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.’

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.

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.

Zadock Steele, starving, eats too much bread.

Zadock Steele  was captured by Mohawk Indians allied with the British in a raid in Vermont in 1780. It was called the Royalton raid. Zadock was transferred to British custody and eventually escapes. Starving, he and a companion are taken in by a “poor widow”.  In this short scene he  describes over eating what she calls  “wheat bread”and that we can understand as a good-quality white bread.  One of the forms of control the British exercised over their captives was under feeding  so he and his companion approach this bread with avarice. Despite the text’s stiff language one can feel the loss of control, the impulse to gorge. Continue reading “Zadock Steele, starving, eats too much bread.”

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.

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.