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Old 07-14-2017, 07:54 AM
Kavaj Kavaj is offline
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The invention of bread

I was excited to see today's column title, How did bread get invented?, as it is a question I've been pondering for years, along with other "how did prehistorical humans figure out X" questions. The column left me disappointed, though. Cecil just kept saying it was obvious without explaining how.

I very much doubt that prehistorical me would view pre-domestication wheat and consider it an obvious crop. Today's version of me might manage to do the graham cracker thing but only because I knew it was possible. How is it obvious? How are the intervening steps obvious? Especially the addition of yeast, which Cecil at least concedes might have required insight. Insight acquired how?

I'm sure hunter-gatherers tried eating wheat for the reason Cecil outlines, but how did that lead them to conclude you could create something edible out of the stuff?

I realise these questions are ultimately unanswerable without time travel, but obvious I think they are not.
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Old 07-14-2017, 08:16 AM
plankter plankter is offline
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If I may, I'd like to propose a scenario for wheat => bread, based upon my interest in wild food foraging.

Many grass seeds are abundant and worth the effort of collecting, and the easiest way to make a meal of a pile of grains is to add water and heat the resultant gruel. Overcooking or drying out the gruel inspires the next step of cooking the grain paste into patties. Our old friend Yeast joins the mix at some point, and if you're hungry enough you'll go ahead and bake* the mush that's gotten bubbly. And hey, these wheat cakes are (relatively) light, and tasty! Thus, bread.

*Or you could leave the pot of thin gruel even longer before daring to sample the contents, which tastes gross but gives you a slight buzz. Which came first, bread or beer?
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Old 07-14-2017, 08:39 AM
DesertDog DesertDog is offline
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Originally Posted by plankter View Post
Which came first, bread or beer?
Probably hand in hand. Once, Anchor Steam Beer made a batch of Sumerian beer, based on a recipe found in an ancient poem. It is mentioned in the link's history section but the source I read at the time said it was a micro-batch made for a company party.

It involved milling the barley, twice-baking it into bread, then breaking up the bread into the vat along with some honey (and no hops). The resulting brew was low in alcohol, considerably sweeter than modern beer, and had a lot of sediment floating on the top. Egyptians had pottery bowls with a tube leading to the bottom molded into the side. At the party they settled for Solo cups and straws.

The spokesman for Anchor said it was tasty enough but making it really mucked up the vat so they probably would not be repeating the experiment.
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Old 07-14-2017, 10:06 AM
Turble Turble is offline
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That's what happens when you use Jared Diamond as a source; leaps of logic similar to the Underpants Gnomes business plan.

1. Steal underpants
2. ?
3. Profit

Diamond is a good writer with a vivid imagination, but he is not a cultural anthropologist -- in fact, he makes many of them mad.

One example: But Guns Germs and Steel is actually “disguised as an attack on racial determinism”. Diamond’s modest re-telling of traditional domination histories is factually wrong and blatantly misleading.
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  #5  
Old 07-14-2017, 10:28 AM
TriPolar TriPolar is online now
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Originally Posted by Kavaj View Post
I was excited to see today's column title, How did bread get invented?, as it is a question I've been pondering for years, along with other "how did prehistorical humans figure out X" questions. The column left me disappointed, though. Cecil just kept saying it was obvious without explaining how.

I very much doubt that prehistorical me would view pre-domestication wheat and consider it an obvious crop. Today's version of me might manage to do the graham cracker thing but only because I knew it was possible. How is it obvious? How are the intervening steps obvious? Especially the addition of yeast, which Cecil at least concedes might have required insight. Insight acquired how?

I'm sure hunter-gatherers tried eating wheat for the reason Cecil outlines, but how did that lead them to conclude you could create something edible out of the stuff?

I realise these questions are ultimately unanswerable without time travel, but obvious I think they are not.
The article could have been a little more explicit about how easy it is to make bread once you have wheat. I have no idea why insight is even required. Mix water and wheat together and wild yeast in the air will start feeding on it and multiply. In the right proportions of wheat and water you get dough and beer. I don't see the next step of baking the dough to require much insight either.
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Old 07-14-2017, 10:32 AM
watchwolf49 watchwolf49 is offline
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Great article ... wonderful way to lay out a framework with plenty of room for crackpotism ... thank you Unca Cece, I love you man ...

