Yeasted Bread and Good Health

Warner's Safe Yesat Advertisement

A yeast advertisement that focuses on very old ideas associating poor digestion and ill health with dense bread.

A wonderful massively interesting trade card for Warner’s Safe Yeast circa 1885-1890. To this day, companies sell products by creating fear and then offering a solution. This ad falls squarely in the fear mongering tradition. It would not have seemed so absurd to people in its own time.

For hundreds of  years dense bread was thought to be indigestible. Its indigestibility had been  mentioned in health manuals going back to the 1500s. The poor  were often afflicted with gastrointestinal illnesses and for various reasons, their breads were also often dense. In the 1880s the germ theory of disease was still reasonably recent and so the bad water and unsanitary conditions that were in fact responsible for the gastrointestinal ill health of the poor was not yet fully appreciated by popular culture. Thus, in folk culture, dense bread made you sick. That is the back story. Commercial yeast reliably yields a lighter bread, one with a more open crumb, than breads leavened with homemade yeasts or sourdough cultures. Given an unscientific understanding of stomach cramps well made yeasted bread could be imagined to prevent them.

But there was a rub. Commercial yeast cost money; many American cookbooks included recipes for home yeast cultures, and had since the early decades of the century. Homemade yeast was a well established part of American home baking, which was itself at this point in our culinary history an established part of the home economy. Waste not want not. Why buy yeast if you could make your own? A simple answer to that would be that yeast is quasi-medicinal in its effects. Who would turn their backs on the health of their family? Affluent households had long been buying commercial yeast by the 1880s. This ad is not addressed to them.

Lest you think I exaggerate the nineteenth-century fear of heavy bread. Here is Catherine Beecher on heavy bread published in her 1848 cookbook, Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book.

Perhaps it may be thought that all this is a great drudgery, but it is worse drudgery to have sickly children, and a peevish husband, made so by having all the nerves of their stomachs rasped with sour, or heavy bread.

Similar sentiments were expressed into the early twentieth century, if with less animus toward the put upon baker.

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Flatbread with Olive Oil

Flatbread baking in a wood fired oven.

Flatbread baking in a wood fired oven.

I was at an event the other night at the California Academy of Sciences. Cocktail party talk. In that context I was asked what I am so often asked, “What is your favorite bread.” It sounds flip, but it is true. My favorite bread is the most recent one I’ve made.

In the case of the bread you see baking here it was, in fact, delicious, not just theoretically so because it was the most recent bread. It is a yeasted white dough on the salty side brushed with olive oil. My standard recipe for pizza and flat breads is 100% flour, 60% water, 1% to 1.5% salt, and if I am in a hurry, as I was the night I made this bread, 1.4% standard dried yeast. Always, when in a hurry, I use warm water so that the dough moves along. This doesn’t make the most complex dough, but it does make a dough that is light and sweet and lets the taste of something as simple as a brushing with olive oil rise to the top.

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Early Modern Kitchen Garden References

This post provides references to three works mentioned in my talk to the Farm to Table  New Orleans International Symposium, August 204, 2013. If you attended my talk I do encourage you to write to me with questions and comments.

The French Gardiner by Nicolas de Bonnefons, translated by John Evelyn, 1654.  This is the edition of the French Gardiner at  Google Books. If you are not familiar with 17th century printing, there is a “long s.” This letter looks a lot like an “f”. You quickly get used to it. I have prepared annotated edition of the work. If you’d like a PDF of the manuscript please write to me: william@williamrubel.com.

Aceteria, John Evelyn’s work on salad is available from Project Gutenberg. This is the HTML version, but you will find other versions at the Gutenberg website.

Every Man His Own Gardener by John Ambercrombie was first published in the 1770s. It remained in print in many editions long after he died — far into the 19th century. This is the 1809 edition, but you can go to Google Books and find editions that are both earlier and later. This is much less romantic a writer than Bonnefons or Evelyn. But I think it is a good book and shows you the work-a-day kitchen garden at the turn of the 19th century.

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Making Cake from Bread Dough circa 1880

I’ve been reading the bread section from The Thrift Book: A Cyclopaedia of Cottage Management, a British book published in the 1880s. It is interesting for being written during a transitional period in home baking when bakers were shifting to tinned breads. The recipe for a cake couldn’t be more different from modern bread and cake recipes with their hyper precision. As the author makes clear, the only important ingredient is sugar.

PLAIN SWEET CAKE.

