All the World’s a Stage: Timeline Biases

I’ve been thinking about timelines. Timelines organize a lot of historical writing. They frame discussion. They can also be problematic. Here is Shakespeare’s timeline from As you Like It. 

At first, the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.

Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,

Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,

Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,

In fair round belly with good capon lined,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;

His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything

Shakespeare’s seven ages of man is an easy timeline to critique because of its so obvious bias. It starts with a universal, the mewling and puking infant and ends with a universal, a shank shrinking old age, but in between it marks the life passages of a man. Literally, a human male, not a universal human. Growing a beard and being a soldier is one of the life markers.  For women who birth mewling puking infants the heart of the timeline fails them completely. Worse, if we rely on Shakespeare’s structure for thinking about the arc of lives, we will find that we have failed at offering insights into he structure of half the population. This is a timeline that is super easy to critique. But it is a good illustration of how timelines tell stories, but if it isn’t conceived to tell your story, then you are pretty much out of luck.
The history that I write is often concerned with the lives of ordinary people and the breads they eat. Dynastic timelines, like those used to mark the history of Ancient Egypt, are useful in tracking the history of the ancient Egyptian dynasties but offers no meaningful markers to the lives of the average ancient Egyptian, and rarely offers a signpost of any value to understanding the breads of daily life. The grains began to change at the beginning of the Ptolemaic era which would, for the first time, be a dynastic change affected village bread.
The Samburu tribe I stay with in Northern Kenya build structures of sticks and dung that are consistent with structures built in the very distant past.  Ideas like Neolithic, Bronze Age, Modern, Post Modern just don’t apply.
When it comes to bread, it doesn’t really matter the fine gradations of stone tool formation, or which metal had been mastered. The underlying technology of importance to bread is the milling and sifting implements, and baking technologies. These are al technologies that change very slowly. That India has nuclear weapons doesn’t help us chart the village breads milled on hand querns and baked, unleavened, on dung fires from antiquity to the present.
These aren’t original thoughts. As I struggle to tell a story about bread that is true I find myself thinking about timelines in general, and what a bread-centric timeline might look like. If you have some ideas, please share them.

The Miller’s Thumb

Drawing of a wheat seed.
This is a drawing I made to illustrate grain in terms of structures millers pay attention to.

Stone milling is the art of grinding grain into a meal, and then through sifting and re-grinding (and re-sifting), refining the product into the quality flour one wants for the finished product. While sifting determines the final quality of flour, the ratios of what is produced (and thus profit) depends heavily on the precision with which the miller creates the feedstock to be sifted. Millers were constantly feeling the flour that came out of the mill. Millers did this so much they deformed their thumbs — thus there is a fish that is called the Millers Thumb, the European Bullhead (Cottus gobo). Judging by an image of the fish, the miller’s thumb was widened at the fleshy pad — presumably with a thick callous.

The British artist, John Constable’s father was a miller. Following is, apparently, Constable himself, explaining how millers use their thumb. This is from Cassell’s Popular Natural History, Volume II, 1854, p. 103.

The father of the late John Constable, Esq., it.A., was a miller, and our eminent English painter described to Mr. Yarrell this singular form of the human thumb.

“It is well known,” he says, “that all the science and tact of a miller is directed so to regulate the machinery of his mill, that the meal produced shall be of the most valuable description that the operation of grinding will permit, when performed under the most advantageous circumstances. His profit or his loss, even his fortune or his ruin, depend upon the exact adjustment of all the various parts of the machinery in operation. The miller’s ear is constantly directed to the note made by the runningstone in its circular course over the bed-stone, the exact parallelism of their two surfaces, indicated by a particular sound, being a matter of the first consequenoe; and his hand is as constantly placed under the meal-spout, to ascertain by actual contact tho character and qualities of the meal produced.

The thumb, by a particular movement, spreads the sample over the fingers; the thumb is the gauge of the value of the produce, and hence has arisen the sayings of ‘Worth a miller’s tlmnib,’ and ‘An honest miller hath a golden thumb,’ in reference to the amount of the profit that is the reward of his skill. By this incessant action of the miller’s thumb, a peculiarity in its form is produced, which is said to resemble exactly the shape of the head of the fish constantly found in the mill-stream, and is obtained for it the name of the Miller’s Thumb, which occurs in the comedy of ‘Wit at Several Weapons,’ by Beaumont and Fletcher, and also in Merrett’s ‘Pinax.’

A Website with 7,000+ Watercolors of Fruit!


It is blackberry season and I just came across this amazing USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) website containing images in high resolution scans of of 7,300 fruits (mostly apples). Enjoy!

Here is an article, The collection of pomological watercolors at the United States Department of Agriculture, published in 1982 in the Journal of Botanical history by Carnegie-Mellon University. And, also, a recent article in Slate.

