The Fresh Loaf

A Community of Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts.

6000 Years of Bread

I finished Six Thousand Years of Bread last weekend and since have been trying to figure out how to describe it. It is an exceptional book, unlike any I have encountered before, and reminding me more of works by Emile Durkheim or Claude Levi-Strauss than books by Peter Reinhart or James Beard. It is neither a cookbook nor just a history book; the back cover suggests it be shelved under "Cooking/Literature" but "Cooking/Anthropology" or "Cooking/Religion" would be more appropriate.

According to the foreword, H. E. Jacob was Austrian Jew who fled to New York in 1939 after spending a year in a Nazi work camp. His manuscript for this book, which he had been working on for over ten years (and claimed to have examined over 4000 works in researching), was also smuggled out of Europe. Jacob finished researching it in New York, where it was first published in English in 1944.

Although it went out of print fairly quickly, Six Thousand Years of Bread became a cult classic for bakers. In the 1990's, with the renewed interest in artisan breads, The Lyons Press began reprinting the book, and it appears to have become a part of the canon for serious bread people.

Six Thousand Years of Bread is not an easy read. And it isn't just about bread the way of a lot of recent "histories of the mundane" are just about nutmeg, salt, or the pencil. Topics covered include the role of magic in Egyptian religion versus Christianity and how it affected each culture's understanding of fermentation; how the Elusian cult of Demeter prefigured the Christian Eucharist; how ignorance of basic agronomy was a critical factor in onset the Dark Ages; how corn's short growing cycle was critical to the settlement of the American West by European colonists; how the French Revolution was largely triggered by a wheat shortage; and how the victories in both the American Civil War and World War I can largely be attributed to superior access to and distribution of grain. Fascinating stuff, but something that requires more mental energy to read than your typical baking book.

Although not a religious person, I find the mythological and ritual aspects of bread baking to be fascinating. Having worked in a bakery run by Orthodox monks, I have a hard time viewing the production of bread as a pure material transition. Though fully explained by today's science, the experience of conjuring life out of inert ingredients is better expressed in myth than equation. This book records the various ways humans have tried to enshrine that experience in folklore better than any other book I have come across.

One should be warned that this book is unabashedly Eurocentric. When it was written this was an accepted feature of most scholarship; references to "primitive peoples" or "women's role as nurturers" were not cause for alarm. I don't think the Eurocentrism in any way diminishes how outstanding this book is, but obviously if it were written today some things would be written differently. The reader should accept that this book is a product of its time and not be surprised when they run across things that would not fly today: it was a different era. Allowing such concerns to get in one's way would be to miss out on enjoying a remarkable work of scholarship.

6000 Years of Bread