By Meghan Eldridge
CIUDAD OBREGON, Mexico — A grain commonly found on today’s grocery store shelves has risen throughout history as a sign of equality and opportunity for those who eat it.
Rachel Laudan, a food historian and author of the book “Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History” from the U.K., discussed the role of wheat across history at a presentation on March 27 during the Borlaug Summit on Wheat for Food Security.
Beginning 20,000 years ago, grains had a major influence on the development of ancient cities as a source of food for populations, Laudan noted.
Wheat touched every facet of life, from the work of grinding the grain to the worship of gods and goddesses of grains, Laudan said.
“Although it varied by grain, my reckoning is that it took one out of every five working people to grind grain,” she said. “Civilizations rested on those who stood to pound or knelt to grind.”
As civilizations grew in size and the process of grinding wheat became mechanized, fewer people did the work of grinding grain. Using slave labor to grind in ancient cities became less vital to the production of a usable product, and by the end of the 18th century only two to four percent of the population was needed to grind wheat, Laudan said.
The transcendence of wheat as the preferred grain, over others like barley and oats, began in the Eurasian empires from 200 BC to 1900 AD, she said. Varied cuisines emerged in distinct areas of the world — such foods as noodles in the East and leavened breads in the Western world, Laudan said.
As a greater range of foods began to be made from wheat, the grain became a status symbol for those who consumed it. The color of bread was a symbol of power and material wealth, with the rich consuming lighter breads and the poor eating darker breads made from grains besides wheat, Laudan said.
“Wheat bread was for the communion services and the aristocracy,” she said.
When the world moved into the Industrial Revolution, the processing of wheat likewise industrialized. Bakeries in Europe became mechanized and required fewer human laborers, Laudan said. Transport of grains became easier with the steam engine.
Wheat’s dominance as a source of provision to feed citizens contributed to the increase in population in the Anglo world. Nutritional benefits of wheat were advertised and wheat was transformed from the grain of aristocrats to the grain for all Anglos, she said.
From the 1920s to today, wheat remains a dominant source of food in almost every region of the globe.
“Commerce, politics, philanthropy and wheat breeding combine to ensure wheat touches every corner of the world,” Laudan said.
Looking forward as the world’s population continues to grow, Laudan believes wheat will maintain an integral role in feeding the masses. Wheat already is heavily relied upon for disaster relief and international food aid, she said.
“Nothing proclaims your equality more than being able to eat what others eat,” Laudan said. “And nothing proclaims your opportunity like being able to eat what you choose.”