The Fresh Loaf

News & Information for Amateur Bakers and Artisan Bread Enthusiasts

A Day in the Life of Bread in History

Janknitz's picture
Janknitz

A Day in the Life of Bread in History

 


As a knitter, I stand in awe of the work that went into a simple set of clothes in the past-I'm talking about a time before you could walk into the nearest store and buy a ready-made article of clothing, and even before someone of modest means could buy cloth to make her own clothing.  A time when getting a new dress meant first shearing the sheep or harvesting the flax, then spinning the thread, weaving the cloth, and finally sewing the garment-weeks, months, perhaps almost a year, just for a new dress.    


 I have the same sense of admiration and curiosity about bread and how much work it took to produce that daily loaf to feed a family the days before you could buy a 5 lb sack of flour at the supermarket, yeast in packets, and bake it in an electric or gas oven.  Or run to the corner store to buy a loaf (which I know was more possible in the 1800's in most cities, but perhaps not in rural locales). 


 So I'm calling on anyone with an interest in history (an historical re-enactor, perhaps, SCA member, etc.), who has listened to their grandparents' stories, or who has researched this and can tell about a day in the life of bread for a particular time in history and locale (your choice of time and place).


 Here's some of the things I'm curious about:


1.  Approximate time (i.e. 1840's, 1700's, etc.)


2.  Place (if it's an unfamiliar locale, please describe i.e. in the country or a place of commerce, terrain, climate, etc.)


3.  Source of grain (i.e. can most people in that time and place afford to buy milled flour or whole grain or do they have to grow their own?  Where does it come from and how does it get to the consumer?)


4.   Types of grain common to the locale and time.


5.  Source of leavening and how the leavening source is perpetuated. 


6.  Type or types of bread commonly produced.


7.  Describe what type of mixing and  baking vessels might have been used, if any.


8.  How is that bread baked?  What is the source of the heat for baking?    


9.  Describe a "day in the life of bread"-in other words, the baker's day (or days) producing that loaf??? 


10.  Finally, care to speculate how that baker managed time to bake and also get everything ELSE done without modern conveniences? 


I hope this will be a fun and enlightening thread. 

DerekL's picture
DerekL

I've actually ground grain in a Viking quern.  It took about 2-3 hours to produce enough coarse flour (bolted with a sieve) for a 1lb loaf.

Janknitz's picture
Janknitz

I saw some images of Viking Querns.  How does it work?  Is there a wooden handle that turns the two disks?  How much effort is involved? 


Makes you wonder how a Viking woman got anything else done if it takes half of a morning just to grind grain for bread???  My guess is that eventually the children would take over that chore.

proth5's picture
proth5

I really have no access to family history, but I do have a perspective that I offer to you.


I have been spending the past year or so trying to create as much of my food as "close to the raw materials" as possible. 


Now, I live in the city so I have limited land and, various zoning ordinances prevent me from having livestock.  But I do grow a lot of my own produce and have been dilligent about trying using it.  Even though I live in a climate where it snows - I garden year 'round.  I fabricate more and more of my own cheese and hand churn all of the butter that I use for my personal consumption.  Of course I do the little things like growing sprouts and making yogurt...


And, as you may have heard, I mill a lot of my own flour.


My profession is in the technical/business world and I work full time.


Although I am not a purist, one thing I have found is how much time, effort, and thought that I must devote to feeding myself.  This is a far cry from wandering home and deciding which take-out restaurant to call tonight.  It is even a far cry from wandering the supermarket aisles and buying what you want.


I had a good crop of pumpkins this year (after I managed to distract the squirrels) so I ate a lot of pumpkin and carefully managed spoilage.  I ate the last one last week.  Thank goodness that the kale, spinach, and lettuce are now producing well - or I would have no produce (except sprouts...)  I live and die the weather forecasts.  I hate squirrels.  I've trapped and killed them and they just keep coming.  People who tell me squirrels are cute have never watched them eat a year's crops in one night.  I never thought I could kill an animal in cold blood.  I had to get over that.


