The Original Influencer: Eyes of Bread, Episode 1

Second to language, bread is the most influential innovation in all of human history. Notice that I did not say it was the best. Working the land to get the grain needed to make bread is a lot of hard work. Many wars have been fought to expand empires that are run on bread. I might even argue that one of the main reasons for war is to have more land to grow more grain to make more bread. This alone would take bread out of the running for the “best” innovation. However, bread has influenced so much of our way of life, our language, our religion, and more that I call it the “Original Influencer.”

Some argue that grain is the most influential innovation. While this has a lot of merit, I would argue that without bread grain would have a lot less influence and be relegated to an occasional foodstuff, and not THE staple food for more than two thousand years.

What is bread? 

The dictionary defines bread as a foodstuff made of flour, water, and a leavening agent that is mixed together and baked. This is a good definition of leavened bread, but what about unleavened breads? Before we can get to the great sourdoughs history has to offer, we have to look at the unleavened predecessor. 

In this series we will start with the ancients, and their breadstuffs. The hunter and gatherers who may have baked bread over an open fire. The Natufians who created the oldest bread oven in the archaeological record. Finally we will approach the Egyptians who perfected sourdough, which was the earliest and most prolific of the leavened breads.

We can’t talk about bread and grain without talking about bread’s sibling, beer. Bread and Brew are cognate. This means that these two words come from the same word. Sometimes as language progresses we have words that come to have two meanings, and then they split into two (or more) words. Bread and Brew are one example of this.

We will also mention bread’s children. Bread and beer were the first children of grain, and led to the proliferation of many children products which we can find in our larders today, including cereal, pasta, cakes, and more.

Bread can be made from many different grains. The most common grain to be used for bread is wheat, which accounts for about 20% of all dietary energy for humans, world wide. Rice, another common grain, accounts for another 20% of dietary energy. While usually eaten as…  rice…  can be used to make breads, pasta, and other foods as well. It can also be brewed to make rice wine. Maize is a late arrival for the European diet, but was grown in the Americas for almost as long as the other grains. Note that maize is called corn by us Americans, however, I’ll use the more accurate term of Maize throughout this podcast. Maize now accounts for more than 5% of the world’s dietary energy, and much more in parts of the Americas. Grains in general account for more than half of all dietary energy consumed by humans worldwide.

Grain is the seed of a variety of plants. Cereal grains are the most common, and the ones we will focus on the most. Cereal grains come from members of the grass family and include maize, wheat, oat, rice, millet, and more. We will also visit with the other members, pulses, pseudo cereals and oilseeds. Pulses are members of the legume family and include beans, peas, peanuts, and mores. Pseudo cereals include amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat and more. Oilseeds include mustards, asters like safflower and sunflower, flax, and more.

Now that we have defined bread and grain, let’s talk about the many influences bread has had. Reviewing my thesis: second to language, bread is the most influential of all human innovations. It is not the best. Many of the influences bread has had can be argued to be bad things, depending on your perspective. However, they were still influences. In fact, bread is so influential, it has even influenced the most influential innovation: 


Let’s start with some of the obvious influences bread has made on languages. In English bread, and later dough, are terms synonymous with money. These, however, are modern terms. The earliest known written account referring to Dough as money is 1848. The first written account of using bread for money was in Robinson Crusoe in 1719. We know that words are probably in common use before they are written down, so it could have been hundreds of years earlier that bread came to mean money in spoken English. In fact, we have strong evidence for this. In Old English, the word Bread meant a piece of food. The Old English word for bread was hlaf. This is the predecessor of the modern word loaf. The Old English word HlafWeard meant head of household and was a compound of hlaf or loaf, and weard. Weard is where we get ward and warden in modern English. “Weard” basically means guardian. So a hlafweard is the guardian of the bread. Bread was so valuable that we had the man of the house guard it. That word, hlafweard, has been compressed over time and still exists in modern English as the word lord, which is the head of a noble household. 

In English we have many other bread related phrases. The breadwinner is the one who brings home the bread, or money. The upper crust is the high society. When you are pregnant, you have a bun in the oven. 

Not all bread terms are positive though. If I get angry, I might say “your toast! I’m going to give you a knuckle sandwich.” 

But, wait, that’s not all. When we have a meal with someone, we want that someone to be someone we enjoy spending time with. A companion. Companion comes from the Latin com, meaning, with or coming together and panis, meaning bread. So a companion is literally someone you eat bread with. This word companion is found in most of the Romance languages. 

Spanish: Companero

French: Compagnon

Portuguese: companheiro

Italian: Compagno

Catalan: Company

That brings me to another related word. Company. When you go into business, you also want to be willing to break bread with the people in the company that you have to accompany, right? There are a few other words from the Latin panis.