We can just throw grass seed into boiling water to make the stuff edible ... let me throw out here that maybe grain wasn't the first thing early humans ground up ... I'm thinking our local Native Natives here in the PNW ground up acorns to make them edible by necessity ... it's an easy step to say early humans did the same and someone at sometime tried grinding up grain just for the hell of it ... given the propensity of humans to bang things with rocks ...

The introduction of yeast may be as simple as the wind blowing ... we're talking about centuries of fat-headed human experiences passed down through the wonders of verbal language ... we could have many generations of hard praying to the gods until someone noticed that a little of the god-touched wheat powder mixed in with fresh wheat powder caused all of it to be divinely blessed ... the tribe that discovered this would greatly benefit by not having to sacrifice as many of their children ...

Wheat, corn and (although not mentioned in The Master's article) rice may just be species most suitable for domestication AND have excellent nutritional properties AND can be stored for long periods of time ... would early humans try a number of different grasses and just by trial and error stumble upon wheat/corn/rice ... and once stumbled upon then "evolved" to thrive on these grains ...

Alas we had to wait until the 20th Century to fully enjoy all the benefits of sliced bread ...

Last edited by watchwolf49; 07-14-2017 at 10:33 AM..
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  #7  
Old 07-14-2017, 10:42 AM
Chronos Chronos is offline
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Yeast is the one step in the process that does seem obvious to me. Leave anything sitting out, and it's going to get some wild yeast growing in it, no human intervention required.
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  #8  
Old 07-14-2017, 11:07 AM
waddlingeagle waddlingeagle is offline
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I don't think saying "it is obvious" is a very good answer at all.

Obviously, humans had to be eating something -- probably learned from their forebears. Better would have been to point out that humans were eating wheat for more than 2000 years before bread was invented. Early strains of wheat did not have enough gluten to support yeast. Before the invention of unleavened bread, people were probably boiling the grains -- and they were probably using any grain they could find, not just wheat. In fact, it took thousands of years for wheat to spread beyond the Fertile Crescent. Neolithic Man was eating something else in all the rest of the world.
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  #9  
Old 07-14-2017, 11:40 AM
watchwolf49 watchwolf49 is offline
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Originally Posted by Chronos View Post
Yeast is the one step in the process that does seem obvious to me. Leave anything sitting out, and it's going to get some wild yeast growing in it, no human intervention required.
Apple juice and grape juice readily "turn hard" ... yeasties floating in fermenting the sugars into ethanol ... it's more difficult preventing these fruit juices from fermenting in my experience ...
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  #10  
Old 07-14-2017, 12:11 PM
Old Blue Eyes Old Blue Eyes is offline
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The one that always makes me think is coffee. I'm sure it was one thing at a time, but how did we get to:
Let's grow this plant,
Let's pick the berries, throw the plant away.
Take the seeds (beans) out out the berries, throw the berries away.
Roast and then grind the beans.
Pour hot water through the grounds and throw the beans away.
Drink the water!
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  #11  
Old 07-14-2017, 12:31 PM
nightshadea nightshadea is offline
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what gets me is food things that are claimed to be invented like supposedly in the first 2-300 years of cookies and processed chocolate no one put the two together until the 1930s.........
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  #12  
Old 07-14-2017, 01:59 PM
Reverend Meade Reverend Meade is offline
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Originally Posted by Old Blue Eyes View Post
The one that always makes me think is coffee. I'm sure it was one thing at a time, but how did we get to:
Let's grow this plant,
Let's pick the berries, throw the plant away.
Take the seeds (beans) out out the berries, throw the berries away.
Roast and then grind the beans.
Pour hot water through the grounds and throw the beans away.
Drink the water!
Ethiopian Goat herders noticed that eating coffee berries made goat hyper. They found out that eating the berry and spitting out the seed didn't give the energizing effect, therefore the energy is in the seeds. Boiling hot things in water is an ancient method of food prep. Throwing away the beans is a recent addition. They used to sit in the bottom of the cup, like tea leaves.
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  #13  
Old 07-14-2017, 02:16 PM
watchwolf49 watchwolf49 is offline
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Originally Posted by Reverend Meade View Post
Ethiopian Goat herders noticed that eating coffee berries made goat hyper. They found out that eating the berry and spitting out the seed didn't give the energizing effect, therefore the energy is in the seeds. Boiling hot things in water is an ancient method of food prep. Throwing away the beans is a recent addition. They used to sit in the bottom of the cup, like tea leaves.
We're talking about a fairly long time ... in any given millennium, there's going to be one hell of a lot of starving people willing to eat anything and everything ... it's just a matter of trial and error to find which foodstuffs are nutritious and which are toxic ...
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  #14  
Old 07-14-2017, 02:39 PM
eastcheap eastcheap is offline
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Originally Posted by TriPolar View Post
Mix water and wheat together and wild yeast in the air will start feeding on it and multiply.
Wild yeasts and other things. When you stumble upon a combination of bugs that makes good bread (or booze), you cultivate a starter (unless you're Belgian: lambics are brewed by the "hope for the best" method). I reckon folks figured that out relatively early on.

