Speculative non-fiction

In the interests of easing myself gradually into research, I’ve continued my investigation of historical bread-baking with quite a modest volume, although not as tiny as the Shire Album with which I started. William Rubel’s Bread: A Global History is not a scholarly work (it lacks references), but some scholarship was clearly involved in its writing, as was a good deal of practical knowledge. Rubel is evidently a man who has spent some time travelling the world eating bread, and quite a lot of time baking it.

His interest in the topic goes beyond the culinary or the narrowly historical, and includes the understanding of bread as a cultural and social object, one which encodes markers of class and refinement in ways which have often become detached from their material or economic origins. Bread has played an important part in the rise of urban societies, particularly in the Fertile Crescent, where it seems to have been the foundation of the organised economy, and thus of the social hierarchies it supported. Its form has also served, for much of history, to distinguish a refined, elite dining table from a humble one, and in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries it is able to represent all manner of social distinctions, such as that which separates modern wholemeal-eating radical subcultures from bourgeois baguette fanciers.

Rubel begins with a survey of bread in the ancient world, looking at the grains and methods which were used in its production, as well as its socio-economic importance. He has a great deal to say about the refinement and creativity involved in bread-baking, although, unfortunately, much of this discussion is highly speculative. This may be all to the good for a general reader interested in an expert’s opinion, but for my purposes I’m inclined to quip ‘just the facts, ma’am’ and skip ahead a few pages when he waxes too imaginative—Rubel argues that the complexity of spun sugar sculptures in the Renaissance gives us cause to assume a great diversity of loaf forms in the late Neolithic, which may be a reasonable claim, but it’s of no use to my aim to ground my fantasy world’s baking practices in reality. I’ll do the imaginative stuff, thanks very much—I’ve turned to Rubel for the raw materials!

He goes on to slice his subject crosswise, with examinations of bread as a social marker, and as an intersection of parameters of taste—texture, flavour, crust, etc. This is very good stuff for my purposes, showing as it does how certain characteristics of bread have carried certain cultural meanings, and how historically determined those meanings are, with associations of health or high social status attaching to different parameters of taste in different socio-historical contexts. He breaks these ideas down thoroughly enough to give me some meat for speculation—he shows the ways in which such associations are formed, rather than simply cataloguing them.

Also useful to me is his travelogue of some selected contemporary bread cultures. In showing how the uses, production, distribution and social valuations of bread vary from place to place, he offers me some valuable insights into precisely what the parameters for such variation might be, and what choices I might make in designing the baking and bread-eating culture of my invented society. His discussion of bread in the twenty-first century is obviously less directly applicable to my pre-industrial world-building, but it still offers some food for thought—there is no reason, for example, why a pre-industrial society might not cultivate strains of yeast for their flavour profiles in baking, as he suggests may happen in our own society in the future.

The book concludes with a short chapter or appendix of recipes, which are of nearly as great use to me as the historical discussion, as they offer some insights into the experience of baking. This isn’t something of which I’m entirely ignorant, but I don’t bake bread often, and I’m not intending to do a lot of practical research—I just want to write characters who seem credible as bakers, to an informed as much as an uninformed reader. Rubel’s interest in historical methods is invaluable in helping me to imagine what the daily grind might look like in my imagined culture’s bakeries. His book is not without its faults, but it got me thinking, and that’s exactly what I’m looking for in this process. I’ll be moving on to much more substantial texts, which should give me a stronger technical basis for the actual writing, but I doubt they’ll be much more inspiring.

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