Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Darned if I know where I downloaded this when I was doing research for the Demeter story, but I thought it was fascinating.

Wheat was originally a wild grass. Evidence exists that it first grew in Mesopotamia and in the Tigris and Euphrates River valleys in the Middle East nearly 10,000 years ago. As early as 6,700 B.C. Swiss lake dwellers used wheat in flat cakes.

It was the Egyptians who discovered how to make yeast-leavened breads between 2,000 and 3,000 B.C. Since wheat is the only grain with sufficient gluten content to make a raised or leavened loaf of bread, wheat quickly became favored over other grains grown at the time, such as oats, millet, rice, and barley. The workers who built the pyramids in Egypt were paid in bread.

In 150 B.C., the first bakers' guilds were formed in Rome. Roman bakeries produced a variety of breads and distributed free bread to the poor in times of need.

In 1202, England adopted laws to regulate the price of bread and limit bakers' profits. Many bakers were prosecuted for selling loaves that did not conform to the weights required by local laws. As a result of the bread trials in England in 1266, bakers were ordered to mark each loaf of bread. The bakers' marks were among the first trademarks.

Wheat is not native to the United States. It was not grown by the colonists because it did not do well in the New England soil and climate. In 1777, wheat was first planted in the United States - as a hobby crop.

There are indications that wheat was produced as early as 1839 in the area that became the state of Kansas. Records on Kansas wheat production pre-date statehood (1861). Production statistics on wheat in Kansas have been published since 1866.

Between 1874 and 1884, 5,000 Russian Mennonites settled in Kansas. They brought with them Turkey Red winter wheat. Scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture also introduced wheats from eastern Europe in 1900. These wheats from the Russian Mennonites and the USDA provided the basic genetic material for the successful production of hard red winter wheat in the Great Plains. Although most of the early wheats are no longer grown for commercial production, most of the strains of hard red
winter wheat grown on the Great Plains prior to 1969 were developed from those early ancestors, first brought to Kansas in 1872.

The invention of the mechanical reaper by Cyrus McCormick in 1831, made it possible to harvest wheat much more efficiently than by hand with scythes or sickles. By hand, farmers could cut only 2 acres of wheat a day. With Cyrus McCormick's invention of
the mechanical reaper, farmers could cut 8 acres a day.

In 1928, the commercial bread slicer was perfected and used for the first time in a commercial bakery at Chillicothe, Missouri. By 1930, sliced bread and the introduction of the automatic toaster had increased consumption of toast at breakfast. But, in 1942 during wartime rationing, the sale of sliced bread was banned in an effort to hold down prices.

Today, wheat is grown on more acres in the United States than any other grain. Between 60 and 63 million acres of wheat are harvested each year in the United States. If all the acres were side by side, the wheat fields would cover more than 100,000 square miles. Today's modern combines can cut an acre of wheat in 6 minutes or less.

42 states produce wheat, which is divided into 6 different classes in the United States. Soft red winter wheat and soft white wheats are grown east of the Mississippi River. West of the Mississippi, the wheats grown include hard red winter, hard red spring, durum, hard white, and soft white. Soft white wheat is grown in the Pacific Northwest while spring and durum wheats are grown in the Northern Plains.

In the Plains States, such as Kansas, hard red winter wheat has dominated wheat production. However, that may change in the next few years, as a number of hard white winter wheats are being developed for states such as Kansas.

During the past 20 years, grain yields in wheat have increased approximately 1/2 bushel per acre per year. Kansas ranks first among the states in wheat produced, wheat stored, wheat milled into flour, and in the production of wheat gluten and wheat starch. With today's yields, a family of four could live 10 years off the bread produced by one acre of Kansas wheat.

More foods are made with wheat than any other cereal grain. Wheat contributes between 10-20% of the daily caloric intake in people in over 60 countries. There are more than 1,000 varieties of bread on the market.

A Short History of Bread

About 10,000 B.C., man first started eating a crude form of flat bread - a baked combination of flour and water.

Ancient Egyptians are believed to be the first to have baked leavened (raised) bread. About 3,000 B.C., they started fermenting a flour and water mixture by using wild yeast which was present in the air. Since wheat is the only grain with sufficient gluten content to make a raised or leavened loaf of bread, wheat quickly became favored over other grains grown at the time, such as oats, millet, rice, and barley.

The Egyptians also developed ovens in which several loaves of bread could be baked at the same time. Bread for the rich was made from wheat flour, bread for those who weren't wealthy was made from barley, and bread for the poor was made from sorghum.

Even though the Egyptians and Romans and later bakers made leavened bread, it was not until the 1800's that yeast was identified as a plant-like organism. Yeast converts carbohydrates into alcohol, producing carbon dioxide in the process, which is a
leavening gas.

By the 1850's, the United States had 2,017 bakeries, employing over 6,700 workers.

In the late 1930's and early 1940's, bread was chosen as the foundation for a diet enrichment program in the United States. Diseases such as pellagra, beriberi, and anemia had become widespread. These diseases were associated with a lack of
B-vitamins and iron. Since bread was a daily food item for most Americans, even those with poor diets, specific amounts of iron, thiamin, niacin, and riboflavin were added to white flour. This enrichment program was a major factor in the elimination of pellagra and beriberi in the United States, as well as in reducing anemia among Americans. In 1998, folic acid, a key nutrient in the prevention of serious birth defects, was added to all enriched grain foods, including bread.

In 1910, Americans were each eating about 210 pounds of wheat flour each year. That dropped to an all-time low of 110 pounds in 1971 but has steadily increased since then. In 1997, American wheat flour consumption per person reached 150 pounds. In
contrast, Egyptians each eat about 385 pounds of wheat each year.

Wheat is primarily made up of complex carbohydrates which provide a source of time-released energy. Since 1990, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines have recommended that Americans eat 6 to 11 servings of bread and other grain foods every day.


Rebecca Clayton said...

Interesting stuff! Did you ever read about the wild ancestors of wheat, and the strange history of its domestication? Given your comfort with hard-core geology langauge, you'd probably find the Wikipedia article on wheat interesting. They include a link to "wheat taxonomy," another pretty good article.

prairie mary said...

Hi Rebecca, A person can sit down in a cafe in this little village any day and stir up a pretty good conversation about wheat and wheat varieties. In the years when there is a bug about who lives inside the hollow stems of the wheat, the farmers plant wheat with solid stems. There was an experiment with "black bearded" wheat one year -- I thought it looked very dramatic, but the locals thought it was "against nature" and wouldn't plant it!

My father's roommate from Manitoba Agricultural College in Winnipeg (now U of Manitoba) was Rudy Peterson, who was a vital part of the Green Revolution in India. Ag was a proud and progressive thing to do in those days.

Prairie Mary

Anonymous said...

I am puzzled by your source's assertion that sliced bread was outlawed in 1942. Sliced bread might, at times, have been in short supply; but I don't recall a time, during WWII, when it wasn't legal. I'll have to check with those whose memories are more reliable than mine.
Cop Car