Eighty-five years ago today the world marked a gustatorial watershed. It was on July 7, 1928 that the Chillicothe Baking Company of Chillicothe, Missouri began selling its newest product: sliced loaves of bread.
While it may seem a trivial thing in this age of carbon nanotubes, genetic engineering and Internet commerce, sliced bread is still no mean feat. Anyone who has ever attempted to slice bread with a less than razor sharp knife knows the “joys” of a ragged and mashed sliver. Moreover, if you’ve ever seen the contraption bakeries use to accomplish this task, you understand the challenge.
Even so, we take it for granted, but then again, why wouldn’t we? Standing in front of the head-high display of bread common to any grocer, we are bombarded by a litany of choices. From white to double fiber wheat, pumpernickel to potato bread, the American consumer can have as many different perfectly sliced loaves as her pocketbook and taste buds can support.
In all its myriad forms, bread had been a cornerstone of human civilization. Until the first wheat-like grasses evolved large edible kernels, humanity was consigned to existence as hunter-gatherers. Only with the development of primitive wheat grasses was agriculture — thus permanent settlement — possible.
Bread is also heavily clad in symbolic meaning. Before the development of bread as a central part of the human diet, animals were the primary theme for symbolic investiture. With the broad inclusion of bread, human mythology became much more entwined with the plant world.
Bread is often associated with fecundity and the generosity of God. The Christian communion is perhaps the best known example of this, but bread is mentioned more than four dozen times in the Bible. In Hebrew, the word, Bethlehem, literally means “house of bread.”
Of course bread’s association with procreation also manifests in less holy turns of phrase. In early France, a woman pregnant outside of marriage is said to have “borrowed a loaf from the batch.” Similarly, in English-speaking countries “a bun in the oven” is a common idiom for being pregnant.
As bread symbolizes both being pregnant and getting that way, the French gave us another idiomatic turn on the idea. The French word for oven, “four” (sic. “forn”) is derived from the Latin term “fornicatio.” Fornicato is in turn derived from fornix, which literally meant “a vault” but figuratively meant a prostitute. In ancient Rome, prostitutes often fornicated with clients in vaulted rooms that resembled ovens.
Of course, bread like all good things has taken many a wrong turn throughout history. Particularly in those cultures where rye bread is more common, that which sustains us may also drive us mad. Cultural historians and anthropologists have discovered that rye grasses are often susceptible to a pinkish purple fungus known as ergot (Claviceps purpurea). Bread baked from ergot-infected rye can have a very powerful hallucinogenic effect. Those under the influence were often thought to be witches or possessed by demons.
Some scholars have argued that the Salem Witch Trials came after an outbreak of ergotism. In Medieval Europe, terms such as “St. Vitas Dance” and “St. Anthony’s Fire” are used to describe the twitching fits common in those poisoned by ergotism. Some historians even argue that blooms of ergotism — brought on by favorable weather conditions — exacerbated the death count attributed to Bubonic Plague.
Even so, humanity owes much of its stability and progress to bread — sliced and otherwise. As we pause to remember the auspicious day in Chillicothe, we also recollect another culinary milestone — a day in 1762 when a rakish nobleman and inveterate gambler demanded to be fed while at the card table. The order was simple: roast beef between two slices of bread. The man ordering? John Montagu, Fourth Earl of Sandwich.