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30 march 2012
The bread of my childhood, most stereotypically for an American babyboomer, was Wonder: a peculiar mass-produced substance with a texture somewhere between marshmallow and foam rubber. We always had bread in the breadbox (a built-in feature that has disappeared in the "updating" of most American kitchens. But though we paid lip service to its being the "staff of life," bread was not our staple food. It was eaten as morning toast, encased lunchbox sandwiches, and was delicious for Sunday supper with hard margarine and grape jelly. But we didn't eat bread with meals, or as a main starch; I'd estimate that our dinnertime carbs came 80% from potatoes, 15% from pasta (including egg noodles), and 5% from Minute Rice. Bread was utilitarian in the American 1960s, and in many ways unavoidable, but it was no longer a central food. And as William Rubel points out in Bread: A Global History, if bread did show up at the dinner table, it was a vestigial convention: the foil tray of parbaked rolls that somehow meant a more formal meal than a bowl of macaroni and cheese. Though I should note that we ate our share of hotdogs and hamburgers at dinnertime, and for those, white buns were indispensable.
My breadways are now almost the inverse of my childhood's. We have no breadbox, and never keep a loaf of American industrial bread on hand. A bag of indie-bakery white-flour tortillas sits on top of our fridge: for unknown reasons, these never seem to spoil or stale, so they are useful for slow consumption. On a pantry shelf, or if open, in the fridge, are a couple of packets of German Vollkornbrot, likewise eternally fresh – partly because it's never "fresh," in the American sense of light and spongy, to begin with. Other breads sometimes enter our house: pita and paratha fresh from the halal bakery, loaves tendentiously labeled "artisanal" that are at least finish-baked at the toniest local supermarket, and bolillos or bánh mì. When any of these visitors make an appearance, it does tend to be as the main carb with an evening meal of soup, stew, or ratatouille.
One of Rubel's themes is illustrated well by my personal bread history: "changing American foodways" (96). (He adds that "Artisan bakers exist in every [American] city," which is entirely too hopeful a characterization of Arlington, Texas – though to be fair, near the Cowboys Stadium, there's a corner where a Whole Foods lies not far from a La Madeleine, and both bake some decent quasi-artisanal bread.) These changes in American bread culture are linked to global trends, and Rubel's history, unlike some others in the Reaktion Edible series, is truly worldwide. Insofar as Europe ever had stable bread traditions in modern times, England was known for yeasty white loaves baked in tins, France for sourdough and hand-shaping, and Germany for dense whole-rye loaves that were meals in themselves. France has resisted imported techniques, and (with an assist from Italian concepts like ciabatta) has in turn spread its crusty, chewy, airy concoctions abroad, sending artisanal baking and its big irregular, worse-for-wear-looking loaves to Britain, central Europe, and North America.
Rubel divides 21st-century breadmaking into three fields – industrial baking (which gave us Wonder Bread, and continues to spread its immaculate standardized products across Latin America and east Asia); commerical artisanal baking; and "recreational" home baking. He includes lots of recipes for those who want to try the third kind. I admit I'm tempted. But in the past, most of the bread I've made has sunk like a rock in the oven. The odd thing is that such listless lumps have acquired new cachet. One of the delicacies that Rubel promotes is "horsebread." A medieval European recipe that fed horses when times were good and peasants when they were not, horsebread looks a lot like what I produce when I'm trying to bake frothy baguettes. Rubel's horsebread looks a lot more dense than commercial horse treats, in fact, though I imagine most horses would eagerly go for it: it's a heavy dough of bran, flour, and sometimes pea-flours, baked to a leaden consistency. Maybe I've just been ahead of the trend.
Rubel, William. Bread: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2011.