August 15th is Ferragosto, a big-time holiday in Italy that harks back to the Emperor Augustus and represents a well-earned rest after the harvest. It is also the Feast Day of the Assumption, the day on which, Catholics believe, the Virgin Mary was taken, body and soul, into heaven.
Is there a connection between them? And what does it have do with wheat?
Apologies to listeners in the southern hemisphere; this may not reflect your experience.
I love the thesis given here and it most certainly fits.
It hasn’t gotten past me how much brilliance and thought went into the wonderful dense rich crumb that is the title of this episode. The audio is excellent as always, but I also notice there’s some fantastically overlaid background music that some may miss because it’s so subtly done. This is my favorite episode of the series so far.
The more I think about these episodes, which I like to listen to when I can devote my full attention rather than as background noise while I’m commuting or doing something else, I think they could be easily strung together to make a fantastic documentary.
It has been a long time since anyone who wanted to eat bread had to first grind their wheat. Grinding, however, was absolutely fundamental to agricultural societies, and still is for some. Archaeologists can see how the work left its mark on the skeletons of the women who ground the corn in the valley of the Euphrates. Then, about 2500 years ago, in the area now called Catalonia, an unknown genius invented the first labour-saving device.
It’s a good thing the Egyptians believed strongly in an afterlife and wanted to make sure their dead had an ample supply of bread. The bread and the tomb inscriptions tell us something about how grain was grown and bread baked. To really understand the process, however, you need to be a practical-minded archaeologist like Delwen Samuel, who first set out to replicate Egyptian bread.
Photo of a model from the tomb of Meketre, Metropolitan Musdeum of Art, Rogers Fund and Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1920.
That kernel of wheat isn’t actually a seed or a berry, at least not to a botanist. I have no intention of getting into the whole pointless is it a fruit or a vegetable debate, so lets just agree that no matter what you call it, the wheat thing is made up of three major parts: bran, endosperm and germ. In this episode, a little about each of those parts and what they do for wheat.
Wheat has a hugely diverse genetic background, being made up of three different species, and genetic diversity is what allows breeders to find the traits they need to produce wheats that can cope with changing conditions. But because the accidents that created wheat might have happened just the once, plenty of diversity that is missing from modern wheats is still in wheat’s ancestors. Trouble is, crossing a wild wheat with a modern wheat is almost impossible. Solution: remake modern wheat.
Photo shows a commercial variety, wilted and collapsing, while behind it a synthetic derivative copes just fine with the drought. By Maarten van Ginkel, who headed the Bread Wheat Program at CIMMYT. Thanks Maarten.
Norman Borlaug created the wheats that created the Green Revolution. They had short stems that could carry heavy ears of wheat, engorged by loads of fertiliser. They were resistant to devastating rust diseases. And they were insensitive to daylength, meaning they could be grown almost anywhere.
All three traits had been bred into wheat 40 years before Borlaug got going, by the Italian pioneer Nazareno Strampelli.
Photo is a 1933 medal to honour Nazareno Strampelli.
I’d never heard the quote from the episode, but it is a painful, but wonderful, concept to contemplate. Here’s an alternate, but somewhat more flowery translation:
History celebrates the battlefields whereon we meet our death, but scorns to speak of the ploughed fields whereby we thrive; it knows the names of king’s bastards, but cannot tell us the origin of wheat. That is the way of human folly.
For more than 40 years, one wheat variety dominated the Canadian prairies. Red Fife — the red-seeded wheat grown by David Fife, a Scottish immigrant — gave the highest yields of the best quality. It almost didn’t happen, if you believe the stories. And then, having set the standard, Red Fife was eclipsed by its own offspring and slowly slid into oblivion. Until, in 1986, Sharon Rempel set about rescuing it.
Thanks to Kara Gray and Richard Gray for their help.
This short episode fails to do justice to the man who, more than anyone, first grasped the importance of knowing where and how wheat arose. It does, however, explain why Vavilov wanted to collect the building material of future food security, for wheat and many other crops. In more than 60 countries, Vavilov and his colleagues gathered diversity from farmers’ fields; they died protecting their collections.
Thanks to Luigi Guarino for the photograph of Vavilov’s desk with his route across Ethiopia, and much else besides.
Kamut® is a modern wheat — registered and trademarked in 1990 — with an ancient lineage. The word is ancient Egyptian, and the hieroglyphics may literally mean “Soul of the Earth”. More prosaically, “bread”. The story of its discovery and growing popularity says a lot about our hunger for stories. It is also quite capable of leading hard-nosed molecular biologists astray.
