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'Six Thousand Years of Bread'

March 12, 2008 | 11:40 am

Img_2328Sometimes you run across books that are so well-written or beautifully envisioned that they become obsessive reads; they suffer the trials of coffee stains and seawater; they change your life. Joyce and Beckett; Paula Wolfert and Claudia Roden; "Chez Panisse Cooking" and "The French Laundry Cookbook."  And, for me, a book that is far more obscure than any of those, but deserves not to be. 

"Six Thousand Years of Bread," by H.E. Jacob, is a magnificent survey of bread, from its pre-history (Homer's Greeks roasted barley, while the Scythians preferred oats, a food much disdained by St. Jerome; wheat, meanwhile, originated in Abyssinia) to its first incarnation as risen dough in Egypt (where bread became not only a principal food but a unit of measurement and currency) to the Christian transformative metaphor of bread to a Brothers Grimm fairy tale about a mother who baked shoes for her daughter. Gorgeously written, referencing history, economics, politics and literature, Jacob's book is astonishing not only for its breadth and scope, but for the fact that it was written at all.

Jacob, a German Jew, Viennese newspaper correspondent and author blacklisted by the Nazis, was sent to Dachau and then Buchenwald.  (His wife hid the pages of his unfinished manuscript.)  When he was released in 1939, Jacob fled to the U.S., where he lived in exile and finished his book -- much of it at the New York Public Library.  It was published, in English, in 1944.  A remarkable event, especially considering that the last chapter is about Hitler's methodology of organized famine.  In the penultimate chapter, Jacob describes the bread he and his fellow prisoners ate at Buchenwald, which wasn't really bread at all, but a mixture of potato flour, peas and sawdust: "The inside was the color of lead; the crust looked and tasted like iron.  We called it bread, in memoriam of the real bread we had formerly eaten.... We loved it."

Out of print for many years, the book was reprinted in 1970, and again in 1997 and 2007 -- thanks largely to the many bakers who loved Jacob's book as much as he loved bread.

"Six Thousand Years of Bread," by H.E. Jacob (Skyhorse Publishing; 2007). (The photo is of an earlier edition; Lyons Press, 1997.)  Available (by order) at Cook's Library and Vroman's Bookstore and from www.amazon.com, www.barnesandnoble.com and www.borders.com

-- Amy Scattergood

Photo by Amy Scattergood