Thursday, January 2, 2014


When I was growing up, my Mother used to bake cranberry bread for people during the holidays. She wasn't a great baker. In fact, she used boxed bread mix. But the fact that she took the time to mix it up, bake it, package it and deliver it was a signal that the recipient was someone she treasured.

Today, I bake different types of bread during the holiday season, package it and deliver it to people I care about. It makes me feel good. Not surprisingly, my packages look almost exactly like Mother's used to.

So, let's talk about bread. Some form of bread is produced and consumed in every country and every culture throughout the world. Bread also figures prominently in many religions, often in ways that would mystify anyone outside that particular religion.

One example would be the shewbread that was prepared by Jewish priests according to very strict instructions. Then a specific number of loaves were arranged in a specific manner and displayed on a table that was placed opposite the Menorah. The bread was replaced each Sabbath. The priests could then consume the old bread, but even that had to be done in specific places and in a specific way. Much of the Christian Bible is actually ancient Jewish text, so it's no surprise that shewbread is mentioned in several books of the Bible. But for the very specific requirements, down to the measurements and design of the table on which the shewbread is displayed, one must turn to the Torah.

I read a lot of different information about religion and bread. Most of it, including Christian customs I grew up with, seem silly and often designed to frighten or awe people into religious belief. This always causes me to feel suspicious. Any time somebody is trying to scare me or trying to make me emotional, I always assume the information attached to it is probably bogus. I'm a natural cynic. But Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying “There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” Now that rings true for me. What do you think?

It's amazing to me that pre-sliced bread has only been around since the late 1920's. Otto Frederick Rohwedder spent 8 years perfecting his design for a machine that would divide a loaf of bread into evenly sized slices. In 1928, he introduced his machine to the world. In 1930, Wonder Bread baking company became the first to package and market pre-sliced bread. There was quite a bit of doubt as to whether the concept would catch on. Doubters claimed the bread would go stale more quickly. At that time, loaves of bread were wrapped in wax paper.

Even more amazing to think about, January 18, 1943 marks the day that pre-sliced bread was banned in America. Yes! Claude Wickard, who was then Secretary of Agriculture and Secretary of the War Foods Adminstration (the what?) decided that pre-sliced bread would be banned. Nobody can explain exactly why he did this, but it created a firestorm of controversy and his decision was reversed on March 8, 1943. When I first read about this, I imagined a million housewife march on Washington, but my guess is that the Wonder Bread company, along with whatever other bread makers were by then selling sliced bread, did some political arm-twisting. But honestly, I'm making that last part up. I couldn't find more information on this bizarre twist in the history of American bread-making.

Going a little further back in history, I found an amazing story about how pumpernickel bread got its name. It seems that Napolean Bonaparte asked for bread during his invasion of Germany and was served a dark rye bread that he found unfit to eat. He remarked that it was only good (bon) for his horse, Nickel. "C'est bon pour Nickel" was heard by the locals and hence the bread was named. I saw this story in multiple places, but I noticed a number of variations. Sometimes the horse was called Nicole. Sometimes the French phrase was a little different. My brain is now wired to check Snopes for everything, especially if a famous name is used. Sure enough, the story is false. So when someone tells you this story, you can give a little sneer and say "Tres ridicule". So how DID pumpernickel get its name? "Pumpern" was German for being flatulent and "nickel" was from Nicholas, another name for the Devil, so pumpernickel actually means "devil's fart", because it was hard to digest. Now don't say you never learned anything from me!

Had enough? Of course you haven't. You could go on reading these amazing facts for days! Here's something interesting for you. The little tabs or twist ties used to close the plastic bags that bread is sold in are color coded. Yes! This really isn't designed for you. It's for the person stocking the shelves. The guy delivering the bread can look at the shelf and know he needs to remove all of the bags with white tags today. But, I suppose you want to know which color goes with each day so you can make critical shopping decisions? Sorry. Each manufacturer could have their own code. Besides, bread doesn't stay on the shelf long enough for it to get stale, really. Why? Because the guy looking for the white tags is removing bread that is older than, say, two days. But here is a consumer tip that you WILL want to follow. Buy Sister Shubert's frozen dinner rolls. Trust me on this.

Let's finish with pretty words. I like pretty words.

“A crust of bread and a corner to sleep in. A minute to smile and an hour to weep in. A pint of joy to a peck of trouble, And never a laugh but the moans come double. And that is life. A crust and a corner that makes love precious, With a smile to warm and tears to refresh us, And joy seems sweeter when cares come after, And a moan is the finest of foils for laughter. And that is life.”
(Paul Lawrence Dunbar)

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