Bread, Beer and Civilization

Some years ago, one bright spring afternoon not long before I was due to graduate from Georgetown, I found myself with my hands buried deep in a large lump of bread dough, fingers sticky from kneading, and a strange realization came to me — bread doesn’t make any sense.

By that, I don’t mean I don’t know how to bake bread. It’s fairly simple, and I’ve used a version of the recipe my mother gave me in the late 1980s ever since — two cups of flour, a pinch of salt, a sachet (or three teaspoons, when I bought the stuff in bulk) of yeast, and enough water to make it all dough. Knead it for a bit, let it rise for an hour, knead it again, and then bake it at 350 F for 25 or 30 minutes. That’s the basic recipe; it varies from time to time. Sometimes I add milk or yogurt, sometimes an egg, sometimes a little cane sugar (or honey, or molasses), sometimes even a little olive oil and spices. The more liquid, the more flour you need — it’s hardly an exact science when I bake bread. While I keep myself to Bob’s Red Mill unbleached white and wheat flour, I’ll sometimes add rolled oats or steel cut oats, or spelt flour, or barley flour, or teff, or flaxseed meal or sometimes even semolina. There’s a lot of things you can add to bread.

Shape it into a ball, put it on a baking tray, cut a cross in the top about five minutes into baking, and tear it into chunks when it’s done. Real bread needs to be handled, gripped and torn with human hands, and not sliced with a knife.

I’m pretty good at baking bread, and in the nearly 20 years since my first loaf, I don’t think I’ve had a single failure. Okay, that’s not entirely true. I managed, much to the amazement of the folks at McNeil Nutritionals, to get the bread I made with Splenda to rise (it wasn’t supposed to, the young man on the other end of the phone said). But yeast turns Splenda into some kind of noxious chemical, and that particular loaf made Jennifer and me pretty sick. The guy I spoke to on the phone said they would consider a label cautioning against using their little miracle syntho-sugar with yeast. But I’m fondling a giant bag of the stuff right now, in between the words and clauses I’m writing for this essay, and I don’t see any such label.

So this is your warning. "Great for Cooking & Baking" should not including anything that needs to rise. (And you’ll note their recipe list does not include any yeast breads.)

Anyway, I like baking bread. If I had the time, I’d do it every day. It’s relaxing, it’s physical and it gives me a sense — oh, this is going to sound strange — that I’m part of some really basic and essential human activity, something men and women have done largely unchanged for many thousands of years, something that links me to those same men and women. Brewing beer gave me the same tingle (so did serving communion the first time I did it), and like baking bread, I was fairly good at it. It’s been years since I’ve brewed, but in the time I experimented with spices and grains from the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, I only had one real failure. And a Russian stout that exploded in my brew closet, but that was kind-of drinkable regardless.

For whatever reason, I can get yeast to do what I want. And I don’t even really know how it works. Go figure.

So what do I mean about bread not making sense? Well, sometimes I consider what that change from hunter-gatherers to semi-settled to actual farmers and ranchers looked like, in the deep recesses of human history 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. (It’s one of the dumb things I occasionally contemplate.) How long did it take those people to stop wandering and finally settle down? How was it that the ancient ancestors of wheat, barley and spelt appealed to men and women tired of being hungry and cold all the time? How much trial and error was needed to figure out what and how to grow?

And, more importantly, what amazing leaps of intuition were needed to turn those grass grains into interesting food?

Think about. (It’s easier to conceive of if you’ve ever actually baked bread.) To get bread people had to figure out that grinding wheat turned it into something much more useful than the actual grain itself. They had to have tools and places to do that, which meant finding what worked and making those tools with their own hands. Grinding grain to flour is no easy thing (I ruined an electric blender doing it once). They had to figure out that adding water to flour turned it into something you could cook. They also had to be able to cook stuff that wasn’t meat. And that requires more than sticks and fire.

Adding water also made flour ready for yeast, a substance none of those ancient people could see or identify or even know about it until it made its presence known in the bread. That yeast had to find its way to that flour entirely by accident, had to find a use for itself it had never had before. The dough, or flour paste, had to sit for a while, until it got all bubbly and sour smelling. Those early people had to take a risk that the sour smell was okay, had to figure out that this process worked with wheat in a way that didn’t work with their other grains, and they had to learn to cultivate and preserve that unseen ingredient, because they would quickly learn that some yeasts work better than others. Someone had to figure out this sour-smelling and sticky mess could be cooked, and they had to figure out how best to do that. The oven strikes us as obvious now, but it had to be invented by people who’d never had one before, who’d never seen one before, and had no idea what they were doing except making some place very hot.

I can put the ingredients of a loaf of bread together in 10 minutes, including the kneading. But what is easy to us now was likely hard won 10,000 years ago. How long did it take, this trial and error, of making tools and trying techniques, to get from gruel to paste to hardtack to something that looked like a real loaf of bread? Generations? Centuries? Can we ever know?

