The Staff of Life

          by Michelle Mairesse

              When humans invented agriculture, they laid the foundations of civilized life. Today we believe that wheat was first among the cultivated cereals. After archaeologists uncovered wheat seeds in a seventh millennium BC village in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, they concluded that evidence from many sites indicates that about 8,000 years ago some prehistoric genius ground wheat seeds, mixed the meal with water, covered it with hot ashes, and baked it on a hot stone. This innovation spread quickly to the inhabitants of the middle east, China, and Egypt, who all ate these flat cakes of unleavened bread. Then the Egyptians discovered yeast and invented ovens, and there appeared milled grain, fermented and baked into loaves, often government-subsdidized, in Greece, Rome, and Europe, bread, a staple food available to the masses. The emperor Trajan established a number of schools to instruct bakeshop proprietors and ensure a steady supply of this Roman staple. To Europeans, bread has been a basic food, served at every meal, a symbol with religious overtones.

              The French have always taken food, and especially bread, very seriously. Except in time of war and revolution (the French Revolution started as a bread riot), bread has been cheap and plentiful. After World War II, many French and Belgian bakers dumped the low-priced wheat flour provided by the Marshall Plan and continued to form baguettes, flutes, and boules from harder, locally-produced flour. Tradition forebade them to substitute inferior ingredients. A medieval baker of substandard bread could be whipped or put in the stocks with a loaf of the incriminating bread suspended from his neck.

              Large-scale professional baking was the province of muscular males able to heft huge pans of loaves into a raised oven. Nearly all professional chefs began their apprenticeship as baker's assistants. In fact, restaurateurs preferred chefs who had developed the splay-footed gait that comes from years of lugging heavy breadpans.

              A loaf of bread begins in the field, where the seeds are sown in anticipation of a great transformation and increase. When the tall stalks are harvested at last, the starchy ears are separated out and ground into flour, and the flour is transported to the baker.

              A French baker's day starts a few hours after midnight. After he has fed his wood-stove, he mixes flour with salt, water and yeast. Yeast is the alchemical substance necessary for more transformation and increase. The baker kneads the dough, sets it in a warm place to rise for 1 1/2 to 2 hours to double its volume. He repeats the process. This time, the dough will double its volume in 45-50 minutes. The baker works the dough lightly and again repeats the process. Finally, he kneads the dough again, shapes it into loaves, sets the loaves on pans, and allows them to rise for about an hour. Now the loaves are ready for the heated oven, which has reached exactly the right temperature to effect the final transformation into real bread, pain ordinaire, in another 45-50 minutes. Other loaves are made with other ingredients and other grains, but no variant has been as popular as this everyday loaf, one of the stabilities, yet a daily miracle.

              Recently, things have changed. Modern-day Frenchmen eat less bread and often price- shop for it. Slowly but surely, mass-produced supermarket bread is replacing the superb hand-made loaves turned out by small, neighborhood bakeries. In a laughable attempt to defend a symbol of French culture, the present French government has intervened with the usual remedy--fines for misuse of language. Just as shopkeepers are forbidden to use foreign words to advertise their wares, French supermarkets are forbidden to post a Bakery sign, nor can they charge less than twenty-five cents (approximately) per loaf. The supermarkets, of course, will simply post new signs reading Baker, and conduct business as usual, and many small bakers will close shop.

              Bread has had a different history in North America. When European settlers brought their festucoid grasses (wheats and moist-climate plants) to the United States, these imports displaced acres of native grasses, which had no resistance to grazing animals (grasses regenerate from the tip) but prevented soil erosion wherever they grew. European plows and European grasses inflicted such heavy damage on the great plains that most of the topsoil blew away during the 1930s drought.

              The earliest settlers were not fond of the Native American bread, stone-baked flat, unleavened cakes of maize meal. (The Spanish called these flat, round cakes tortillas because they resembled the flat, round omelets called tortillas in Spanish.)

              To produce leavened bread from maize, settlers in North America added eggs and baking powder, which was easy to carry to frontier settlements. Flat breads fashioned from wheat were never popular in the United States, but biscuits (the word comes from the French and British name for small, sweet cakes),unsweetened flour mixed with lard and milk and raised with baking powder, became the staple bread of the southern United States. In the western United States, the rarity of fresh yeast led gold prospecters to cultivate strains of soured yeast which they carried to their diggings.

              The miners themselves were called "sourdoughs." So fond of their bread were the "sourdoughs" that San Francisco bakeries made a specialty of sourdough bread, and continue to do so, using cherished strains of yeast bred from venerable ferments.

              Early in the nineteenth century, temperance movement activist Sylvester Graham conducted the first nutritional crusade in America. He advocated a diet of vegetables and whole grain bread to promote better health and a diminished sex drive. Perhaps the latter goal of his program accounted for its cool reception, because a century elapsed before the health-spa magnate W. K. Kellogg coaxed consumers to reconsider this regimen. Recently, to satisfy the renewed demand for fresh, whole grain breads and to consolidate the move away from mass-producted foodstuffs, American manufacturers have marketed bread machines for home bakers.

              North Americans overwhelmingly prefer wheat bread to any other kind. Barley, though a large crop, primarily serves for beer and livestock feed. However, barley was the chief bread grain of the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans. Unfortunately, like rye, it is easily infected with claviceps purpurea, a fungus that yields the highly toxic ergot. Historians speculate that ergot poisoning, inducing gangrene and delirium, led to peasant uprisings in Europe and contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire.

              The Swiss pharmaceutical researcher, Albert Hoffman, synthesized ergot derivatives in 1938. Almost a decade later, news of this powerful hallucinogen reached the scientific community and the general public. Soon, on both sides of the Atlantic, psychologists, artists, and writers were experimenting with this mind-altering substance.

        Some of them, like Aldous Huxley, believed the LSD experience transformed their understanding. Others were frightened by the psychic demons the drug released. Yet others inisted that the drug was a gateway to deconditioning and enlightenment if administered in a supportive environment. The question is moot now because of governnmental restrictions.

              It is possible that the Greeks found a way to separate the poisonous alkaloids from the fungus. Some scholars believe initiates of the Eleusinian Mysteries drank a form of barley beer laced with ergot derivatives to prepare them for the transformational ceremonies. The temple of Eleusis was dedicated to Demeter, a formidable earth deity with roots in India and China. Isocrates said of the goddess that she "gave us the greatest of all gifts, first, those fruits of the earth which saved us from living the life of beasts, and secondly, that rite which makes happier the hopes of those that participate therein concerning both the end of life and their whole existence."

              During the ceremonies, Demeter's offspring, the divine child, was exhibited in a winnowing basket. His flesh was eaten by the communicants in the form of bread. His blood was consumed in the form of wine, which some scholars believe was laced with intoxicants. The divine child entered the earth and was resurrected. The communicants experienced epiphanies when the ultimate mystery at Euleusis was revealed, "an ear of grain reaped in silence."

              Perhaps some part of that revelation was transmitted by a later religious figure who said, "Man does not live by bread alone."