Remember that song “99 bottles of beer on the wall?” Singing down the numbers helped children endure long car journeys before tablets, even if it drove their parents to distraction. We…
Time was, not so long ago, when you could barely move on the Thames in London for ships and boats of all shapes and sizes. Goods flowed in from the Empire in tall-masted sailing ships and stocky steamers and were transferred to barges and lighters for moving on. The canals, too, were driven by, and served, the industrial revolution, bringing coal and other raw materials to factories and taking away the finished goods by water, the cheapest and quickest system for bulk transport. By the late 1960s, much of the waterborne traffic had gone. Ships unloaded in the docks and goods were transferred by road and rail. A bit of freight continued to move on the water, some of that in the hands of Tam and Di Murrell. Di Murrell’s new book, Barges & Bread: canals & grain to bread & baking traces the interwined development of the grain trade and bread as it played out in the Thames basin and beyond.
The importance of bread (and beer) to the people is encapsulated in the Assize of Bread and Ale, a statue of 1266 (though it appears to have codified earlier laws) and the first law in England to deal with food. Loaves were sold by size for a penny, a half-penny and, most commonly, a farthing (quarter of a penny). The finer the flour, the smaller the loaf you got at each price point. The price of grain naturally varied from year to year and from place to place, but the Assize fixed not the price but the weight of a penny loaf and also regulated in minute detail the baker’s profit and allowable expenses.
Very roughly, if the price of wheat was 12 pence a quarter (a quarter weighing 240 pounds) then the baker had to ensure that a farthing loaf of the best white bread, called Wastel bread, weighed 5.6 pounds. Wastel bread was not the most expensive. Simnel bread, “because it has been baked twice,” cost a bit more and so called French bread, enriched with milk and eggs, a bit more still. The coarsest “bread of common wheat” was less than half the cost of wastel bread.
From every quarter of wheat, the baker was permitted to sell 418 pounds of bread. Anything he could squeeze above that was called advantage bread, and was essentially pure profit. There was, naturally, every incentive for bakers and millers alike to add all sorts of things to increase the weight of flour and bread.
It is the connection between money and the weight of bread that is most intriguing. Weights, like money, were expressed as pounds. A pound in money was the pound-weight of silver, while the penny – the only coin in circulation – was a pennyweight of silver. But how much was a penny weight? 32 Wheat Corns in the midst of the Ear according to the Assize of Bread and Ale, which then explained that the 20 pence-weight made an ounce, and 12 ounces made one pound.
- Di Murrell’s book Barges & Bread: canals & grain to bread & baking, is available from Amazon and elsewhere, including direct from the publisher, Prospect Books.
- Di also has a website, Foodieafloat.
- If you really want to get to grips with the Assize of Bread, you need to read Alan S. C. Ross. “The Assize of Bread.” The Economic History Review, vol. 9, no. 2, 1956, pp. 332–342. JSTOR.
- Incidental music is the Impromptu from Zez Confrey’s Three Little Oddities, played by Rowan Belt
American companies pioneered container shipping, but now the ocean freight business is dominated by foreign firms. Thanks to the Jones Act, a 1920 law, all cargo between American ports must be carried on American-made ships, so we do still have a fleet. But the ships are old and outdated. In episode five, we explore the tragic consequences of this "America-first" trade policy, beginning with the El Faro, which sank in October 2015.
I find it an odd thing to say about a podcast concerning containerized shipping, but this episode is just heart-breaking on so many levels.
That cuppa joe you just sipped? Its long journey to your cup was made possible by shipping containers—those rectangular metal boxes that carry everything from TVs to clothes to frozen shrimp. And there’s a whole host of characters whose lives revolve around this precious cargo: gruff captains, hearty cooks, perceptive coffee tasters, and competitive tugboat pilots. This is the world journalist Alexis Madrigal illuminates in his new podcast Containers. Alexis tells us how the fancy coffee revolution is shaking up the shipping industry, and reveals his favorite sailor snack. Bite celebrates its first birthday, and Kiera gets up-close-and-personal with a kitchen contraption that’s sweeping the nation: the InstantPot.
The bulk of this episode, which discusses shipping and containers (really more than food or coffee which is only a sub-topic here), reminds me of the book The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger by Marc Levinson which I’d read in July/August 2014. (The book is now in its second addition with an additional chapter.) I suspect it was some of the motivating underlying material for Alexis Madrigal’s Containers podcast series. The book had a lot more history and technical detail while I suspect Madrigal’s series has more of the human aspect and culture thrown in to highlight the effect of containerization. I’m subscribing to it and hope to catch it in the next few weeks. The discussion here is a quick overview of one of his episodes and it goes a long way towards humanizing the ever increasing linkages that makes the modern world possible. In particular it also attempts to put a somewhat more human face on the effects of increasing industrialization and internationalization of not only food production, but all types of manufacturing which are specifically impacting the U.S. (and other) economy and culture right now.
The InstantPot segment was interesting, particularly for cooking Indian food. I’m always intrigued by cooking methods which allow a modern home cook to better recreate the conditions of regional cuisines without the same investment in methods necessitated by the local cultures. Also following Alton Brown’s mantra, it sounds like it could be a useful multi-tasker.