Bread, across time and space

(This article first appeared in the newsletter “One World” in the spring of 2009.)

The hamburger or hot dog bun of America, the pizza of Italy, the tortillas of Mexico – these breads have become iconic to those cultures.

Bread is one of the most basic foods prepared by Man and is present, in one form or another, in practically every culture on Earth.  Even before cultivating grain crops, early humans gathered and processed tubers, roots and grains for breads.  The results of the hunt may have been the first food to be placed over a fire, but breads are certainly among the earliest and most commonly-eaten foodstuffs in any culture.

This most basic of foods offers flexibility, a direct tie to the Earth, and satisfaction for the soul.  (Who can remain “uptight” when working or kneading dough?  Who can be unmoved by the smell of fresh bread?)

Peoples have a special relationship to their breads – a relationship deeper than with other foods…a relationship that transcends bread as mere food.  An Italian man relates how a piece of bread accidentally dropped would never be left to be wasted on the ground, as that would be disrespectful.  A woman of Middle Eastern descent says that “the old ones” – the women of her heritage – thought bread was “holy” because it was a divine gift.

Bread may take different forms in different cultures, but it is important across cultures.  Evidence has been found of breads in early Sumer and Pompeii.   Nan from India may be “plain” or enhanced with fruits or cheese.  The braided breads of Greece nourish body and spirit, as special breads are made on important Holy Days.  The style is as varied as the flexibility of Ethiopia’s injera to the flatbreads of the Middle East to the rice pancakes of the Orient. Many cultures use bread as utensil as well as food.  Flat breads are used for this purpose in Ethiopia and across the Middle East and Central Asia today and in Western societies in the past. In medieval Europe, the “trencher” was a piece of stale bread which served as a plate. After the meal, the trencher could be eaten. According to an entry in Wikipedia, “It was not until the fifteenth century that trenchers made of wood started to replace the bread variety.”

Consider some common sayings from Western culture.  We “break bread together” to signify our community through shared nourishment.  The term “bread and water” is used to signify the most basic requirements of sustenance and our cultural language contains many references to its importance…the phrases “our daily bread”  — “the staff of life” — “it’s bread upon the waters” — “Man does not live by bread alone.” — “upper crust” — “the greatest thing since sliced bread” … the meanings cover varied situations, but the underlying stress is on the importance of bread as life-sustaining metaphor.  The names chosen for some groups combatting hunger equate “bread” with “food” — Bread for the World (  and Project Bread (  are examples.

There are, of course, many more than can be related here.  Reflect on the possible origin of these sayings and you will understand the central position this seemingly humble food holds in our hearts and minds and memories.

The next time you “grab a sandwich” or nosh a bagel or roll up a tortilla for a quick on-the-go snack, pause for just a moment to contemplate how that simple act is an exercise in multiculturalism and a link across time and space to the soda bread and bannocks of Ireland and Scotland, the bánh cuốn (rice pancakes) of Vietnam, the hearty rye bread of seafaring Scandinavians, the lavosh of Armenia….a trail that leads directly back to ancient peoples.

Wheat, rice, oats, corn, rye, amaranth, barley — these are “gifts of the harvest” that bind us together with Nature and with our fellow humans.  When we stop to truly think about our actions and to live consciously, we find many such links…few, however, are as honest, as filling, and as fulfilling, as our breads.


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