  • A pantry is the place you store your bread (and other food)
  • Pannier is a little used word that is basically a fancy word for bread basket
  • Impanate is another little used word that I think should be used more. It means contained or embodied in bread.  Maybe impanated would have been a good name for this podcast?
  • Empanada, a Spanish word that has jumped into English that is a pastry filled with savory ingredients and baked or fried. Super yummy!
  • Appanage is another fun rare word. It is an allowance of sorts. OED defines it as “The provision made for the maintenance of the younger children of kings, princes, etc.” So it is the bread that is given to the royal children.

I don’t want to limit this discussion to English, or we could say that bread only influences English. I’m not a linguist. In fact English is unfortunately the only language I speak well enough to hold a conversation. However, I have searched for other bread terms. As we learn about different areas of the world, we will talk more about the bread related terminology that is common in that language. As I said, I’ve just started to break the surface, and I only have a few terms here. If you know of more, particularly if you speak the language, please go to, go to The Language of Bread, and fill out the form there to let me know what you know.

Spanish has Pan y palo. The bread and stick. Similar to the English Carrot and stick. I don’t know about you, but I’d be more motivated by a good loaf of bread, than a carrot. Unless that carrot was in a cake. I do love a good carrot cake. In minecraft you can ride a pig using a carrot on a stick to guide the pig. In the Spanish version, it should be a loaf of bread on a stick.

In Arabic they have a phrase meaning “give the dough to the baker, even if he eats half”. He knows his job, let him do it. You do your job. It may cost you, but it is worth it.

In Polish they say “It’s a roll with butter.” It’s so easy, it’s like putting butter on a roll. Similar to the English piece of cake.

A Persian proverb says “bake bread while the oven is hot.” Do it now! Don’t wait for the oven to cool down! While the oven is hot, let’s talk about religion!


Many religions have referenced bread in both a positive and negative light throughout history. As we get to each region we will talk more about that regions religions and those religions references to bread, however, to get us started, let’s look at Genesis 3:17 to 19, and then a quick look at the Greeks, before we wrap up the section on religion with a list of several other bread religions from around the world.

The Hebrew Tanahk which is the same as the Christian Old Testament starts with the Book of Genesis. This story tells of the beginning of man, including his exile from the Garden of Eden and why bread is such hard work to produce. 

A little background for those not familiar with this story. Adam and Eve were living in luxury. They had all the food they could eat, the most beautiful scenery, and lots of love. They just had to obey one rule. Don’t eat from one specific tree. One day a serpent came along and convinced Eve to take just one little bite. After she did she understood more about life, and convinced Adam to take a bite as well. They had broken the one rule, and because of this, they could not stay in the Garden of Eden any longer. God came to them, judged them, and gave his verdict. For this I will read from the Original King James, which is my favorite English translation, even if it is a little archaic.

17 And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;

So here, God says to his beloved Adam. “Dude, I gave you one command. Don’t eat that! Because you did, you have to leave!” This tree imparted “knowledge” onto Adam and Eve. Since they had the knowledge, they could not stay in the Garden. They had to leave, and out there, there was not all this great food. “You will have to work hard for your food instead of just picking it from the vine.”

18 Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;

19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

The Hebrews thought of growing wheat and making bread to be hard work and painful toil. You will sweat and world head just for bread until you die and return to dust.

Not all people considered bread to be a bad thing. The Greeks thought men were like wild beasts before agriculture placing the growing of grain on a higher plane than gathering food. In fact, the Greeks and later Romans worshiped gods that controlled various aspects of the growing, baking, and enjoyment of one of their most important foods. Bread.

Demeter, daughter of Cronus and Rhea, sister to Zeus is the Greek goddess of the Harvest and of Grain. Legend tells us that when her daughter Persephone was kidnapped by Hades and taken to the underworld, Demeter’s attention was pulled away from the Harvest and a great famine was brought upon the people. Bread was so important that when Demeter’s attention was pulled away from her job, people starved.

Demeter’s sister Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, is also a protector of the bread. She was the first born of Cronus and Rhea. Cronus grew jealous of his children, so ate them all. Zeus, the youngest, evaded this when his mother fed Cronus a rock instead. When Zeus grew up he forced Cronus to disgorge all his swallowed children. Hestia was the last to be disgorged, so as such, she is both the oldest and youngest of the children of Cronus. 

The Greeks, of course, had other godly and heroic protectors of their favorite food. Demeter’s son Bootes (bow-oh-tees) invented the plow and wagon, key tools in agriculture. Cronus, the Titan I mentioned above who ate his children, used a Scythe as his key tool and weapon. A scythe is the tool used for harvesting prior to the advent of tractors for the job. In fact there are dozens of gods and heroes in Greek mythology who have roots in agriculture.

Other groups worship bread to various degrees.