I eat well, but the variety that most people here in the 21st Century have come to expect is missing.  Yes, I'll buy citrus (I'm not a purist - as I said) but I consider it a treat.  I need to think ahead almost a year to decide what seeds to plant and where.  Every meal is planned to make sure nothing goes to waste.  I do end up throwing out food, even with good planning, because with only one person to feed any errors are more visible (this is something that I study in the course of my "real job.")


In my bread baking, the more I "mill my own" the more focused I am on a limited number of breads.  I started working with rye, but to mill rye, I have to clean the mill before and after I mill (so it doesn't get mixed with the wheat) and it was too much of an effort to do each week.  So I dropped it.  White flour is a heck of an effort, and "First Clear" is a fantasy.  A bread with four of five flours is simply infeasible in "mill your own" mode.  I can imagine that people who need to spend hours grinding the grain for one loaf of bread (well, I don't have to stretch my imagination very far) spent a very large proportion of their time just feeding themselves.  They didn't get up on a Saturday morning and wonder how they might amuse themselves - they had work to do.


A couple of weeks ago I made a pizza.  I had hand milled all the flour, used my levain culture, had grown all the ingredients for the tomato sauce, house made two dfferent kinds of cheese for the topping, and grew the mushrooms.  It was a good pizza - but a stupendous investment in time and expertise.


I'm about to let a lot of this go and return to the economically efficient 21st Century - and thank goodness for it.  But I return with an appreciation of how terribly rich we are.  And I'm sorry, but I think writers like Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver create an unrealistically romantic view of food production.  Can we do better? Yes (and I assume they are just being cheerleaders for this - no one really wants to hear about trapping and killing squirrels to preserve the harvest.) Will it be a vastly different model than they advocate? Also yes. 


Hope this is helpful.


BTW: I planted, raised, processed, spun, knitted, and bleached my own flax as a project for the Museum of Appalachia back when I lived in that area.  Another stupendous undertaking in terms of expertise, time, and equipment.  "My teacher" (my bread baking teacher, that is) once put forth $9 a yard as a high price for baker's linen.  S/he was a bit taken aback when I chortled that it didn't seem expensive enough to me...


Hope you get a lot of great input for your project.


Pat

xaipete's picture
xaipete

Pat, you are a type of locavorist not a purist!


--Pamela

proth5's picture
proth5

I am simply a maniac...


:>)


Pat

PMcCool's picture
PMcCool

Pat,


As long as you are, um, "eliminating" squirrels,  you may as well maximize your return and eat the little buggers.  As you note, there's no shortage and you've already fed them . . .


You may have noticed that I share a similar point of view.  Even my wife refers to them as "tree rats", having suffered their depradations.


Paul

proth5's picture
proth5

Here in the Southwest squirrels carry bubonic plague which means I don protective clothing before getting near a dead one.  While, in general, I don't have any problem eating wild food - something about the Black Death makes me not want to eat these guys...


But don't think I haven't thought about it...

xaipete's picture
xaipete

Did you know there is an organization that might be able to help you with your dislike of squirrels? At the very least they appear to provide a vent for your feelings. :-)


http://sciurophobia.org/


--Pamela

proth5's picture
proth5

I have no fear of squirrels (sciurophobia.)  I don't even dislike them if they run free in the woodlands or even eat a tomato or two.


But when they attempt to strip my entire garden as they did last year - (these are no nice country squirrels, they are city squirrels who have lost their fear of people,  pepper wax, sound waves, jets of water, dogs, foxes, and coyotes - don't ask me how I know those last two) - it's war.


But thanks for the link.

xaipete's picture
xaipete

One of our kids lives in Arlington, MA. They had to hire someone to trap two squirrels that literally kept breaking into their roof. Apparently they can be quite territorial. My husband bought a giant sling shot several years ago. When I enquired about the purchase (he didn't tell me he bought it; I just discovered it one day), he said that it was part of our earthquake supplies--part of his plan to obtain fresh meat in the event of a disaster. I said, "no thank you".


