Otto Frederich Rohwedder invented the automatic bread slicer 85 years ago. It revolutionized how bread was sold in the U.S.; today, the vast majority of bread is now sold pre-sliced. In our area, even the small artisan bread bakers have automatic bread slicers so that you can request your artisan loaves to be pre-sliced as well. Harried parents throwing together sandwiches before the school buses come can thank Otto for one less step in the process to complete. It’s an everyday, practical invention that we now take for granted.
But it’s hardly the only discovery or invention that proved revolutionary in our bread world. Here are other milestone achievements that we can too easily take for granted:
The invention of sourdough
Tangy, delicious sourdough may have started as an accident, but a happy one at that. That first experiment that produced extra rise and a better texture in bread must have been a surprising event! The earliest recorded civilization to use sourdough was the Egyptians in 1500 BC. They made other fermented foods with grain, such as beer, so it’s a natural fit for them to also discover and use sourdough. With the use of sourdough, flat breads were no longer the only option, and that discovery is the root of all of our modern bread today.
Sourdough is also famous for being used by California miners and settlers and adventurers in Alaska. In both places sourdough starters
were an important part of their provisions, some men even sleeping with their starter to make sure it didn’t freeze on cold nights.
Before the days of neat and tidy yeast packets, bread was cooked using natural sourdough starters, or soda-raised breads. But modern baking soda didn't come into the picture until later. American settlers, and Indigenous tribes used pearl ash (potassium carbonate). This was an easy method for fluffy breads without the use and care of sourdough. The Irish, Scotts, Aussies, Serbians and others used forms of soda bread to make their own “quick breads” as well! Our modern pumpkin
breads stems from this rich history of use.
One of my favorite savory soda raised breads is Irish Soda Bread.
Eventually someone in Ireland had the wonderful idea to top it with bacon. Yes, bacon (because bacon makes everything better). I had to try it when I heard about a 100-year-old Irish recipe that called for bacon to be cooked on top of the loaf. It makes the soda bread rich, savory, and delicious. Just perfect for dipping into a bowl of soup! Here’s my version of it.
Breads with holes (like bagels)
There is a long history of breads with holes in their middles. Like most things ancient, it was probably for practical reasons. Just think of how easy it is to thread breads onto strings or on a pole for storage, when there is a hole in the middle! Ancient Egyptians, Italians, Chinese and Romans all had breads that had a hole in the middle. Some were soft, some were hard, some were sprinkled with herbs or spices, and some were plain. Some were thick, some were thin, but they all had that hole in the middle. The Finnish have a rye bread called reikaleipa. It’s flat with a hole in the middle so that the bread traditionally could be stacked on poles suspended right under the ceiling in the kitchen. The bread would slowly dry and mature, and would keep for a long time.
This enduring form remains with us today as bagels, made popular in the U.S. by Polish Jews in New York City. My mother-in-law long remembered an authentic traditional bagel served to her by her Jewish boyfriend in her early years. She well understood how bagels became so popular after trying out the “real thing.” They have become so popular and well-known that they were even taken into space by astronaut Gregory Chamitoff on a 2008 Space Shuttle mission! For a delicious traditional bagel recipe, go here.
Flat breads served with toppings were also historically found in many cultures. The Greeks, Romans and others all ate early forms of the modern flatbread known as pizza. But the Italians were the ones who imported it to the U.S. and made us love it. Originally, it was the poor man’s food, as they had need for food that was portable, inexpensive, and easy to eat quickly. Flat bread with toppings fit the bill. The rich turned up their nose at such common food, so how did it become so popular? One popular legend tells us that it became popular when King Umberto I and Queen Margherita visited Naples in 1889 after Italy united. Growing weary of the prim food they were fed, they asked for a variety of pizzas from the popular Pizzeria Brandi. The queen found that she especially enjoyed the one with white cheese, sliced tomatoes, and basil, and that pizza has been called the Margherita ever since. Not that many years later, some of the first pizza places were opening in the U.S., and the rest is history, as they say. Get a delicious, chewy, pizza dough recipe here.
Good gluten-free bread
Traditionally, bread was made out of gluten containing grains, for the most part. But with the rise of those intolerant, or allergic to gluten, there has been a corresponding rise of delicious gluten-free breads. The delicious part took a while though. At first gluten-free breads were dry, crumbly and tasteless. Only the most desperate would indulge in the “cardboard” early versions. Now I can go to a local bakery and get divine baguettes, cupcakes, rustic loaves, and fluffy gluten-free sandwich breads that are all incredibly delicious. This is certainly very revolutionary for those gluten-intolerant. If you are ever in Portland, Oregon, I recommend New Cascadia Traditional Bakery
for some of the best gluten-free bread I’ve ever tried. For the home cook, I recommend "Gluten-free and Vegan Bread: Artisanal Recipes to Make at Home," by Jennifer Katzinger, for rustic, delicious gluten-free bread you can make at home.
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