The first breads to arrive on the scene some 10,000 years ago were unleavened flatbreads and hearth cakes.
In ancient times, flatbreads were made in small communities on many continents from grains of wild grasses that were harvested, toasted, ground, mixed with water, and cooked on hot rocks. Mexico's tortillas, India's chapatis, and China's pancakes evolved from this practice.
It wasn't until about 6,000 years later that the first leavened loaves were made by the ancient Egyptians. Soon after, the Egyptians also invented ovens for baking multiple loaves, experimented with original shapes such as a popular pyramid form, and introduced breads flavored with sweet or savory ingredients such as honey, herbs, anise, and sesame seeds.
Imagine spending all day in the kitchen mixing, kneading, letting rise, punching, and shaping dough for your favorite bread - only to wait for the call of a trumpet, signaling that the village baker's oven is hot and ready. Then you rush into town, pay a small fee, and hand over your sticky little bundle made with grain from the village mill.
Before the cast-iron kitchen range and up until the 17th century, communal ovens were a part of life in various lands, from Europe and Greece to the Near East and Quebec. They provided a means to avoid duplication of costly resources and were owned either by a community, a tradesman, or - in feudal Europe where bread was often a symbol of social hierarchy - by the lord.
France is the country perhaps best known for approaching bread baking as a serious craft. The first loaf of bread was made there in the 12th century. Bakers' guilds, whose purpose was to encourage a spirit of cooperation among professionals, were formed soon after in both Paris and London.
Neighborhood boulangeries eventually replaced village ovens in France, and today, with fresh golden baguettes glowing in baskets and their enticing aroma wafting out onto the narrow streets, they are irresistible to locals and tourists.
But the country's signature baguette has suffered as a result of the machine age, say some connoisseurs. Also, changes in lifestyle are affecting shopping habits there, observes Abe Faber of Clear Flour Bakery in Brookline, Mass.
"The French are turning more toward larger markets and away from small bakeries, while we in America are doing the opposite," he says.
Some food historians say the early history of bread was dominated by efforts to ensure its distribution to as many people as necessary to avoid civil unrest or to control distribution by the rulers over the ruled.
White bread, made with the most prized grain - wheat - was traditionally served to nobility, and brown breads made with rye or barley left for the peasants.
Bread's history since the Industrial Revolution has been driven by technological changes that spurred the replacement of human effort with machines, and in many cases sacrificed quality as a result.
"After industrialization, we [eventually] ended up with Wonder Bread," says Gina Picollino of the Bread Baker's Guild of America, a worldwide group of artisan breadmakers. "The American palate is still recovering."
But today's artisan bakers aren't such purists as to turn away from all machinery. They realize it can eliminate a certain amount of drudgery, such as kneading 13,000 one-pound loaves per day, the amount made at Iggy's Breads of the World in Watertown, Mass.
Century-old mechanical mixers, originally from France, are one tool that artisan bakers find indispensable, not only in saving muscle power but also in keeping costs low.
"We'd have to charge $10 per loaf if we did everything the way it used to be done," says Iggy's owner, Igor Ivanovic, whose bakery supplies 200 businesses in the Boston area.
Commercial ovens developed in the past 50 years have allowed bakers to duplicate the brick-oven principle with high-tech sophistication.
"What makes an artisan loaf," explains Mr. Ivanovic, "is heat that has accumulated after it's been radiated by oven and stone, not heat that's forced through air."
But before they get to the oven, his loaves, like those of many of his peers, are made with natural starters instead of commercial yeast, and the starters are refreshed sometimes twice a day. "That dough is alive. It must be respected," says Ludmilla Ivanovic, his wife and partner.
Grain was certainly given much respect in the early days. Before milling by wind was adopted in Spain and Portugal in the 11th century, there was milling by water. Much earlier, the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans crushed grain with a mortar and pestle and then on a large flat stone using a roller.
This method is still embraced in many Asian countries to break down millet, and the same type of stones also crush corn kernels in Mexico.
For centuries, bread has held rich religious meaning. The word appears in the Bible more than 300 times. In addition to its well-known Christian association with the "body of Christ," for many, it is also linked with abundance, discipleship, sharing, sustenance, and daily provision.
On a popular radio call-in program recently broadcast nationwide, special guest Peter Reinhart generated a lively discussion when he spoke of bread-baking as a religious experience.
In his new book "Bread Upon the Waters: A Pilgrimage Toward Self-Discovery and Spiritual Truth," he relates the 12 stages of breadmaking to "initiations of the soul" that progressively lead one to a richer, more spiritual life.
At Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., Mr. Reinhart offers a life lesson when he instructs students to first and foremost "evoke from the wheat the fullness of its potential."
But some modern-day bakers couldn't be bothered with talk about their work as anything more than a gratifying craft and a fascinating scientific process. They might relate best to the words of Francis Ponge in his 18th-century work "Le Parti Pris de Choses [The bias of matter]":
"The surface of bread is marvelous first of all because of that near panoramic impression it makes: as if you had the Alps, the Taurus, or the Andes available at your fingertips.... But let us break it: for bread must be less an object of respect than of consumption to our lips."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society