Facts That Figure: Bread
By: C.G. Hoffman
Bread is often called “The staff of life,” and for good reason. For thousands of years, bread has been a staple food, and in Halacha, a meal is not considered a meal unless it includes bread. How has bread shaped the ages, and how have the ages shaped bread?
• Historians consider the ancient Egyptians the first expert bread bakers, although bread in many baked forms has been around since much earlier times. The Egyptians had perfected the art of brewing beer, and were able to use the byproducts of beer production to ferment their bread in an early form of yeast.
• The most famous Jewish bread is of course, matzah. When Yidden left Mitzrayim in haste, they did not have the time to fully ferment their bread, and this resulted in soft flatbreads. Yemenite Jews still use a soft, pita like flat bread for their Matza on Pesach. These were baked fresh by the women of the community, even on Chol Hamoed.
• In ancient Greece, the most commonly eaten bread was barley bread. Bread made from wheat was considered a special luxury.
• In Medieval Europe, most people subsisted on a diet based on bread and ale, with perhaps a few seasonal vegetables thrown in. Only the aristocracy was able to afford a meat-heavy diet, as more and more land was claimed by the nobility and poaching the lord’s game was a crime punishable by death. Records show that workmen, soldiers and even patients in hospitals were supposed to get about two pounds of bread each day.
• Bread had another use in the Middle Ages: as tableware! Large, stale pieces of bread called trenchers, acted as a plate on which the other food was served. In a pinch they could be eaten, but most often the generous nobleman who was wealthy enough to prefer richer food would donate the trenchers to the poor, or use it to feed his animals.
• The bagel is a Jewish invention originating from Poland. Some held that because the bagels were boiled before baking, one did not have to make the bracha of Hamotzi on them, a matter of Halacha that is still hotly debated today. This was especially convenient for peddlers and travelers, who did not always have access to water for washing the hands. Bagels were brought to the United States by Jewish immigrants, and became synonymous with Jewish cuisine, along with lox and cream cheese. This gave rise to the term “bagels and lox Jew,” meaning a Jew whose sole affiliation with Judaism was with enjoying traditional Jewish foods.