THE ROLL OF LAW
• In 1266, England established the “Assize of Bread,” a set of laws regulating the weight and price of bread. Because bread was such an important staple, bakers were in a position to take advantage of consumers by price gouging. These laws regulated bread prices in relation to the price of grain. If a baker broke those laws (they were in force until the 19th century), he could be punished severely, even banned from baking for life. The penalties were so severe that bakers got into the habit of giving an extra measure of bread (13 instead of 12) so they couldn’t be accused of shortchanging customers, which is the origin of the term “baker’s dozen.”
• During the next few centuries, bread continued to be the staple food of most people’s diets, and since the majority of people were poor, it was a heavy brown bread made from the cheaper grains—barley, oats, or rye. But because people had become so dependent, on bread, governments and rulers survived and flourished only if they could supply enough bread to their people…or control the] rebellions that broke out when they couldn’t. Example: The storming of the Bastille in Paris, which set off the French Revolution in 1789, began with a bread riot.
• In the 1800’s, most bread was still baked with homegrown (or brewery-grown) yeast. It was time-consuming to nurture, and performed unpredictably. In 1825, German bakers introduced packaged cake yeast that made home baking easier, and made the results more consistent (and tastier). Two Austrian brothers, Charles and Max Fleischmann, brought the innovation to America. In 1868, they opened a factory for the commercial production of compressed yeast in Cincinnati. (Fleischmann’s is still the biggest producer of yeast for home baking, but home baking isn’t what it used to be—by the 1960’s, almost oil of America’s bread was made commercially.)
• By the late 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and gas-fueled ovens had replaced wood and coal-burners. With the European invention of more efficient steam-powered flour mills, it became possible to produce enough wheat flour so that for the first time, white bread was affordable to most people. At the same time, the newly developing heartland of America was producing so much wheat that huge amounts of bread could now be turned out efficiently in industrial-scale bakeries. By the early 1900’s, factory-made white bread was available all across Europe and North America. In turn-of-the-20th-century America, bread was an assembly-line business, with conveyor belts moving loaves through the ovens and into the hands of workers who wrapped them in waxed paper. In 1928, American Otto Frederick Rohwed-der perfected a machine that both sliced and
wrapped loaves of bread. Streamlined machinery, consistent products, and constant availability were the pluses—but there were minuses to the new technology, too. The most significant one was that the grain’s nutrients got stripped away during the exhaustive process of milling the flour.
• Even in the late 19th century, it was clear that for people who depended on bread for good nutrition, bread made with nutrient-poor flour wouldn’t give them what they needed, so European
governments began to require manufacturers to enrich the flour. (America followed suit… eventually. In 1941, Congress passed a law requiring the addition of niacin, thiamine, riboflavin, and iron to white flour and bread.) Ironically, at the same time that bread manufacturers were investing in the technology that made white bread affordable, other technological advances made it possible for farmers and distributors to supply other important foods—meat, dairy products, and potatoes—that threatened bread’s status as the number-one staple food.
• The middle of the 20th century saw the flourishing of corporate bakeries—Continental Baking (Wonder Bread), Pepperidge Farm, and Oroweat, for example. As the century progressed and people became intrigued with “health” foods, corporate bakeries responded with whole-wheat and other breads containing “healthful” ingredients like honey and molasses. Homemade bread made a comeback, too, as consumers wanted to make “somethin’ lovin’ from the oven” at home. So the corporations came up with; aged mixes, frozen breads, and “heat-and-serve” products that simulated home baking without too much fuss and bother.
• Americans now eat 51 one-pound loaves of bread per person annually—about one per week. There’s no question that we consider it to be a vital part of our diets. Packaged bread from the supermarket may supply some of your dietary needs because it is enriched, but commercial breads are routinely treated with preservatives, emulsifiers, stabilizers, and dozens more chemicals in order to provide loaves that are cheap, shippable, and have a long shelf life. Small wonder that contemporary bread-lovers seek out neighborhood bakeries that make their own fresh, delicious baguettes, ciabattas, and other varieties of old-fashioned “artisan” bread.
• In 1987 the kids at Eisenhower Junior High in Taylorsville, Utah, baked the world’s largest loaf of bread, weighing 307 pounds. Where do you bake a 307-pound loaf of bread? In a Hercules oven usually used for hardening missile casings.
• Bread was once so prized that it was used as currency, which is why money is sometimes called “bread.”
• A family of four could live for 10 years on the bread produced by one acre of wheat in one growing season.
• Pillsbury Doughboy facts: In 1965 more than 50 actors competed to become the Pillsbury Doughboy voice; the winner was Paul Frees, who also did the voice for Boris Badenov in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. When Frees died in 1986, Jeff Bergman (Charlie the Tuna) became the new Doughboy voice. The Dough boy still gets about 200 fan letters each week.
• Sales of fresh bread in the United States in 2006: Over $6 billion.
• Got a few tons of Bisquick in the pantry? In 1981 the world’s largest peach shortcake was made at the South Carolina Peach Festival. The five-layer shortcake was 251 feet in diameter and used nine tons of peaches… and more than four tons of Bisquick.
• The five best-selling brands of bread are Wonder, Pepperidge Farm, Oroweat, Nature’s Own, and Sunbeam.
• Grains used for baking bread must be rich in gluten—the protein that gives the dough its elasticity, which allows it to rise. Grains with the most gluten: wheat, rye, and barley.
• Subway was the first sandwich chain to bake its bread on-site. (In downtown locations they leave the door open so passersby will smell the bread baking and come in for a sandwich. It works.)
• In 1997 Kansas farmers produced more than 490 million bushels of wheat, enough to make about 36 billion loaves of bread—six loaves for every person on Earth.
• An average slice of packaged bread contains one gram of fat and 75 to 80 calories.
• Store-bought bread will stay fresh longer if you don’t refrigerate it. Keep it at room temperature in a dark, dry place (bread box, kitchen drawer, cupboard) for up to a week. If you’re not going to eat it within a week, freeze the loaf in its original packaging.
• It takes nine seconds for a combine to harvest a bushel of wheat, which is enough to produce about 70 one-pound loaves of bread.
• During the Civil War, one wing of the Senate in Washington was converted into a huge oven that baked 16,000 loaves of bread a day for Union soldiers.
• According to legend, the cross cut into the top of an Irish soda bread is there to ward off the devil.
• In 1937 Margaret Rudkin was determined to nurse her asthmatic son back to health with whole-wheat bread. She put a big oven in an empty stable on the family property in Connecticut—Pepperidge Farm—and began baking, despite never having done it before in her life. Customers paid a 25$ for a one-pound loaf, 15 cents more than the average loaf. By 1940 she was selling 4,000 loaves per week.