I remember it as though it were yesterday. I was four or five years old, sitting on a tall chair, alone in my uncles kitchen. My uncle was a grain trader, but I did not know what that was at the time.
I believe my parents had business elsewhere and had left me there that day, planning to come back for me later. I sat alone, looking out the window into the cobblestone streets, watching towns people pass creating shadows in the sunlight that was streaming through the window.
The sunlight flickered onto the floor making it glitter like gold. A soft hazy shade of gold almost hard to believe, like magic, rippling across the floor. What was that on the floor? Finally I slid down from the chair because I wanted to touch the yellow stuff that lay scattered everywhere. The whole floor was heaped with this dry, crackling stuff.
It was not pleasant to hold in my young hand. In fact, it frightened me. Stalks that had looked smooth as silk felt sharp and raw. Their dry brittleness bit into my palm and their smell was sharp. They had long soft hairs growing from hard little heads. It seemed to me I had often seen this on the street, though never glowing golden like this. Wasn’t it the same stuff that spilled out of the feed bags of horses when they ate? I was afraid of horses – so I began to cry. My uncle came back into the kitchen carrying a box. He wondered why I was crying.
“Why are you crying silly? Don’t you know what that is?”
He held it against my cheek. It tickled and pricked at the same time. I pulled my head away.
“It’s grass,” I stammered.
“Grain samples, that’s what it is” My uncle said. “There’s no reason to cry about it.”
I asked, “What is grain?”
My uncle smiled. “When you go home you’ll find it on the supper table. Look at it closely. then you’ll see that you like it.”
When I arrived home, very tired, there was nothing golden or yellow on the table. My father, a tall slim man, bent over and cut the bread. The crust of the bread was brown and glossy as my fathers sideburns, and inside the bread was as white as my fathers quiet face. In the light of the oil lamps the bread seemed even quieter and more peaceful. Safety and stillness emanated from the loaf of bread, and from my father’s hands.
I forgot what i was supposed to ask him. It seemed silly to me to imagine that the strange yellow stuff from my uncles kitchen floor had any connection with the familiar bread on the table. No, it did not even seem silly. i had forgotten the other thing completely; the bread was just there – it could not be any different.
Years later I recounted this childhood experience to a dear friend named Ben. A local scholar and inventor who had facilitated Philadelphia’s first Fire department and university. He laughed briefly.
“You were wiser than your uncle,” He said “and right on every count. It is legitimate to fear a stalk of grain. Even though one does not know it’s history. one knows that it is indeed a hero with it’s plume, a miracle of statics with it’s stone armor of petrified silicic acid. That is why grain crackles when the wind plays among the stalks. The wild Germans and Slavs were terrified by it when they entered the Roman Empire and heard this sound for the first time.”
I stared at him in fascination as he spoke.
“It was the most natural thing in the world, your not being able to identify the grain and bread. How unlikely it seems. Like a magic trick of nature to transmute one to the other. It took man ten thousand years before he learned to make bread out of the grains he had roasted or eaten as a porridge.”
“Who invented bread?”
“We don’t know. But it was undoubtedly an individual of that unique nation which combined the peasant’s patience with the curiosity of the chemist. Undoubtedly an Egyptian.”
“Then since the times of egypt, bread has always had it’s place at our tables?”
“Not at all; much too rarely,” he replied hesitantly. “Often the farmer could not plant grain because his tools were taken away or he was too oppressed by taxes. It is a piteous tale. But there are happier tales about bread. The most wonderful story I know is, perhaps, that this bread, thousands of years old though it is, is not yet finished in the baking. The entire story of bread goes deep – it’s social and technical, religious, political and scientific story.”
“Religious?” I asked.
“Certainly, bread has played a tremendous part in the life of religions. most of the great cultural faiths strove first to become and to remain ‘religions of bread…’”
“Why don’t you write the story?”
His expression became very wise and very old. His tone changed suddenly to that of the great scholar or retiring statesmen.
“Why don’t YOU try to write it? Write the story that is not yet finished! All there is to do is to examine everything there is in human history from chemistry and agriculture to theology, from economic history to politics and law. Take notes for twenty years, and then peer into the future itslef. Only then may you begin to write!”
I can easily recall his smile, It was kind – but not without irony. I sat for several seconds in silence considering his proposal.
“No,” I finally said, “It is good enough for me to simply continue to bake it I believe.”
- Adapted/stolen from the prologue to:
“Six Thousand Years of Bread” -H.E. Jacob