I made brioche once. I mean, actually, I made brioche twice. But that’s not really the point of this story. I just want you to know that I’ve made brioche at least once, as it’s integral to this story.
I don’t know who among you has ever tried to make brioche, but it’s what I refer to as A Fucking Process™ because it takes so much time. The actual process of making the dough takes about an hour and thirty minutes; then you have to wait for it to rise for three hours. Then punch it. Then it rises overnight, in the fridge. Then you have to take it out, braid it, and make it rise again.
At every step of the way, you have to take the bread out three hours early so it can warm back up to room temperature.
After a while, I asked myself--why? Why am I doing this?
11,000 years ago. Somewhere in the Jordanian desert, a family is crushing starch into a dough, mixing ground grains with water to create the first flatbread. They sit around a fire at night, toasting the flatbread--we know, because the charred remains of the bread are all that are left of a family which once sang up to the blazing stars, casting their light across the fertile plains.
They are dead and gone now. The fertile grasslands where they lived are nothing but empty sand, blowing across the vast desert. Their Ozymandias is the bread which remains, a tiny mark that says “We were here. We lived. We laughed. We ate.”
At its core, bread is composed of three different parts, depending on the kind of bread that you’re making. The dough is made of flour, water, and a type of leavener. Leaveners can vary--usually, of course, people use yeast, but sometimes baking powder is used. Oddly enough, baking powder is basically a small version of those baking soda-vinegar volcanoes. It’s a combination of sodium bicarbonate and cream of tartar, which contains acids; as soon as the baking starts, the combination of these materials--plus heat--causes the baked good to rise.
Yeast, however, is a different beast. When you put yeast in your dough, you’re creating life. You’re resuscitating a yeast bacterium, which consumes sugar and farts out carbon dioxide bubbles. When you make--or I make--brioche, you can watch this happen in real time.
At some point, there’s a part of the process where the dough is more like a batter, and when you’ve thrown the yeast in you can see the little bubbles floating to the surface.
The yeast is alive. It thrives. It’s going to rise and get this bread.
It’s safe to say that in many ways the history of early humanity is the history of bread. Agriculture as a project coalesced slowly--over time, people cultivated wheat into a grain worth giving a damn about, and from there had to figure out how to turn it into a food product. The answer: crushing it, mixing the powder that resulted with water, and cooking it.
But you can’t move a field, really. You need to tend it. Care for it. Water your crops, day in day out, until something starts to grow.
Towns began to form. Cities. Bread became the staple food of civilization, and the variety of bread which formed were staggering.
In ancient Sumer, the finest flours--literally finest, as in finest ground--were baked into breads offered up to the gods. The priests would set them upon the altar, worshipfully.
“These are our offerings. This is the finest we can create. This is the apex of what we can give back to you.”
The rise of beer is closely tied into bread, and coincidentally is also closely tied into my bread-making. Mostly because I’ll knock back a cold one while I make that bread. Don’t blame me.
But sometimes, I’ll use a room-temperature one to literally make that bread. This is a time-honored tradition carrying back to the Roman era; Pliny the Elder describes a form of bread which is made by skimming the foam off of beer, and introducing it into the dough. This is one way of getting the yeast from one dough to another.
The other, of course, is more poetic. Bakers would save a tiny scrap of the dough, containing the yeast bacterium. Then, they would incorporate this starter dough into each new dough batch, over and over again through the years. The yeast would be passed down from bread to bread, from bakery to bakery.
Passing down a heritage.
79 AD. Across the Roman Empire, a dense network of what are essentially fast food stalls clutter most cities. In the first floor of most Roman apartment buildings, cooks sell wildly varied street foods for the plebeians who often have no means to cook in their ramshackle tenements. The bakeries and food stalls would sometimes deliver, even, to people in the local vicinity.
In one particular city, a tremor runs through a bakery, one of 35 in the area. The city’s been plagued by these kinds of tremors lately. Even the water has stopped running. But the baker isn’t too concerned. He puts a loaf in the oven.
These are circular sourdough loaves, held together by string so they keep their shape. They’re divided into eight wedges. Already, loaves sit on the counter, waiting for people to come by and dip them in olive oil. Each has a quality stamp, to show that these are some of the best breads around.
Herculaneum and Pompeii will shortly be buried under the pyroclastic flow of Vesuvius. All of these people will die, buried and burned.
Later, in 1738, the excavations of this bakery will find the petrified loaves, sitting uneaten.
The brioche is braided, stuck in a greased pan, and thrown in the center of the oven. Right away, I’m noticing problems. The recipe called for a loaf pan, but I don’t have one. Because I didn’t plan ahead. The egg wash isn’t glossy enough--it’s supposed to be a mirror-like sheen, but it’s only a dull shine. The smell of baking bread fills the whole apartment, strong with a hint of sugar. I can’t bear it.
And then the timer goes off. I pull the loaves, steaming, from the oven. Cooling is one of the most important steps, and I have to wait, agonizing over this stupid bread like a new father.
There’s something wholesome and strengthening about bread. When you’re baking, you’re taking part in a ritual passed down to us through tens of thousands of years, from the Fertile Crescent across the ocean to our infertile desert here in LA. People have made bread since the start of civilization, through plagues and droughts and wars. Not famines, though. Bread represents a promise:
We have always done this, and we always will.
In the medieval era, a piece of stale bread would be used as part of the table setting; the juices from the roast meat would often soak into it and make it palatable again, at which point you could eat it yourself, serve it to peasants, or throw it to the dogs.
In the late 1700s, a famine rocked France right before the Revolution. Mobs of people began looting the castles of the rich, spurred by rumors that they were hoarding food. After the Revolution has started, Robespierre winds up in a hell of a lot of trouble trying to deal with price controls on bread.
In the late 1800s, the British Empire starts importing bread from the colonies, to feed its people. They continue importing grain from places like Ireland, even though this causes more famines and deaths. The bread is viewed as British bread, even though it comes in from all over the world.
In 1911, a socialist poem is published bearing the line “bread for all, and roses too.” James Oppenheim, the author, takes the line from a Helen Todd speech advocating for both bettered material conditions for workers--bread--and dignity of life (roses). The slogan catches on, and becomes the rallying cry of socialist workers in a successful textile strike.
In 1928, a German-American inventor develops a machine that finally achieves what is called “one of the greatest leaps forward in baking since bread was wrapped”: it slices bread. Then, it wraps it. Genius.
In 1961, a process is invented whereby bread production is dramatically sped up by violently twisting and tossing the bread with machines. Giant whirling metal contraptions toss and throw the dough, giving us Wonderbread, among others.
Throughout the generations, humble bread has shaped us as much as we’ve shaped it. Often, literally.