Bread formed the main part of the average personís diet for centuries.
Halvor Moorshead describes some of the history.
IT IS DIFFICULT to overstate the importance of bread in European and North American history.
As demonstrated by its inclusion in the Lord's Prayer and its use as slang for money, bread was the essential food for most people for most of recorded history. Today, bread is almost always made of wheat but in the past rye, barley, oats, rice and maize (often called Indian corn until recently) were used or mixed. (Corn and rye of course are still used occasionally.) As the standard of living rose, the use of cereals other than wheat declined. As Mrs. Beeton said in her famous cookbook: "Everybody knows it is wheat flour that yields the best bread. Rye bread is viscous, hard, less easily soluble by the gastric juice, and not so rich in nutritive power. Flour produced from barley, Indian corn, or rice, is not so readily made into bread; and the article, when made, is heavy and indigestible."
To the Victorians, white bread was associated with quality though they were aware that whole-grain bread was more nutritious. Again quoting Mrs. Beeton: "The process of bolting (separating the white flour) tends to deprive flour of its gluten, the coarser and darker portion containing much of that substance; while the lighter part is peculiarly rich in starch. Bran contains a large proportion of gluten hence it will be seen why brown bread is so much more nutritious than white; in fact, we may lay it down as a general rule, that the whiter the bread the less nourishment it contains."
Today, almost everyone would agree upon the respective nutritional values of white and whole-grain bread but few would agree with Mrs. Beeton's concerns about fresh bread. "When bread is taken out of the oven, it is full of moisture; the starch is held together in masses, and the bread, instead of being crusted so as to expose each grain of starch to the saliva, actually prevents their digestion by being formed by the teeth into leathery poreless masses, which lie on the stomach like so many bullets. Bread should always be at least a day old before it is eaten. If properly made, and kept in a cool dry place, it ought to be perfectly palatable at the end of three or four days. Hot rolls, swimming in melted butter, and new bread, ought to be carefully shunned by everybody who has the slightest respect for that much-injured organ: the stomach."
This view was not universal: in Housekeeping in Old Virginia, a collection of recipes published in 1879, there are numerous references to eating the bread fresh.
Bread and the Law|
Bread was so vital to people's lives that it was subject of special laws almost everywhere. As early as medieval times, bakers were subject to regulations which were supposed to protect the consumer. The price of wheat in England has been recorded continually since about 1200 and even in times of generally stable prices, it could fluctuate dramatically. What made the price of bread so sensitive is that most people had little opportunity to substitute other foods.
Medieval laws seem to be unduly biased against the baker. In Austria, bakers who offended against the regulations governing the sale of bread were liable to fines, imprisonment and even corporal punishment. In Turkey in the 18th century, when bread went to famine prices, it was common to hang a baker or two. This was common enough that it was the custom of master bakers to keep an assistant who, in return for slightly higher wages, was willing to appear before the courts in case a victim were needed. Another punishment used in Turkey and Egypt on bakers who sold light or adulterated bread resulted in nailing the culprit by his ear to the door-post of his shop. In France a law prevented bakers from increasing the price of bread beyond a point justified by the price of the raw materials; the price was fixed every week or two. In England a law was passed in 1266 for regulating the price of bread and this remained in force for 600 years. The price of bread was determined by adding a sum to the price of every quarter (320lbs.) of flour, to cover the baker's expenses and profit and for this the baker was required to bake and sell 80 4lb. (quartern) loaves or the equivalent.
Adulteration also carried severe punishments. A law from the time of Edward I (1272-1307) states:
"If any default shall be found in the bread of a baker in the city, the first time, let him be drawn upon a hurdle from the Guildhall to his own house through the great street where there be most people assembled, and through the streets which are most dirty, with the faulty loaf hanging from his neck; if a second time he shall be found committing the same offence, let him be drawn from the Guildhall through the great street of Cheepe to the pillory, and let him be put upon the pillory, and remain there at least one hour in the day; and the third time that such default shall be found, be shall be drawn, and the oven shall be pulled down, and the baker made to foreswear the trade in the city for ever."