  • In Roman mythology, Ceres taught men how to prepare and preserve grain. Cereal is named after her. 
  • The Semetic god Dagon is credited with teaching the Amorites how to build a plow. 
  • The Egyptians had a grain god they called Neper. Neper was later absorbed into aspects of Osiris. 
  • Many ancient gods, such as the Summarian god Tammuz are related to the cycle of life, death, and rebirth that we see in agriculture. These gods are often associated with grain as well.
  • According to the Popol Voh, an ancient sacred Mayan text, man was created out of a dough made from maize after clay and wood had not worked.

As I could spend an hour just listing these gods, we will talk about them in more detail when we get to the region they are from and move on to talk about how bread has influenced our way of life.

Way of Life

Religion and language hit the core of our way of life, but it is not all there is to life. Let’s take a brief look at how bread has affected our lives throughout history. How about we first take a look at the tools that have been invented by our quest for better bread. 

Some of the oldest tools in the archeological record are related to the making of bread. After we have basic survival tools such as hand axes and knives, we begin to have specialized tools for various tasks. One such task was to grind things up. Two early tools for this were the quern and the mortar and pestle. 

A quern consists of two flat stones placed one on top of the other. Or a flat stone with a cylindrical one (like a rolling pin) on top. Grain is put between them and the top stone is turned to grind the grain. Instead of a quern, the more popular mortar and pestle is used by many cultures and is still in use in modern times. You may even have one in your kitchen. A mortar is a bowl and the pestle is a pounding stick. You fill the mortar with the material you wish to grind. The pestle is repeatedly pushed and turned against the material in the mortar pulverizing it. This tool is often associated  with chemists as they use it to grind up chemicals. Pharmacists used to use these tools to grind their goods as well. Artists can use it to pulverize minerals to use as a base for paints. Probably the oldest use for this tool is to grind food. The oldest Mortar and Pestle I have been able to dig up in my searches is dated to stone age China, some 35,000 years ago. As many are made of wood and will break down quickly, it is likely that there were mortar and pestles much earlier.

While much newer tools, the sickle and the scythe are harvesting tools that also date to the stone age. These tools are seen in common culture around the world. I mentioned earlier that Cronus carried a scythe. This was later adopted for the vision of who we now call the Grim Reaper. This tool can be used with great ease to reap both grain and men. The sharp blade cuts through both quickly and easily. The sickle is seen in many icons as well. The hammer and sickle represents the union of the peasantry and working class and is used as a symbol of communism. It can be seen on the flags of many communist countries.

Notice that these tools that are used for bread are also used in war, and as propaganda in war. One such use of bread as propaganda was the statement that is commonly attributed to Marie Antoinette. “Well, let them eat cake!”.

The story goes that someone told Queen Antoinette that the common people had no bread to eat. Supposedly Marie Antoinette said “Well, let them eat cake!” Such a comment would certainly show her ignorance of the plight of the people, and propagating such a comment around the country would shore up support for removing these royals who eat cake when the people can’t afford bread. It is, however, quite unlikely that Marie Antoinette ever said such a thing. First, this statement had been attributed to many princesses before Marie Antoinette was ever born. Second, there was no famine around this time, and only one bread shortage which this could have been associated with. Marie Antoinette’s letters to families show she was concerned about the peasantry. She spoke of “the people who treat us so well despite their own misfortune.” 


As we can see, bread, grain, and agriculture in general are key ingredients in our modern lifestyle. Bread has played heavily in the development of every civilization as well as many “non-civilized” peoples around the world and on every continent. Over the next several episodes we will be relying heavily on the archeological record. We will have to make some guesses based on what the evidence shows us. We will have very limited written history to pull from until much later in the series. Even once we start having some written record some of what we are talking about is so common that it was not written down. As we go, we will see how hard it can be to get a glimpse into the common life as people did not write about it. We will often run into roadblocks where cooks and bakers choose not to write recipes, presumably to keep it private. 

These episodes will look at the earliest times we know about humans. We will look at the pre-history of man, meaning the time before writing. We will look at some of the earliest cities around the world before we jump into early civilizations and city states. Slowly we will move forward through history.

In the next episode we will jump right into the deep end as we search for the first loaf. This is the area where we have to make the most guesses with the least amount of data. These people had no writing and much of the garbage they left behind that we now use as archeological evidence has been returned to the earth. Wood tools have long since rotted. Stone tools have been broken up by weather and other forces. Clay tools have found much the same fate. Little remains for us to learn from. Despite this, we know an amazing amount about how man evolved and how they may have first made bread.


Jae is a high school history teacher for an online school. After using bread as an example for a few lessons he realized that bread increased engagement in his class. After a lot of research he was able to add even more bread related lessons. Now most of his research is around bread and the history and culture related to bread.

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