It might be worth mentioning that the proscription against "leaven" at Passover isn't about ingredients per se, but about how long you can leave dough out before baking.
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Old 07-14-2017, 03:18 PM
Alan Smithee Alan Smithee is offline
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Originally Posted by eastcheap View Post
Wild yeasts and other things. When you stumble upon a combination of bugs that makes good bread (or booze), you cultivate a starter (unless you're Belgian: lambics are brewed by the "hope for the best" method). I reckon folks figured that out relatively early on.

It might be worth mentioning that the proscription against "leaven" at Passover isn't about ingredients per se, but about how long you can leave dough out before baking.
There is an outstanding brewery near me (but not near enough, IMO) that makes all their beers that way, or at least started them that way. (I imagine they cultivated their own starters once they got good results, but they use all local wild yeasts.) I love sour beer, and everything they make has at least a little tang from the wild yeasts (similar to lambics). Wild-fermented IPA is surprisingly nice! Of course, his is California, which is known for favorable yeast strains.

That's an interesting point about Passover bread. I remember the explanation in Exodus that the Israelites made bread in preparation for fleeing Egypt, but didn't have time to let it rise, but I didn't put two and two together and realize that they weren't just waiting for the yeast (or starter) they added to make the dough rise, they were waiting for yeast to spontaneously cultivate in the dough.
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  #16  
Old 07-15-2017, 09:35 AM
ftg ftg is offline
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I agree that it is incredibly long winded but doesn't provide much information.

Cultivation is not needed to start bread making. People were harvesting grains long before cultivation. In fact, it is rather obvious that such harvesting had to be done for quite some time before cultivation begins. No one's going to try and cultivate something they haven't been using already. So forget that aspect.

Grinding and pulping grains is also something that would have been done for many millennia. You don't chew dried out grain. You mash it up and wet it down. So that's also ancient.

Cooking, baking food also goes way, way back.

As noted, once you have some wet ground-up flour sitting around, yeast is almost a certainty. But it's a hit or miss prospect. Takes too long, get a bad kind of yeast, something else takes over and makes the mix go bad, etc. People have to be careful and not waste food.

So the real trick is keeping a bit of the last batch of dough to start the next batch. This is the key step by far. It's not obvious at all nor would ancient people understand bacteria and all that. There might have been some related knowledge: take some hard cider and add it to new cider to speed up things or some such.

But it is still the biggest step and the hardest to figure out it was done the first time. But it was.

Yet it is not mentioned in the article.

(I like that in Snow Crash bread making is given as a prime example of a tech meme.)
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  #17  
Old 07-15-2017, 10:08 AM
Evan Drake Evan Drake is offline
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I would think ancients just added a bit of the last batch 'for luck', like in other cooking, or making log fires with a bit of the previous charcoal 'for luck'.



