Perhaps the simplest addition to a dinner table has a complex scientific background and a fascinating history. The story of bread gets a closer look in the forthcoming book Modernist Bread, by Nathan Myhrvold and Francisco Migoya. The five-volume anthology explores the art and science of bread making, and for Myhrvold, whose repertoire includes Modernist Cuisine and Modernist Cuisine at Home, it’s the culmination of his dive into what he calls a truly interesting subject.
Bread, as Myhrvold says during a recent taping of the Eater Upsell, is “one of the most basic human foods, and at one point in time, it was the primary source of calories for all of our ancestors.” Yet modern-day breads often bear little resemblance to ancient varieties, even when today’s bakers attempt to break away from standardized, grocery store breads in pursuit of the “old ways” of the craft.
“There was no nouvelle cuisine of bread,” Myhrvold says. “Instead, the bread movement that we're currently in started in the 1970s as the artisanal bread movement. And it was a total reaction to industrial, factory-made supermarket bread ... they were focused on ‘Let's go back to the old ways,’ [but what’s] interesting is, in fact, the old ways weren’t like that at all.”
Take ciabatta. “That ciabatta bread that every artisan bakery made was from 1985,” Myhrvold says. Ciabatta was indeed a recent invention: As the Guardian reports, an early version was created by an Italian baker in the early 1980s as a direct response to his country’s increasing reliance on French baguettes, and the bread itself was named for the Italian word for “slipper,” which the flat, elongated loaves resembled. Marks & Spencer brought the loaves to the United Kingdom in 1985 during a Mediterranean-eating craze, and Orlando Baking Company claims to be the first U.S. bakery to produce the loaves, starting in 1987.
“It's completely ersatz,” Myhrvold says of consumers’ assumptions that ciabatta and its descendants are an old-world bread variety. “The wonderful peasant breads that have high hydration with a big open crumb like the fabulous bread that Chad Robertson makes at Tartine? Entirely his invention.”
Over the years, the low cost of wheat in the United States has impacted the perception of what bread should be in this country, according to Myhrvold. “Wheat is cheaper than dirt,” he says. “If you take a loaf of bread, whether it's artisanal or supermarket bread, the amount of your money that went to the farmer is about five cents. And that farmer is making the very best wheat that five cents can buy.” And yet, “the way we've structured the agriculture system, if a guy wants to say, ‘Well, I'm gonna make better wheat and charge 15 cents,’ it's very hard for that guy to survive.”
Myhrvold wants to change this cycle. “If we demand better of our bakers and bakeries, and they demand better of the millers, and the millers demand better of the flour, instead of buying commodity flour or commodity wheat, we'll seek out [better] things,” he says. “That's what happened in wine and coffee and chocolate — we can absolutely make it happen [in bread]” — “old-school” or not.
Hear the full interview with Nathan Myhrvold below, talking carbohydrate history, and strategy tips for barbecuing dinosaurs. Subscribe to the Eater Upsell on iTunes, or listen on Soundcloud. You can also get the entire archive of episodes right here on Eater.