanal bakeries specializing in sourdough in San Francisco (producing only 240 loaves a day), only to discover it uses emmer, an ancient Egyptian wheat that was the key ingredient to some of the first bread. In fact, the Egyptians, Pallant recounts, believed “emmer is the only fit cereal for bread.” The production of teff, the Ethiopian grain some people turned to during the wheat shortages at the height of the pandemic’s first wave, had actually been expanding about a decade before. A worldwide increase in gluten intolerance and celiac disease has driven demand for buckwheat, teff, and other whole and ancient grains as replacements for glutenous wheat.

Even movements that start as niche rejections of mass consumption can quickly become global trends, impacting far-off suppliers. According to the Washington Post, the Ethiopian government is reportedly keen to keep control over teff exports, since injera bread made with the grain still accounts for 70 percent of the country’s daily caloric intake and a rise in export prices would make it too expensive for Ethiopian consumers. Bolivia and Peru were caught off guard by an earlier global trend for quinoa, and Ethiopia is keen not to make the same mistake. Governance of grain supplies still matters when it comes to bread.

Google searches for sourdough have fallen back to pre-pandemic levels, and people have begun to return to offices and schools, leaving their sourdough starters behind. The global sourdough trend has moved from people’s kitchens into restaurants and bakeries. But bread still comes with government. As supply chain woes hit grocery stores and markets in different parts of the world and restaurants and bakeries continue to suffer from staffing shortages, governments would do well to remember that, when it comes to bread, we’re all connected.

Bronwen Everill is a lecturer in history and fellow of Gonville & Caius College, University of Cambridge. Most recently, she is the author of Not Made by Slaves: Ethical Capitalism in the Age of Abolition. Twitter: @bronweneverill

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