Plus a lot of people never washed their pans.
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Old 07-15-2017, 10:16 AM
Alan Smithee Alan Smithee is offline
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I seem to remember reading, possibly in Guns, Germs and Steel, which I read a long time ago, that wheat is a particularly easy grain to harvest as a hunter-gatherer--that it's easy to walk past a stand of wheat growing and pick several ripe heads of grain, with the individual grains easily accessible for a quick, nutritious snack.

I also seem to remember that there is a simple mutation that causes the wheat not to release the grains when they ripen. This requires threshing to remove the corns from the chaff, but it means it's easy to gather whole heads of grain and take them back to your village. Normally, these grains, not being released, wouldn't germinate and produce new plants, but humans harvesting them would inevitably spill a few grains leading to new generations with the same mutation, which would then be harvested preferentially by humans. So the first steps in domestication were entirely accidental and "natural," caused by a spontaneous common mutation and the normal behavior of humans.

Can anyone confirm any of this? I hate relying on half-remembered and unsourced factoids.
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  #19  
Old 07-15-2017, 10:20 AM
TriPolar TriPolar is online now
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Originally Posted by Evan Drake View Post
I would think ancients just added a bit of the last batch 'for luck', like in other cooking, or making log fires with a bit of the previous charcoal 'for luck'.
Plus a lot of people never washed their pans.
Indeed. If you had some dough already rising it's no leap to add some of that to a fresh mix to see if starts to rise sooner. Dough rising from yeast in the air isn't as consistent as the sun rising everyday but it's more regular than rain, so the need for starters may not have been great but it wouldn't be difficult to figure it out.
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Old 07-15-2017, 12:37 PM
Evan Drake Evan Drake is offline
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Originally Posted by Alan Smithee View Post
I seem to remember reading, possibly in Guns, Germs and Steel, which I read a long time ago, that wheat is a particularly easy grain to harvest as a hunter-gatherer--that it's easy to walk past a stand of wheat growing and pick several ripe heads of grain, with the individual grains easily accessible for a quick, nutritious snack.

At that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungred, and began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat.

Last edited by Evan Drake; 07-15-2017 at 12:38 PM..
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Old 07-17-2017, 04:49 AM
tim314 tim314 is online now
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Originally Posted by Kavaj View Post
I was excited to see today's column title, How did bread get invented?, as it is a question I've been pondering for years, along with other "how did prehistorical humans figure out X" questions. The column left me disappointed, though. Cecil just kept saying it was obvious without explaining how.
That's exactly how i felt. This is one I was curious about. But the answer Cecil gave seems to be "They made bread because they already knew how to make bread, because it's obvious." Well, not to me it isn't.

Yeast is easy: Presumably it got in there by accident, and they ended up with something yummy, so they kept some around to make more.

But why grind wheat into flour? What good is flour if you don't know how to bake yet? Maybe this would be obvious if I knew anything about baking, but much like our pre-agricultural ancestors, I don't have a clue.

Last edited by tim314; 07-17-2017 at 04:50 AM..
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Old 07-17-2017, 07:51 AM
Alan Smithee Alan Smithee is offline
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Yeah, Cecil could have explained that a little better. The reason you would grind grain is that you had some leftover grain that got dried out. Fresh grain is soft and chewable, but dried grain isn't. Think about dry rice or popcorn. Soaking it in water will help somewhat, if it trd not too dry, but unless you use hot water, it will take a long time. Smashing it with a rock seems like an obvious solution once you understand the problem.
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Old 07-17-2017, 09:14 AM
ftg ftg is offline
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But why grind wheat into flour? What good is flour if you don't know how to bake yet? Maybe this would be obvious if I knew anything about baking, but much like our pre-agricultural ancestors, I don't have a clue.
You get unleavened bread. Not as nice tasting or chewable as regular bread, but a good way to convert hard grains into something edible. People ground up a lot of stuff to make it edible. Not just vegetable stuff like grains, tubers and nuts but also dried meat that had been preserved and is now going to be eaten. Cooking with fire goes back to Homo Erectus. The general idea of cooking stuff to improve edibility/taste goes back a very long way.

