Wednesday, January 13, 2010


I'm back in NJ and rereading the posts I sent from New Mexico. There is one I'd now like to modify: "Bread". In this essay I may have led readers to believe that indigenous people of the Americas did not discover leavening. In fact this is not true - they did work out the basic process, but used it differently.

My insight comes from an exhibit in the El Paso (TX) archaeology museum, one of the last places we visited before getting on the plane home. (Another last-minute visit was Hueco Tanks State Park, where the information I'm about to share was reiterated by a very knowledgeable ranger, Jane McFarland.)

"Scorpion man" pictograph, Hueco Tanks State Park

Indigenous Americans  learned to ferment grains and had elaborate ceremonies in which the products were consumed. Thus, fermentation - as well as grain cultivation - played both a nutritional and cultural role.

I'd forgotten, when I wrote my column, that leavening and fermentation are essentially the same process but with one crucial difference: leavening produces gasses that cause wet doughs to expand and fermentation produces ethanol alcohol. (Beer, after all, has been called "liquid bread.")

In our "advanced" culture we don't think of intoxicants as having nutritional value, but they do. This applies not only to fermented grains but non-alcohol intoxicants as well. I believe I'm recalling correctly  that Mark Plotkin, in his book The Shaman's Apprentice, cites a nutritional analysis of coca leaves that reveals how crucial they are to the Andean diet.

It's sad and a little mysterious to consider how corrosive European alcohol products were to a civilization that already had thousands of years of experience with ethanol. I'm sure the reasons have to do with the cultural devastation we wrought as well as the potency of our booze.

It's not only the purity of food that matters to the health of a civilization - it's the way culture and food intertwine. This is not news, it's precisely what the "slow food" movement preaches. Yet I wonder if a cultural philosophy can be imposed by rational process. It seems to me that culture is organic, evolving as slowly as the grains on which the humans and their civilization depend. Imposed culture is an innate contradiction - not a pleasant prospect for our world. Western civilization now embraces a non-sustainable agriculture based on petroleum products. The business model that fills our dining tables might collapse if unable to stuff foods with worthless but profitable additives.

But such gloomy thoughts shouldn't stop anyone from baking good bread. In fact, doing so is an act of quiet resistance, perhaps even rebellion. And as we all know, it's rebellious acts that move culture forward.

Today's tip:

One of the key ingredients of good breads is the water. If you have access to good spring water, lucky you. If you don't, it might be worth your time to drive to a potable spring. Make sure the water has been tested, because baking does not kill all bad bugs. Sweet spring water adds immeasurably to already-good breads.

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