--Pamela 

LindyD's picture
LindyD

Country squirrels can be just as bad as city squirrels.  I'm surrounded by hundreds of acres of forest.  Two years ago my tomato plants were loaded with fruit that was about a day away from harvest.  The plants also carried loads of green tomatoes.  We have a very short growing season here and I had faithfully tended and watered those plants because it was a very dry summer.  I had noticed a pair of big fox squirrels around, but didn't pay them much heed.


When I came home from work and looked over at the plants, I couldn't see a single red tomato.  When I walked over to the plants, I thought someone had stolen the fruits until I saw that all the green tomatoes were missing as well.  Then I noticed a trail of green tomatoes leading off into the woods, as well numerous slightly chewed (but now destroyed) red fruits.  The squirrels had destroyed my entire harvest and I subsequently learned they will do that in years of drought.  They didn't return.  Had they, I had my pellet gun at the ready.


Chimpmunks are also bad.  Thanks to Walt Disney, people tend to anthropomorphize them, but they are nothing but destructive striped rats.  Fortunately, my neighbor's cat is a very good hunter.

proth5's picture
proth5

I used to be able to get the tomato harvest in by always picking the tomato the "day before" it was going to be perfect. But this last year they took the green ones, too.

They even chewed through unripe pumpkins.

Technically it is illegal to shoot squirrels in my city, but I am told that I might get away with a pellet gun.

My cat has gone all zen on me (well, and he's pretty old) and tells me that killing is not nice...

All these varmints are great in a balanced eco-system. But we have taken out too many of the predators (especially in the city)and they are out of control...

caltiki's picture
caltiki

While I deeply admire your project, proth,  and your dedication to learning by doing down to the last detail, I am hesitant to suggest that it is a good model for Janknitz or others to understand history. How many examples in historic sources are there of one person carrying out every conceivable foodways trade to support a household of one (while attending to an unrelated profession off the homestead full time!)? While one should never say never when dealing with history, this situation would be anomolous, to say the least, regardless of place or time. This is a community's worth of work, whether you are in Late Neolithic Catal Huyuk, medieval Europe, or 18th-century America. There are lots of good reasons that the trades of Miller, Baker, Farmer, Vintner, Scribe, etc. (not to mention Squirrel-Slayer), got off the ground 6 or so millennia ago!


I'm no expert on Vikings and their querns, but I'd bet they weren't dividing labor in the mode of 1950s America, one man/one woman/and 2.4 children. Rather, I'd guess their mode of household economy was closer to those which that have proven so efficient in all kinds of cultures worldwide: made up of generations of extended family, servants, slaves, and children. 


I agree with proth5 that there's got to be change in our whole food system, but I see it as being more collaborative (among people, not faceless corporations), more local (of course), and more joyful, as well as more responsible. And I bet there are real models in history to explore, models that have something to teach us, even after you strip off the romance!


Caltiki

proth5's picture
proth5

not a historic perspective. And I don't see it as such.  I offer my perspective as a "maniac" - not as a historian.


The early development of economic efficiencies is what enabled civilzation to grow and flourish.  I appreciate this more than ever. 

caltiki's picture
caltiki

Well, you're the kind of maniac I like best! Thanks for your perspective, I honestly think you are too hard on yourself...


Caltiki

Janknitz's picture
Janknitz

Just curiosity, and some of you have already given a lot of food for thought on just what it takes or took to make a "simple" loaf of bread without the modern conveniences long ago, or even today.  Thank you--it's extremely interesting and I hope others will contribute what they know as well.