I am amazed at the thought, the effort and attention all of this required. I am astounded by the sparks of imagination and creative thought that were needed to bring the loaf of bread into being. This impresses me far more than tall buildings, long tunnels, worldwide computer networks, lightning warfare, central banking or men landing on the moon. Early human beings, essentially, created bread out of nothing. They had nothing to compare it with, no model, no theoretical underpinning, no idea of "something baked from grain that’s good to eat." Just their hands, their heads, and the stuff they could grow and make. Trial and error, year after year, century after century, millennia after millennia, until the baking of bread became something so commonplace, so simple and easy that we could take for granted. Something most of us never even have to think about.

Beer makes a great deal more logical and intuitive sense to me, since barley doesn’t require so much work on it to begin with. Soak it, let it sit, let is get all bubbly, drink it, feel pretty good. (Malting, which probably came much later, is itself a fairly complex and non-intuitive process.) There are fewer production steps involved, those steps don’t require nearly so many leaps of intuition or flashes of insight (at least it seems to me) and the product — even the crummy beer that early men were likely to drink — has a much more pleasurable effect than even the tastiest loaf of bread. Beer probably came first, though I suspect the histories of beer and bread — and human civilization itself — are probably closely intertwined.

(That it all didn’t stop with beer is also pretty amazing.)

To look at the world we live in today, and to especially hear many who agitate for more state power and more government-managed solutions, you would think that human beings would be naked, cold, hungry and wet were it not for the benefits of the state and its benevolent and beneficent managers — managers convinced that ordinary human beings are utterly incapable of taking care of themselves, cannot make anything of value with their own hands and cannot think about anything more than what they’re told to think. Yet before there was the state, before there were managers with their science of organization and industry who were counting, labeling and tracking us all, there were towns and tiny cities, fields and pastures, bakeries, breweries and workshops. Men and women grew things, made things, bought things, sold things, built things, and governed themselves, long before some people decided to create the state. The desire not to be naked, cold, hungry or wet impelled men and women to look at the world around them, see the patterns, notice things — like the grass growing on the hill or the small, furry critters with horns eating that grass, where and how the water flows, the positions of the stars in the sky and how they change over the year — make sense of them and make use of them.

Human beings aren’t half as stupid as the folks at the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Endowment or the National Education Association think we are.

Too often, I think, we fail to give our ancient ancestors proper credit for being pretty smart and industrious people. They didn’t know a thing about the electromagnetic spectrum or supersonic air travel, could not pave the world meters deep in asphalt, concrete, steel pipe and fiber optic cables, and likely had not developed fractional-reserve banking — but that doesn’t mean they were stupid. In some ways, they knew much more about the world than we do, if only because they had to — it was understand it or die. Their days were long, with most of them working hard in fields growing plants and tending animals they were only beginning to domesticate, subject constantly to the capricious cruelty of the elements. Their nights were dark, without the television that keeps us indoors and the low-pressure sodium light that has annihilated so much of our darkness, and what was there to do but make love and watch the stars? And consider those stars as they moved, every so slowly, around the dome of the sky?

For most of them, like us, I suspect life was lived with little consideration of what it all meant. With all the work, the struggle to survive, who had the time to think about it? But a few individuals (who couldn’t help but to think about stuff) must have found themselves asking, "Why? What does it all mean? What is the purpose of it all?" Science can tell us a lot about causes — genetics, climate, geology, chemistry — but cause and purpose should never be mistaken. Science is good at how, but no better than any theology we’ve developed at answering why, at telling us the meaning of things. Just like our ancient ancestors, we struggle with "why?" We are no better at answering it than they were. Even with all our technology, our knowledge and our wealth, we are just as lost as the first residents of Catal Huyuk were.

For a few, I suspect the urge to thank whatever was responsible for such goodness — even amidst the terror and deprivation of the world — was overwhelming. What else explains the sticking of stones in the ground to mark solstices and equinoxes, the construction of pyramids, the etching of lines in the desert? What better way to thank the ineffable for a largely predictable and, with a little work, bountiful world than to erect some seemingly permanent monument? Unlike the Marxists of the last two centuries and their neoconservative heirs in ours, those ancient men and women probably had few illusions about their place in human history. They were in no hurry — the world wasn’t going anywhere, and neither were they — and once they got rich enough, they could take the time and build what they wanted to build.

It may even be that the state — the great thief and murderer of human history — has its beginnings in that potent desire to acknowledge the ineffable, to erect a monument to the permanence of humanity in the face of the fragility and impermanence of human existence. I don’t know. All I know is that I’m going to do something to honor my ancestors and their hard work as well as thank God; something that’s a whole lot less destructive than erecting a rapacious bureaucracy or building some giant edifice somewhere.

I’m going to bake a loaf of bread.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.