Ancient grains used to be rare and hard to find not because they contained some magical secret for a long and fulfilled life, but because they take a lot more work than modern wheats. Instead of the wheat berry popping free after a gentle rubbing, they need to be bashed and pounded. Now, of course, we have machines to do that kind of thing, but our ancestors were mostly only too happy to abandon hulled wheats, unless they had no option.
Now that you’re subscribed and your life will certainly be immeasurably better, a few thoughts about how awesome this all is…
Last December I excitedly ran across the all-too-well-funded podcast Modernist Breadcrumbs. While interesting and vaguely entertaining, it was an attempt to be a paean to bread while subtly masking the fact that it was an extended commercial for the book series Modernist Bread by Nathan Myhrvold and Francisco Migoya which had been released the month prior.
I trudged through the entire series (often listening at 1.5-2x speed) to pick up the worthwhile tidbits, but mostly being disappointed. As I finished listening to the series, I commented:
Too often I found myself wishing that Jeremy Cherfas had been picked up to give the subject a proper 10+ episode treatment. I suspect he’d have done a more interesting in-depth bunch of interviews and managed to weave a more coherent story out of the whole. Alas, twas never thus.
I’ve no idea how the series actually came about, or what anyone aside from Chris really thought about it. It would be nice to see any kind of listener engagement, but it’s hard to find anything. There are three tweets over the entire series that use the show’s official tags.
Still, what’s done is done, and I doubt anyone would want to support another series all about bread. Or would they … ?
I’ll admit I did spend a few long and desperate weeks salivating with \hope over that ominously hanging “Or would they…?” statement. Ultimately, I let it pass distracted by listening to Jeremy’s regular Eat This Podcast episodes. Then this past week I’ve been bowled over by discovering what has obviously been fermenting since.
I’d love to take credit for “planting the seed” as it were for this new endeavour, but I suspect that the thousands upon thousands of adoring listening fans that Mssr. Cherfas’ podcast has, he’s heard dozens of similar requests every day over the years. Even more likely, it’s his very own love of bread that spawned the urge (he does, after all, have a bread blog named Fornacalia!), but I’ll quietly bask as if I had my very own personal suggestion box to have a first-class production staff at my beck and call to make me custom podcast content about food, science, and culture.
It’s always amazing to me how scintillating Jeremy Cherfas’ work manages to be in these. What is not to love about his editorial eye, interview skills, his writing, his production abilities? I’m ever astounded by the fact that his work is a simple one man show and not a 20 person production team.
I’m waiting for the day that the Food Network, The Cooking Channel, HGTV, or a network of their stripe (or perhaps NPR or PBS) discovers his supreme talent and steals him away from us to better fund and extend the reach of the culinary talent and story-telling he’s been churning out flawlessly for years now. (I’m selfishly hoping one of them snaps him up before some other smart, well-funded corporation steals him away from us for his spectacular communication abilities to dominate all his free time away from these food-related endeavors.)
Cultivation is not the same as domestication. Domestication involves changes that do the plant no good in the wild, but that make it more useful to the people who cultivate it. Seeds that don’t disperse, for example, and that aren’t all that well protected from pests and diseases. In this episode, where did people begin the process of domesticating wheat, and what set them on the road to agriculture.
Modern bread wheat contains more than five times more DNA than people, in a much more complicated arrangement. As a result, it has taken a fair old while to decode wheat’s genome. Having done so, though, the DNA confirms what plant scientists have long suspected — that bread wheat is the result of two separate occasions on which an ancestor of wheat crossed with a goat grass. The DNA also tells us when those crosses might have happened.
Maybe you heard about the oldest crumbs of burnt toast in the world. But have you stopped to wonder how the archaeologists found those crumbs? The bread they came from was a fine, mixed grain loaf that might well have been a special dish at a feast. It is even possible that bread was the first elite food that became affordable thanks to industrial technology — agriculture.
When did people start to eat wheat? The date keeps getting pushed back, and is now around 35,000 to 45,000 years ago. That is long before the dawn of intentional agriculture. How do we know? Because a man who died in a cave hadn’t cleaned his teeth, and stuck in the tartar were grains of boiled starch. Which raises another set of problems that seem to have been solved by wilderness survival experts.