Pam, it may not be historical per se, but I still got some interesting tidbits from your post.  I was listening to an NPR podcast this week in which the producers had gotten several people to act as "locavores" as Kingsolver explores in her book and it was the end of the year project.  The responses ranged from people who couldn't wait to get back to "regular" shopping and a few who wanted to stick with it because it inspired them.    Growing your own produce as you did is one step further and even more fascinating to me (the original "black thumb").  I do have one question for you--understanding I am totally ignorant of grinding one's own grain--why is it necessary to clean the grinder between types of grain if they are all going into the same bread anyway? 


I'm blessed to live in an area in Northern California where produce is available fresh year round and a wonderful variety.  We also have local dairies, fish, and--of course--wine.  I'm not ready to go totally locavore, but I would like to get my husband to stop buying produce from Chile in the winter.  We could make do on local produce well enough, but he finds certain unseasonal fruits and veggies irresistible. 


Anyway, getting back to history, I try to imagine what a day in my life would be like 150 years ago to put bread on my family's table.  Would there be things I'd have to do almost immediately on waking to ensure fresh bread that day, like building a fire in a hearthside oven and feeding a starter?  Would it take the entire day to produce that loaf of bread?  What kind of bread would I be making, etc.?  Is life simpler and less stressful when you have to put a lot of focus on how to get that loaf of bread to the table rather than the myriad responsibilities of my professional career?  Or was it worse because there was a lot of pressure to make sure the family gets fed every day when it's not possible to fall back on "convenience foods" and eating out? 


I guess it's better than thinking about the economy or the fact that nobody has dusted the living room in a few weeks in my house (awk!).  ;o)


 


 

xaipete's picture
xaipete


why is it necessary to clean the grinder between types of grain if they are all going into the same bread anyway?



Yeah, I wonder about that too! I figure as long as I'm grinding on a regular basis there is no need to clean my Nutrimill between uses, and I don't. We seem healthy enough, nothing appears to be growing in the mill, no bad odors, etc.


--Pamela

proth5's picture
proth5

On my Diamant there is always just a little bit of grain residue left after milling - a little in the feed area and a little in the burrs.


There are no health implications, its just my stuborn streak of milling perfectionism.  If I mill rye for rye bread and then want to mill some wheat for whole wheat bread, my tiny mind goes "Oh no! I will have rye in my wheat bread! This is surely a tragedy of mind mangling proportions!"


So, it isn't really required - it's just something I feel a need to do.  I am trying to think through how I might be able to do it more efficiently so I can switch grains more often and not "freak out."


Of course on something like a Nutrimill or wiith a sane operator this shouldn't be an issue at all.


Hope this helps.

xaipete's picture
xaipete

Wy not just run a few berries of your next grind through and discard them? But I'm sure you have thought of that.


--Pamela

proth5's picture
proth5

Yes, I did think of that.  Didn't like to waste the berries - or the effort.  Mostly the effort.


I really think a shop vac would be the answer.  If I could just find the crowbar so I could open my wallet to buy one, it would probably be a good investment.


Pat

hsmum's picture
hsmum

My halfpenny's worth:  I'm not particularly knowledgeable about history, but my understanding from the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and elsewhere is that early settlers in Canada and the United States did NOT bake every day.  As with other tasks like doing laundry and ironing, they baked once a week, enough to last for the whole week.  Stale bread at the end of the week might be made into bread pudding, or put in soups. 


Karen

baltochef's picture
baltochef

A fact that many people tend to forget is that wheat flour was a pretty expensive commodity in the United States until midway through the 19th Century..Corn Pone, Johnny Cakes, and various corn related foods formed the basis for most settlers diets..Wheat is a far harder crop to grow than corn, and one hell-of-a-lot more difficult to thresh and mill than corn..A sack of ground whole wheat flour was often 10 times the price of an equivalent size and weight sack of ground cornmeal..


