The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of Bread: A 6,000 Year History

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Duration 01:07:22

Allegheny College

Eric Pallant is the Christine Scott Nelson Endowed Professor of Environmental Science and Sustainability at Allegheny College.  A two-time Fulbright Scholar, as well as a two-time award-winning professor for Excellence in Teaching, Professor Pallant has been featured on NPR and CNNand in publications such as Foreign Policy and Science.  A serious amateur baker, he is the author of Sourdough Culture: The History of Bread Making from Ancient to Modern Bakers.


History of Bread Timeline

For at least 6,000 years, people have summoned sourdough starter seemingly out of the air and combined it with milled wheat, water, and a dash of salt to produce The Staff of Life: Bread. In a 45-minute, 6,000-year journey through history, we will see why bread was the greatest invention of all time (NOT the slicer). Along the way, we will meet ancient Egyptian pyramid builders, bygone Roman bakers, medieval housewives, Gold Rush miners, and historical celebrities like Plato, Pliny the Elder, and Marie Antoinette.

History of Bread Facts

Then we will watch bread fall into deserved disrespect at the end of the twentieth century. Commercial yeast will displace sourdough as bread’s primary leavening agent, machines will replace hands as the tools of manufacture, and monetary efficiency will take the place of flavor as pale squidgy loaves march forth by the millions looking and tasting like they were made by a photocopier. Finally, we will consider the rise of a new artisanal bread culture and see how modern bakers are remaking our bread economy and repurposing our fundamental human connection with food.


Recommended Reading on The History of Bread:


Discussion Questions About The Rise and Fall of Bread: A 6,000 Year History:

  1. Why do most people salivate when they smell, or even just think about, freshly baked bread?
  2. If bread was the primary source of calories and carbohydrates for western civilizations, what were the equivalent carbohydrates that gave rise to civilizations in Asia, Africa, and the Americas?
  3. Why have we traded away handmade (good quality) bread for inexpensive mass-produced bread, or as Julia Childs asked, “How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?”



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Marc Tanenbaum

A Yeasty Presentation

This presentation on the history of bread was quite interesting and well done. I never knew that the Ukraine was the wheat belt of the Roman Empire and today’s war is disrupting wheat supplies to the mid-East and North Africa. Well done!

2 years ago
Greg Paskal

Very informative

My wife and I really enjoyed your teaching on such an interesting topic.

Thank you,
The Paskal Family

2 years ago
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