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.
Drop what you’re doing and immediately go out to subscribe to Our Daily Bread: A history of wheat and bread in very short episodes!
The illustrious and inimitable Jeremy Cherfas is producing a whole new form of beauty by talking about wheat and bread in a podcast for thirty days.
It’s bundled up as part of his longer-running Eat This Podcast series, which I’ve been savoring for years.
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.
A bit later Jeremy took the time to respond to my comment:
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.)
Of course, if you’re a bit paranoid like me, perhaps you’d find his fantastic work is a worthwhile cause to donate to? Supporting his work means there’s more for everyone.
Now, to spend a moment writing up a few award nominations… perhaps the Beard first?
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.
It’s magic, I know. First a pretty ordinary grass becomes the main source of sustenance for most of the people alive on Earth. Then they learn how to turn the seeds of that grass into the food of the gods. Join me, every day in August, as I dig into Our Daily Bread for the Dog Days of Podcasting with short episodes on the history of wheat and bread.
In the 1960s, using the most primitive of tools, an American plant scientist demonstrated that a small family, working not all that hard for about three weeks, could gather enough wild cereal seeds to last them easily for a year or more. Jack Harlan’s experiments on the slopes of the Karacadağ mountains in Turkey offer a perfect gateway to this exploration of the history of bread and wheat.
Photo of Wild einkorn, wild emmer and Aegilops species in Karacadag mountain range by H. Özkan.