White wheat bread as we think of it in the 21st Century was a luxury that was treasured for special occasions, not something that was eaten every day..White flour was very expensive until well into the 20th Century..Things like white flour biscuts, refined cakes, and white bread, were foods that only the wealthy middle class and the very rich could afford to eat daily until the price of white flour dropped to reasonable levels during the second quarter of the 20th Century..WWII is what brought white all-purpose flour into the majority of American households..Before that, locally-milled whole wheat flour, and corn meal, were the staple grains that most Americans could afford to eat every day..We live in a vastly different world from the one in which my recently deceased grandmother was born into in the year 1903, much less the years 1803 or 1703..


Bruce

PLloydie's picture
PLloydie

I have really enjoyed reading this thread, kinda off topic or not!


Have any contributers read 'The Omnivore's Dilemma'?

Janknitz's picture
Janknitz

Bruce,


Was corn common in the larger cities in the Eastern US during that time, or was it more likely to be whole grains (seems like rye was common) that came from many immigrants' European heritages?  And what about Europe during that time period?


I remember my Romanian Jewish grandmother telling me that they ate "brown bread" all week, reserving the more expensive white flour for the Sabbath Challah.  This was in the late 1800's.  


I have no idea what the "brown" bread was, though.  

weavershouse's picture
weavershouse

I'm always interested in how people took care of their needs in the past. The more I learn the more I am amazed the amount of work they did. Last week I took a small two day workshop to learn how to weave woven tapes or ties on replicas of tape looms from the 1700's or early 1800's. Not only did families have to grow the fibers (linen, cotton, hemp, wool), spin and weave the cloth for everything from clothing to bed covers, sacks, bags etc., they had to make the tapes or ties for their aprons, sacks, bedding etc. Weaving tape is another time consuming job that had to be done. Where did they get the time?


 


For those of us at the workshop it was another fun thing to learn, not something we have to ever do again if we don't want to. It's like most things we've been doing for years, gardening, preserving, spinning, weaving, making do, having hens, whatever. More work then we "had" to do but we like the feeling of some independence. We know that our lifestyle is nothing like it would really be if we were living in the past. Still, I love having our own onions, garlic, potatoes, squash in the cellar, our own bread on the table and living without some things that others feel are necessary. Sometimes I think we're maniacs too :o) but I don't care.


 


I'm always wondering how people really managed their day to day activity. What did they eat every day in winter in the Northeast. How much did they barter, buy from others or do without. I know it depends on who they were and their health and location. Always learning and I enjoy it so if you get responces from some members here with actual accounts of family and friends I'll love it. Hope we don't get in trouble with being off topic. If we stick to bread making I think it will be fine.


 


Proth5...I always enjoy your posts. Where do you live? Also, I too am wondering why you have to clean your mill after grinding rye?


 


 

proth5's picture
proth5

I live in the Mile High City in the beautiful state of Colorado.


See above for the mill cleaning answer.

baltochef's picture
baltochef

The diet of a 17th, 18th, or 19th Century settler was far more boring than our diets today..Once the bounty of Spring and Summer were gone, people settled into a diet of the fruits and vegetables that could be stored in a root cellar, spring house, or smoke house..


Until glass canning jars became readily available in the 19th Century, most canned foods were pretty problematic as far as being safe to eat..Most settlers had five choices..Eat the food fresh before it spoiled, smoke the food to preserve it, dry the food to preserve it, salt (and sometimes sugar) the food to preserve it, or store the food underground where the temperature of the earth is consistent to slow down the process of decay..


When canning foods became a viable option for those that could afford the equipment, this became a sixth option..


Today, with refrigerators and freezers, we completely take for granted how fortunate we are..One has only to look back a few short years to post-Katrina New Orleans to understand how razor thin the line that separates modern 21st Century convenience from a 17th, 18th ,or 19th Century existence truly is..Without electricty, shelter, food, water, sanitation, and transportation, our insulated world rapidly deteriorates into anarchy..


Bruce

subfuscpersona's picture
subfuscpersona

if you had the bread, this is what you could buy - click on the link below for the illustration...


http://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/cookbooks/coldfusion/display.cfm?ID=amwh&PageNum=86