Today, we will be talking about how this tiny seed sack from the Middle East went from something that cave people chewed on for nutrients; to being something so ubiquitous in the Western Diet that going “Gluten-Free” or “Paleo” is a status symbol.
9,000 BCE ≈ The world starts cultivating different kinds of grains. Different kinds of Wheat and Barley become popular in Mesopotamia and Egypt while Rice became popular in ancient China. However, grain by itself isn’t really all that appealing. Up until the point where Grain was cultivated, it was mostly just chewed on for nutrients. The real reason people first started cultivating grain was for Beer.
Beer is created when yeast (A microorganism that is found naturally floating in the air) is introduced to a liquid made from grain with glucose in it. The same thing happens with fruit and we call that “wine”. This is why some fruits will ferment in the wild. It is theorized that even though Beer and Bread are made from the same three main components (Grain, water and yeast) that Beer was discovered before bread was invented. Bread requires refining grain into powder before using it; as well as the ability to use a some kind of a stove. Some believe that improper storage of grains that already had yeast on them from the fields led to humans first tasting a “proto-beer”. They enjoyed the buzz they got from the new drink and did what they could to recreate it. The first evidence of humans intentionally brewing beer is around 9,000 BCE in China.
[The Hungry Historian]
Beer was used by the Ancient Mesopotamians and the Egyptians to pay workers, and the Babylonians were so into beer that Hammurabi’s Code was the first set of laws to cover the creation, payment and distribution of the stuff. You can see some of the laws, and the punishments for breaking those laws here:
- Law 108 : “if a tavern-keeper (female) does not accept corn according to gross weight in payment of drink, but takes money, and the price of the drink is less than that of the corn, she shall be convicted and thrown into the water.”
- Law 109 “if conspirators meet in the house of a tavern-keeper, and these conspirators are not captured and delivered to the court the tavern-keeper shall be put to death.”
- Law 110 “if a sister of a god open a tavern, or enter a tavern to drink, then shall this woman be burned to death.”
- Law 111: “if an inn-keeper furnish sixty ka [a unit of measure similar to a bushel] of drink to the city, she shall receive fifty ka of corn at the harvest.”
[The Hungry Historian]
Beer is more than just a drink to get you wasted. It will literally save your life. Due to the different and foreign microorganisms that reside in water all around the world, water from foreign lands will likely make you sick. Anyone that has ever had “Montezuma’s Revenge” knows that drinking bottled water is key when overseas. However, bottled water, or even proper filtration, was not available in the 1600 and 1700’s. Due to the Alcohol in Beer, Beer became the staple drink of many European colonialists in places like India, the Americas and Africa. Alcohol not only provided a buzz, but also killed the micro-organisms in the local, and only available source of, water. The highest populations of foreign peoples were at “Ports”. The type of beer that became popular in these ports would become known as “Porter”. The other Big beer, especially at British Ports, was India Pale Ale. IPA’s, as the are called, are preserved with a heavy use of hops. This is where they get their unique bitter flavor. The extra hops allowed the beer to be drinkable throughout the 6 month long boat ride from England to India.
Grain was only harvested for two reasons in ancient mesopotamia, Beer, which we’ve already covered, and Bread. Bread started off unleavened like today’s Pita breads are. However, once wild yeasts accidentally found their way into the dough, the bakers started creating, refining and reusing their own yeast strains. This Reuse of a “starter culture” is still practiced today in “Sourdough” breads.
However, Ancient bread isn’t why bread is so important. Sure, it kept longer than most of the foods early peoples had access to without proper refrigeration or preservation techniques like salting. But, No one has ever said “It’s the best thing, since Ancient Sourdough loaves.”People say “It’s the greatest thing since SLICED Bread.”
Otto Rohwedder was born the son of two German-American immigrants in 1880. He started his life in Iowa. Throughout his life he moved to several different locations in the American Midwest trying out different occupations such optometry and jewelery. Around the turn of the 20th century, Bread was still being made and sold the way it had been for centuries, in a whole loaf. This preserved the freshness, but only on the inside. The outer crust was a shell that protected the inside of the bread from the air that would make the bread go stale. However, even though the inside of the bread was fine, the outer crust continuously hardened as it was the only part of the bread that had access to the air. This meant that the task of slicing bread became extremely tiresome and dangerous due to the effort spent and sharp knives required to make the cut. This also meant that the slices that got cut were not uniformly cut.
Otto created his invention in 1926. He refined it in 1927 and Sliced Bread came out on the market in 1928, saving housewives everywhere countless hours and fingers.
This is the first blog post in a mini series from The Hungry Historian. The Hungry Historian is a YouTube Channel dedicated to providing context and perspective to everything you’ve ever learned. Every week we release 3 videos all focused around a single topic, item or concept. However, each video will explain that topic, item or concept from a Historical, Culinary, or Scientific lens. Our first 3 videos go live the week of January 30th. They will be on The History!, The Cooking! and The Science! Of the Super Bowl.
Twitter: Hungry Historian