There are many, many foods whose basic preparation way back then was grind it up, wet it down, cook it.
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Old 07-18-2017, 10:15 AM
Kavaj Kavaj is offline
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Originally Posted by Alan Smithee View Post
Yeah, Cecil could have explained that a little better. The reason you would grind grain is that you had some leftover grain that got dried out. Fresh grain is soft and chewable, but dried grain isn't. Think about dry rice or popcorn. Soaking it in water will help somewhat, if it trd not too dry, but unless you use hot water, it will take a long time. Smashing it with a rock seems like an obvious solution once you understand the problem.
Now that makes sense. I didn't even know fresh grain was soft and chewable, not having been around it much. I thought of it as hard kernels.

A lot of good information in this thread. Thanks!
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  #25  
Old 07-18-2017, 10:47 AM
igor frankensteen igor frankensteen is offline
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Another POSSIBLE reason why someone might "invent" grinding things up, is to feed babies.

Overall, in my studies of History for other reasons, one thing I noticed on the side, was that the process of actively trying to invent new things, when life is going along well, is relatively recent. That may be why some things which seem obvious (chocolate chip cookies) had to be invented "manually."

Even now, there are plenty of stories of "inventions" which were actually chance Discoveries. I can't recall any cool examples this moment, but I remember lots of examples where someone was trying to fix one concern, and kept getting bad results, and then noticed that something they were throwing away, was actually tremendously useful, instead of being obnoxious trash.

I'm sure lots of food advances were that kind of thing. Leave grape juice undrunk for a couple of days, and it goes sour, and is intolerable. Leave it long enough, and it can (if you're lucky) turn into wine, and give you a real good time. I'd bet that SOME things which we always cook now, started out as stuff we ate raw, but someone who was done with some food, threw it into the fire to use it as fuel, then a hungry person dragged it back out, and found out that burning it made it more fun to eat. Or some such.

But it's really all just guess work, since very few people before the modern era, bothered to write down the details of how they discovered something. Lots of very old inventions had to be discovered, forgotten, discovered again and again, until they chanced to be discovered by someone rich enough and with the time available (and the ego required) to write everything out and preserve the writing.
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  #26  
Old Yesterday, 02:40 PM
Lemur866 Lemur866 is offline
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Let's not forget that hunter-gatherers didn't just pick plant foods and start eating them. Lots of the plant foods that hunter-gatherers used had to be elaborately processed to become edible, or to increase the available nutrients. Edible plant parts often contain toxins, they contain hard inedible parts that have to be removed from the edible parts, and even the edible parts are sometimes too tough to just chew.

And so some types of plant foods have to be cooked to render them safe to eat. Cooking also softens the inedible parts to allow them to be removed and discarded. Or the plant parts are pulverized raw and then separated before cooking, or peeled, or cracked, or rinsed.

For things like acorns they'd have to crack open the nuts, pulverize the acorn seeds, then soak them in several changes of water over several days to remove the tannins. Then you've got a wet acorn flour. That could be dried and preserved for later, baked into acorn "bread", or boiled into mush.

So the mistake is thinking that ancient people saw this wild wheat growing there and decided to invent bread. They already had methods of turning plant seeds and nuts and starchy roots into bread and mush. Wheat was just one kind of seed among many. It eventually became more and more common because it was easier to cultivate and more productive than other types of seeds, until you get to the point thousands of years later where the vast majority of the food you ate in certain parts of the world was your "daily bread".

The difference between wheat and most other grains, seeds and nuts is that wheat contains gluten, which means wheat bread has a very different structure than acorn bread, rice bread, barley bread, millet bread, maize bread, cassava bread, and so on. A corn tortilla is what you get when you try to make bread out of maize. It doesn't rise or have the structure of wheat bread. But it's the exact same idea, the only difference is that it can't hold CO2 bubbles and so it makes a flatbread.
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