The History of Bread as a Social Marker

White bread was once a marker for high social status. Now, crumbly brown artisan loaves distinguish the wealthy, and mass-produced, pre-sliced white bread distinguishes the working poor.
By William Rubel
April 25, 2012
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Griddle breads prepared by the Historical Cooking Guild of the Catawba Valley at James Polk House, Charlotte, North Carolina, 2003.
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There is no food more universal or more essential than bread, and the kind of bread you eat can reveal who you are. Bread: A Global History, (Reaktion Books, 2011) by William Rubel explores different breads for different times, places and people in history, all over the world. This excerpt examines how white bread goes full circle as a social marker. Discover why peasants made bread using pea flower and rye, the French court baked only pure white bread, and today cheap, “sliced white” bread is available to buy in every supermarket. The story of people and bread is as complex as it is delicious. The following excerpt is from Chapter 2, “Bread as a Social Marker.” 

White bread! So light! So pure! So attractive! But also, up to the industrialization of milling in the nineteenth century, so expensive. For most of Europe’s history, even if farmers grew grain, few had the reliable supply of excess wheat that white flour implied. In fact, comparatively few had either the farmland capable of producing healthy stands of pure wheat or the money to buy white wheat breads if they didn’t have the land. As a rule, in human cultures if something is desirable yet out of bounds, then possessing that thing suggests a high social status.

There are two large-scale arcs that move breads over time, both of which relate to bread as a social marker. The first of these arcs, and the most powerful, is the near universal rejection of the breads of poverty by virtually everyone who could afford the alternative.

This chapter focuses on breads of poverty from a period when white-as-snow loaves were largely the purview of those who lived lives of conspicuous consumption. As an example, only a white loaf made with the finest flour will open in the oven like a flower, like the bread in Lubin Baugin’s Still-life with Chessboard (1630), a painting that depicts, among other things, the vanities of life.

One of the first signs of the industrial revolution in eighteenth-century England was that increasing numbers of small farmers and farm workers lost ‘their rye teeth’, as a farm hand explained when describing his preference for wheat breads to a British government agricultural commission in 1795.

It is through culture that we pass on world-views into the distant future. The love of fine wheat breads is one of the preferences that seems to be universal: it is no accident that in terms of acreage wheat is the single biggest agricultural crop in the world, nor that most of it is ground into white flour. In times less rich in material culture, moving out of the breads of poverty into the more refined wheat-centered breads of the social elites was often the first use of increasing personal wealth.

Bread depicted in European paintings from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries often illustrates the association between white breads and luxury and brown breads and poverty. Today, an artist using bread to illustrate social status in a British or American household might depict an affluent family at the table with a loaf of crusty pain de campagne or a ciabatta and a poor family with a loaf of industrially produced pre-sliced bread. One way to simplify the difference between the breads of the rich and poor, now and in the past, is that the poor always eat the cheaper breads. Today, that means mass-produced white bread. But looking at contemporary bread culture at a distance, blurring the differences we see between wheat breads, what seems clear is that in millennial terms, a communal dream of eating the bread of kings has been realized.

The early modern period (1500—1800) is the first era in which we find reproducible bread recipes. It is also the period just before the Industrial Revolution turns the world upside down.

Many of the breads we like today — the standard white sandwich loaf, baguette-style breads and rolls, brioche and pain de campagne — can be directly traced to this period. Though now breads for all of us, at the time these were luxury breads available to a comparative few.

In one of the first modern English-language cookbooks, The English Housewife (1615), Gervase Markham provides a rare glimpse of bread recipes for an English estate and an almost unique example of a recipe for a bread intended for low-status farm workers, in his language the hind servants. Markham’s ‘Brown Bread’ is made from flour ground from dried peas mixed with boiling water to reduce its disagreeable smell and then added to a mix of minimally sifted wheat, rye and barley flour to make a stiff dough. This is left to naturally sour in the dough trough and then baked into large loaves. It was a dense, sour and not entirely pleasant-smelling bread. The crudeness of its ingredients and the carelessness of its manufacture was in stark contrast to the white bread intended for the master’s table or the slightly less refined bread intended for nearly everyone else.

Evidence from outside cookbook literature suggests that Markham’s dense, sour, pea-adulterated brown bread was a standard bread of the rural poor. Henry Best, of Elmswell, England, in a farm memorandum book written in the 1640s describes the ingredients used by the local peasantry for their breads (which could have been made almost anywhere in northern Europe):

Poore folkes putte usually a pecke of pease to a bushell of Rye, and some againe two peckes of pease to a fundell of Maseldine [maslin], and say that these make hearty bread. 

Hearty is meant in the sense of nourishing — and in the concept of the time, it means nourishing for a labourer. These breads were thought injurious to the health of the more sedentary elite. The first recipe, a peck of pea flour to a bushel of rye, is a ratio of 1:4 pea to rye.