Making Pine Bark Bread

In most of Europe, bread made from bark was a famine food. It was more regularly eaten Europe’s far North. The “bark” in bark bread is actually the cambium layer that grows under the bark. Pine was a common tree to use for bark breads. The cambium layer is pealed from the tree, dried, and ground into a flour. If used alone then it makes a cake — an unleavened bread — and if mixed with flour — rye would be a good choice in keeping with the breads of the Northern Europe — it bakes into a loaf bread.

I have never done this. The author of this video suggests tasting the cambium before stripping the tree to be sure it has a good taste. Taste is apparently  variable.

If you have made bark bread, please leave your report in the comment section, below.

Short Paste for a Covered Tart: Simpson’s Cookery, 1816

FB_recipe_Simpson's Cookery_1816

Tart Paste

Commonly called Short Paste.

To one pound of flour, rub in a quarter of a pound of butter; make a whole in the middle; put in a little water, and two yolks and one white of an egg; put the other white of an egg on a plate, to beat up, and put over the tart, when finished; work it up to a proper stiffness, and roll out for use.

N. B. There should be about to table spoonful[s] of sugar in the paste, when for tarts, or any other think sweet. This is the proper kind of paste for meat puddings, only leave out the sugar.

From, A Complete System of Cookery, on a plan entirely new. By John Simpson. 1816 edition published in London. Page 508.

Implicit in this recipe is that the tart has a top crust. Top crusts were standard in British tarts until the last decades of the nineteenth-century. In British cooking, the topless tart was associated with France. In the American cooking tradition, one of the ways in which we seemed to have set out in the early nineteenth-century to differentiate our American culture from British was our early adoption of the topless tart as the standard for tarts and the renaming of the British covered tart tradition as “pie.”

Americans in first decades of the nineteenth-century were, of course, close to France. France had helped the British Colonists overthrow British rule while it had remained an enemy of Britain until the final defeat of Napoleon in 1814.  It is thus not entirely unexpected that American’s might have adopted a Francophillic tart style a bit earlier than the British.

When I tested this recipe the first time my daughter, age ten, didn’t want me to put on the top crust because, as she said, “Tarts don’t have a crust.”

This dough, with sugar, is intended for a covered dessert tart and without sugar for a covered meat tart. While the recipe doesn’t call for it, I suggest that you add salt when making this as a savory crust.

There is relatively little fat and relatively more water than in a modern “short paste.” The crust is therefore not light and fluffy. This is a crust from a different tradition and as such ads variety to your pie crust repertoire.

Dessert Tart: Add the sugar to the dough and fill with any fruit filling.

Savory Tart: Replace the sugar with salt. Fill with a vegetable, meat, or fish filling.

You need a pastry brush to brush the egg white onto the top crust. Besides the shiny top-crust, this is a classic American fruit pie.

450g flour

110g butter

60g  sugar if being used for a dessert tart

[5g salt if being used for a savory tart]

90g to 110g water

1 egg plus 1 yolk

1 egg white set  aside in a small plate


Bake in a moderate pre-heated oven, 350F or 180C.




Starting out with Wild Greens

Dandelion and wild lettuces are common in the Northern Hemisphere. During the growing seasons it is pretty impossible, even in a big city, to not pass dandelion and wild lettuce. But, I know for myself, that even though I love foraging that there is often some kind of impediment, like a force field, that seems to keep me from just reaching down and picking off a damn leaf! On most walks out of my house I stop to look at at a wild lettuce or particularly striking dandelion specimen, even take a picture, but the bending over, picking and taking home to eat — that part — extremely rare. I don’t think I am alone in being more of aspirational gatherer than an actual gatherer.

I’m trying to change the habit — break through the force field — and introduce wild greens into my daily diet so that I am no longer dreaming about it but actually doing it. Towards that end, I have made an entry-level program for myself. One leaf! One leaf of Lactuca serriola (or something) added to a salad of domestic greens every day. Such a no big deal that even for me it has been working. For the last couple weeks I’ve been adding one leaf, five leaves, tiny amounts of different edible urban weeds to salads and boiled greens. The smaller the ambition the easier it is to get started.

I like wild dandelion. Yesterday, I picked dandelion and a few leaves of the spiny lettuce, Lactuca serriola to blanch and eat with French lentils for lunch. As I eat wild dandelions reasonably often — the breakthrough yesterday was adding that little bit of lettuce that you see in the two left-hand images.

Important American Rye Bread Blog

I would like to call your attention to Stanley Ginsberg’s rye bread blog, The Rye Baker. The recipes in the site are varied. The geographic region unusually large — from the Alps to the Baltics — and the recipe notation is impeccable.

Stanley has a book, forthcoming as of this writing — The Rye Baker: Classic Breads from Europe and America.

Stanley’s interest in rye began with what in America we call “Jewish rye.” It is a wheat/rye mix, usually yeasted, with caraway seeds. It is far more wheat than rye — a bread that would be unrecognizable in the countryside of Northern Europe where the people who created this bread in America came from. Judging by the recipes posted on Stanley’s blog, his book will be hugely informative.