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A Global History

by William Rubel

From The Edible Series

Published by Reaktion Press


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Bread: A Global History is part of the "Edible" series of books.  The series is dedicated to culinary history, presenting the history of an individual food in each book. The volumes are slender, but filled with information, and written by a variety of food historians.  Each one is charming, informative, easy to read, and accompanied with photographs that are historical as well as contemporary.  The books are well-researched, but are light in presentation, and with humorous accounts of the human foibles that accompany food development.  Bread: A Global History is an informative and light-hearted book about our staff of life.  The book is slender to the hand, but packed with history, facts, and stories.


In Bread: A Global History, author William Rubel traces the history of our beloved and vital staff of life.  He explores the cultural hierarchies reflected in the knotted strands of dough that form a loaf of bread, as well the demands we make for crumb and crust.  In what he calls 'an eccentric travelogue,' he reveals the worldwide travels of bread and the shifting tastes that accompany it.

Acknowledging that our early historical references do not reveal an exact history of bread (least of all its taste), Rubel states, "the more details one seeks regarding a loaf of bread, the more fantasy must be in the answer."  Eschewing fantasy, he presents known facts of the history of bread in its earliest stages, from Sumer through the three great early civilizations, Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and ending with the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

In what could almost be a history of its own, Rubel traces the ever-prevalent taste for refined white bread as a symbol of class.  By today's standards, elitism is expressed by a taste for caviar and champagne, but through the centuries it was white bread that established one's superiority over the lower classes.  Dark breads, still unmilled to refinement, were the breads of the poor, to be shunned and disdained. Bread has been a social marker through the centuries, continuing even today in our taste for artisan bread.   His history of the breads of poverty is filled with unknown facts about the disdain in which dark bread was held. 

In this fascinating account, we even discover that in England in the 1600's a special bread was made for horses, much of it with the detritus of the refining process.  These were "flat breads made with bran stuck together with rye flour, also sometimes containing chaff, straw and the waste from the bakery floor."  Rubel tells us, "This bread was sometimes eaten by the poor, as it was one third of the price of the cheapest whole grain loaf."  He continues speaking of breads made for the hind servants (the lowly farm workers) which was a stiff dough of minimally sifted flour mixed with dried peas and boiling water. 

Rubel continues his (and ours) fascination with social and culture revelations through a discussion of our tastes in crust and crumb, of sweetened bread loaves, those without salt (one still remains in Tuscany). In the seventeenth century a fine-grained loaf was preferable, while today the height of artisanal talent is to make a loaf with large, irregular holes.  We fetishize the characteristics of 'softness,' or 'chewiness', the color of a crust or of the inside of a loaf.    "Bread is such a complex product that there is virtually no limit to aspects of bread that determine people's preferences, both intrinsic and extrinsic to the recipe."

Rubel continues with an examination of bread cultures primarily of France, Mexico, Germany, Russia, Britain and the US.  He concludes this social examination of a loaf of bread by relating the cultural values we impose on bread in the twenty-first century, dividing "the three discrete traditions: recreational home baking, commercial craft baking and industrial baking." The staff of life was, is, and surely will be a reflection of social status, taste, and culture.

Rubel adds recipes and a glossary that reveals the wide varieties of bread. There are photogrpahs and lillustrations thorughout.

About the author: William Rubel is a freelance food historian and the author of The Magic of Fire: Cooking on the Open Hearth. While working on this book, he stated, "I have been baking bread since I was eleven -- more than forty years. But since I have been working on this book my wife and friends tell me that my bread is getting better -- and I think so too -- thanks to secrets that I am uncovering in seventeenth and eighteenth century texts."

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