In the European bread hierarchy a loaf bread, however constructed, stood above all forms of flatbreads, including ash cakes (small flatbreads baked in hot ashes), griddle-baked flatbreads, pancakes and boiled grains or porridge. Millet’s evocative painting Les Glaneuses (1857) depicts women gleaning wheat fields collecting racemes of wheat into posy-like groupings that would have been good for nothing more than boiled grains or porridge. This is in marked contrast to all those lovely aromatic white loaves one can imagine being made from the stacks of wheat sheaves in the painting’s background.

If one looks carefully one can find bits and pieces of the European flatbread tradition that have survived into the twenty-first century. The most obvious examples are industrially produced flatbreads such as Scottish oatcakes, widely available in the UK, various Scandinavian crisp rye breads such as Swedish knäckebröd, sold internationally, and the soft pitta-like piadina originally from the Romagna region and now sold throughout Italy.

The websites of industrial Italian manufacturers of piadina suggest using them as wraps, open-faced sandwiches, bun-like sandwiches, sandwiches in which the bread is folded in half, and as the base for pizza. While flatbreads tend not to be served as the bread for the main course in European-style meals they now often have a role in informal lunches and as part of the first course. Thus the flatbreads of Europe’s previous endemic poverty have been re-imagined in the context of our present-day prosperity.

The poorer the European region, the more likely it is that one can still glimpse the tail end of the European flatbread tradition in situ, though today’s wealth has tended to homogenize the product.

A characteristic of European flatbreads was that they were leavened with sourdough. This is true of the staple buckwheat crêpe of Brittany. Sour, dark and unenriched, it is at the opposite extreme from the cultural ideal of a lovely, light, aromatic white loaf. Relative wealth finally came to Brittany in the twentieth century. The bakeries of Brittany are now like those in the rest of France. People eat wheat bread, mostly white, and, however celebrated the galette de sarrasin may be at festivals, for all practical purposes the sour buckwheat crêpe was rejected by the people of Brittany in favour of white loaf breads as soon as they could afford to do so. Flatbreads are a footnote to European bread history.

No story that involves people is ever simple. There are notable exceptions to the general flight to white loaf breads as Europeans acquired the trappings of prosperity but all involve a culture re-evaluating bread and its meaning and usually also modifying the peasant recipe to make the bread more like white bread.

Even in the eighteenth century in West phalia the crudest and densest of all black breads — Westphalian pumpernickel — was served at the best tables sliced thinly with butter. Today a tamer version of what was a coal-black bread of dirt-poor peasants is sold internationally pre-sliced in plastic wrappers explicitly for hors d’oeuvres — in other words as a taste rather than as a food.

Historically, the whitest loaves were always smaller than other loaves. The highest-status breads of all were baked in the form of rolls, a form one can think of as a labour-intensive personal loaf. White breads were formulated to be ‘light’. The higher-status the bread the ‘lighter’ it had to be, meaning it had to have both distinct air holes (though not necessarily large ones) and a soft crumb. Since there is an inverse relationship between rising time and the softness of the bread, the softest breads must be yeast-leavened because only yeast can push a dough fast enough to produce the theoretically softest crumb. The addition of some fat further softens the crumb and thus it is no surprise that the early modern French court bread, pain à la Reine, the queen’s bread, was made with both yeast and milk.

In the democratization of taste that took place in the nineteenth century, as vast numbers of the European peasantry moved into cities and moved up the social ladder, breads that had been at the top of the social ladder became quotidian. While there is a contemporary critique of the qualities of soft breads found in industrial breads, in profound ways our industrial breads incorporate the ideal of bread as it was conceived for centuries, if not millennia. One might even say that the cultural critique of so much bread as ‘empty calories’ is in fact its greatest triumph: in its very essence is baked the cultural marker that says ‘Whoever buys this bread does not live on bread alone.’

Because of the inherent shortcuts taken in the making of industrial bread — it is made by robots; no human care, not even a touch, is expended on any one loaf — it shares the cultural marker of expediency that went with the sourleavened loaves of poverty and the huge loaves of bread baked for the working poor. In England, depending on the era, brown breads purchased in the bakery could weigh 9-14 kg (20-30 lb), or more. The larger of the two loaves carried by the servant in Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s painting Return from the Market (1739) is so large and heavy the woman carrying it has to rest it on a table while she eavesdrops on the other servant’s conversation with the man in the doorway. As mentioned in the context of the English baking laws, the larger the loaf, the less refined the flour that was used to bake it. We can infer from its size that the large loaf is made with something other than white flour.

The place to look in one’s own life for an example of bread functioning almost purely as a social marker is on the formal dinner table. Bread really doesn’t have a culinary role on the modern dinner table. It is there by custom. One may be annoyed not to see it there, but it is not an integral part of the meal. The host will not think anything of it if you eat everything on your plate but don’t touch the bread. The starch that is part of the meal is on the plate — it is the potato, the rice, the polenta. The more care you take in selecting the loaf, and the less is eaten, the more you can know that in your own household the bread’s primary function is something other than food. The less we need it the more it is like the dinner set, and as with the dinner set, the more it can be parsed for subtle social cues. And that is the subject of the next chapter — the various aspects of bread from crust to crumb that are manipulated by the baker to serve the dual role of giving the bread its character as a food and a range of messages as a cultural object.


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Bread: A Global History, published by Reaktion Books, 2011. 


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