Several months ago, accomplished writer Kristin Devine, who wrote a blurb for Appalling Stories, recommended a book to me by Michael Pollan called The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Written in 2006, it asked the question What should we have for dinner? in a way that explores food choices, nutrition, survival, taste, farming, and ethics, among many other issues. It’s a tremendously entertaining book, and the universality of its themes keep it relevant fourteen years after its original publication.
As with all non-fiction books, I did what most of us do: I unquestioningly accepted those premises that reinforced my already-held opinions, rejected those that I found entirely antithetical to my worldview, and hoped that I would learn something somewhere in the middle. Pleasantly, as this is a mostly apolitical book, I found a great deal to learn from and enjoy, and it opened my eyes to issues that I had opinions on, but hadn’t considered very deeply. So The Omnivore’s Dilemma is an unqualified success. I learned something. And, more importantly, it’s influenced me to make some different choices: namely, what’s for dinner.
Civilization means taming, as much as we can, the somewhat arbitrary nature of the universe. We build houses and install central heating because the weather’s not always warm and pleasant. We develop language and communication skills because everybody else has different feelings and desires from us. And we preserve food because nourishment doesn’t just drop from the sky like the Israelites’ manna. In something as seemingly straightforward as farming, for example, there are many complicating factors: disease, weather, economics, and expanding human populations to feed. So we tried to solve these problems using artificial fertilizers, chemical pesticides, monoculture farming (corn), breeding crops for desirable characteristics, and so on. The end result of these solutions is that we’re all better fed, but we’re not all healthier. There’s a widening gap between being fed and being nourished, and we see that in rising rates of obesity and other health concerns that are, unfortunately, somewhat self-inflicted. So what do we do?
Pollan doesn’t offer many solutions, but that’s deliberate: he does the journalist’s trick of leading you to the point of view he wants you to adopt with the way he presents the information. It worked for me, in some limited fashion. We’ll see if it has any long-term effects on my health.
One change we’re making at our house is substituting whole grains for some of the white flour we eat, particularly in bread. (As nobody’s succeeded in making a whole wheat pasta that tastes good, we’re sticking with the standard stuff, however.) My favorite hobby is baking bread, so I went back to texts like Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads and Artisan Breads Every Day to develop my skills in the whole wheat realm. In the bibliography of ABED Reinhart mentioned a seminal book called Six Thousand Years of Bread: Its Holy and Unholy History. Published in 1944 by H.E. Jacob, a German Jew who was imprisoned in both Dachau and Buchenwald, the book’s title says it all.
It would be wrong, however, to describe the book as a history of bread; it’s actually a history of mankind’s relationship with bread, starting from prehistory and ending with the advent of World War Two. Jacob describes every facet of this relationship, from grain types to farm implements, religious rites to cultural customs, and famine to war. His airy, storytelling style keeps it from being a dry recitation of events, and instead narrates the love affair with wheat we humans have engaged in for millennia. You’ll learn why both the miller and the baker have been so reviled throughout history, the secrets behind food riots in France and Germany, and how America fed the Allied forces in World War I, among many other things. It’s lengthy and detailed, but if you want the inside story on such a universal, foundational food, Six Thousand Years of Bread is a must-read.