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The Mind of the Bread Baker and the Seeds of Empire

The harnessing of yeast to leaven dough, like the harnessing of seed to grow crops, altered the relationship between human beings and their planet

By Andrew Bard Schmookler. Andrew Bard Schmookler is the author of "The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution, " the second edition of which was published by the University Press of New York last year. / June 7, 1996

From the time my little son was eight months old, he and I have done the grocery shopping together. When Nathaniel was a toddler, discovering at every turn what the world was about, I used to joke that I took him to the supermarket because I wanted him to know where food really comes from. It's not just something that's there when you open the refrigerator, I'd say, you've got to go to the source, someplace like Safeway, where it sits on the shelves. He shouldn't take our getting our daily bread for granted, I'd declare solemnly.

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Back then we lived inside the Washington beltway, but before our boy was 4 we left. I had found that my spirit was withering from living in a landscape where earth was just an occasional break from the pavement, just something allowed to exist in the interstices of the human grid. After a decade in a realm where the human element tyrannizes over everything, I yearned to have a place where the land around me was shaped less by my own kind than by the hand of living nature.

We moved out to the mountains of Virginia, and Nathaniel worked with me as we carved some terraces out of the hillside to grow our own herbs and vegetables. We carried chicken manure and horse manure down the slope to enrich the soil, we planted our seeds, we carefully monitored the moisture levels in the earth to make sure our plants had what they needed to thrive, and we kept some seeds from one year's harvest to plant the next. The idea of his knowing where our food came from was no longer just a joke.

And my spirit revived, rising back upright like some limp plant that just needed watering. I felt connected with the generations before me who lived from the yield of the earth, connected with my roots in this amazing experiment of life on this special planet.

Then I took up the baking of bread. Why not? As a writer, I work at home and can easily take a few minutes to tend its various phases. And is there anything that tastes better than bread fresh from the oven?

During the years I've been baking bread, it has gradually dawned on me what a marvelous invention this stuff is. We think of it as the staff of life, something quite basic, but really, our ancestors lived on this earth for countless thousands of years before anyone even thought of bread. You've got to gather the grain, grind it, get it moist, and, then, there's the miracle of the leavening process. What kind of genius was it, I started to wonder, who first understood this process well enough to produce reliably the wonderful food of risen bread?

No doubt, the yeasts first entered the dough by accident, landing invisibly from the breeze, feeding on the moistened grain the way that molds will make an open tomato furry if you leave it sitting on a summer countertop. But what kind of mind did it take to comprehend the living process occurring between yeast and wheat, and to be able to replicate it daily to give his or her family the staff of life?

Not long ago, as I mixed my dough, I understood: The minds of those who conceived this process of turning grain into bread had themselves been cultivated by generations spent turning earth into crops. What I saw was this: The baker of bread is farming, and what he is growing is yeast.