It is convenient, when making bread, to appropriate a portion of the dough for a sweet cake. After fully kneading the dough, set aside enough for the desired cake, and as soon as the bread is baking, add to the reserved dough a liberal quantity of good moist sugar currants, raisins free from stones, caraway seeds, spices, all or any to taste, the sugar being the only essential. Thoroughly knead the whole into the dough until a complete mixture is effected, and leave the whole to rise afresh, which it will soon do very freely. If there is a tin at liberty it is best to let the cake rise in the tin, and then to bake in a moderate oven for an hour or 1 1/2 hour according to size.

 

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Planting Wild Dandelions

A bucket of wild dancelions.

Wild dandelions in a bucket.

I have been growing dandelions in my garden for many years. Where I live in Northern California they are green all year. When they are watered and cared for the plants produce big luscious leaves. I rarely include them in salads. My most common use is as a cooked green. Yes, the wild dandelion can be a little bitter. However, when you take care of them in the garden, and particularly if you grown them in the shade the leaves will be broader and more tender than their full-sun wild cousins. You can also further blanch the leaves by covering the plant with a box for a week or two before harvesting. I don’t blanch as I like the full flavor of the wild plant.

I dug up the wild plants you see in the bucket here from a waste patch in the allotment garden where I grow vegetables. Each plant is actually a cluster of plants growing off the mother plant — the oldest plant with the big tap root.

This cluster of dandelions are attached near where you see the small roots. The next step is to separate out the dandelions and then trim off the leaves before transplanting. Dandelions have deep tap roots so their roots don’t compete with neighboring plants. However, they are low growing and so are best either planted in rows by themselves or interplanted with plants that grow tall.  In my vegetable garden I have them planted around artichokes as the artichokes provide shade. Both the artichokes and the dandelions are perennials. When interplanting I’d plant them either with perennials or at least an annual that is long lived, like tomatoes, so they can be in the ground from spring through the fall.

Separated wild dandelion crowns with leaves

Separated wild dandelion crowns with their leaves.

Trimmed wild dandelion crowns ready for transplant

Trimmed wild dandelion crowns ready for transplant

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Spit Roast Bread — The Kneaded Loaf of 1823

Today, as part of my work on the glossary section of the history of bread I’m writing for UC Press, I have been researching the British Northern dialect term knodden cake, and its Standard English parallel, kneaded cake. I’m still working on the words and can today only say that I think they were enriched breads made by kneading fat, usually butter or lard, into dough removed from the day’s batch. In the course of this research I came across this fabulous text that I’d like to share with you. It combines my move of the hearth fire with my love of bread. This is an excerpt from a story The Fairy Miller of Croga publshed in The London Magazine in 1823. It is in part written in a Scottish dialect. It is a rare reference to a spit roasted cake and the only one I am aware of being described in a poor person’s household. But what also makes this passage incredibly rich in historic detail is the fairy’s attraction to the “new-meal” bread, a rare literary reference to the period preference for fresh flour.

So as the sun was setting I baked a cake, and put it over the embers.

Except for roasting very large animals, like goats, pigs, and oxen, spit roasting takes place just in front of embers, not over them. I would thus not take the over ember description as literally true — at least if Barbara Macurdo is burning wood.
But what also makes this passage incredibly rich in historic detail is the fairy’s attraction to the “new-meal” bread, a rare literary reference to the period preference for fresh flour. Fresh flour, particularly if it still has some bran in it, is much sweeter tasting than flour that has been stored and has oxidized.

And kindly loved I our goodman; never thought of another,though I was in my prime when lost him;—and I made it a point to have a kind look, and something comfortable and warm for him when he came home at even. So as the sun was setting I baked a cake, and put it over the embers,—for weel he loved a kneaded cake, and aue brander’d brown ;—I never knead a cake now but I think of him. So the cake was on the embers, and’ a sweet smell it made;—for the meal was white and warm from, the millee, and I sat beside it to watch and turn it. As I sat I thought I heard a foot on the floor, and looking o’er my shoulder who saw I but a wee wee womanie! A wee wee womanie, and snodly was she clad, ami fair was her face; ami without halt or cure hoc close came, she to my side. I think I see her yet. and hear her words, ‘Barbara Macmurdo,’ said the wee wee womanie, using my maiden name, ‘I live nigh thy house, —I live on the same bread, and drink of the same water. But water waxes scant, and bread is far from sure; and those who gather earth’s sweetest fruits for me are now in Guiana and Araby, seeking spice, and cloves, and myrrh, and will not be with me; sooner than morning. The smell of thy new-meal cake is sweet, and we felt it underground, and my little babes love it. Therefore give me some, and when the next meller is ground in Croga mill I will repay thee. Give and prosper– refuse and pine.’

You can find the entire store here: http://books.google.com/books?id=aewRAAAAYAAJ

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Writing a History of Bread for UC Press!

I would like to announce that I am now under contract with UC Press for a comprehensive history of bread. This work work, due in October 2016, expands on the history I wrote for Reaktion Books, Bread: A Global History (Reaktion Books – Edible) The book is in three parts, the first section offers a history of bread from the period before agriculture up to the present. I talk about bread in the context of the major bread-based civilizations in as many was as I can — a general who, what, when, where, and why of bread through the ages. If you read my current book on bread you will see that I am interested in bread as both a material object, something very real that we can bite into and taste, and bread as invention of culture that we can us to ask questions about how people saw themselves at various points in history. I am very interested in the breads of today and how we got to where we are. The book will be very strong on the history of bread in the last couple hundred years, particularly in France, as French ideas about bread are so important today in the international self-described artisan bread movement. In addition to this more general and traditional historical narrative, the book includes a recipe section and an extensive glossary of historic bread terms. The recipe and the glossary sections will also, in their own way, tell the history of bread.

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Sustainable Seed Company

This is a Northern California seed company with a vision for a sustainable future which in the context of its Northern California location includes minimal irrigation. The Sustainable seed company sells seeds to both small farmers and the home gardener. All seeds are listed as being “hierloom”. It is a mostly a basic collection of vegetable seeds though it does have spots of depth. The been collections are interesting and it has a notable collection of tobacco seeds. They also offer a selection of 15 grains, each with approximately two cultivar choices. While not especially deep the grain selection may inspire you to add grains to your garden or small farm and certainly offers enough choice to get you started. They display a shade of paranoia with their “Safety Seed Collections.” Unless one were already gardening on a substantial scale a collection of seeds will do you little good in a real economic emergency, one that sweeps you, your neighbors, and all local seed purveyors into an economic black hole. But the collections do offer a big savings on seeds so if the selections work for you, then you might look at these collections as the basis for a ambitious vegetable gardening project.

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Radio Interview

Here is my interview with Linda Pelaccio for her radio show “A Taste of the Past.” We talk about my Book, Bread, a global history, and more generally about bread in the past and bread today. Linda’s show is weekly and is broadcast by the online Heritage Radio Network.

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Bread Talk in New York March 19!

I am giving a talk on the history of bread at the Roger Smith Hotel, in New York, on Monday, March 19. It is a joint program with the Culinary Historians of New York and the Edible Conversations Series. The talk includes dinner, a book, and costs $50. Registration closes the day of the even. I hope to see you there!

“Bread: A Global History” with William Rubel

Bread was the most important food for thousands of years—and arguably the food that built the civilization that we enjoy today. Bread has been a food for humans, a food for gods, and a manufactured object carrying multiple layers of cultural meaning. While it is no longer a staple in Europe and North America, bread continues to be very important to us, as the care with which we select the loaf for dinner attests. William Rubel will talk about issues of crust and crumb, of white versus whole-wheat flour, of yeast versus levain, offering historical context for current debates. What is good bread? What bread is best for us? A history of bread is largely a history of attitudes regarding what constitutes the best loaf.

William Rubel is the author of “Bread: A Global History.” It offers a wide ranging revision of what—up to now—have been the accepted facts about the history of bread, as well as a fresh view of bread culture today. In this talk, William Rubel will discuss what he has uncovered about the history of bread from 10,000 years before the invention of agriculture through to the twenty-first century bread revolution currently underway. Using a combination of different research methods, including traditional archival searches, online databases, agricultural records, paintings, contemporary descriptions and other sources, as well as extensive milling and baking experiments in his own kitchen, Rubel has delved deep into the history and culture of this staple food. He will share some insights into his methods as well as some of the historical recipes he has discovered. Moderated by Andrew F. Smith.

Location: Roger Smith Hotel
501 Lexington at 47th Street
New York, NY 10017

Time: 6:30-9:00 pm
Fee: $50, which includes a copy of Bread: A Global History, a four course tasting dinner inspired by the book, and a beverage

Advance registration required. Please note different time and cost. To register: http://bread.eventbrite.com/

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