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A Short History of Wheat


Wheat has been an article of trade for thousands of years. White flour had been coveted for almost as long, though the technique of making it wouldn’t be fully perfected until the mid-1800s. Various factors conspired to fundamentally alter bread, even among home bakers, long before Wonder Bread entered the scene.

Colonists from England, Holland, and other European countries brought their affinity for wheat and their propensity for baking to the New World. They had eaten wheat bread back home whenever they could, and they wanted to continue to eat it here. Bread, at least in the European context, usually has been elevated above porridge or mush.

Depending on time and place (and the social status of the bread maker), bread has taken many forms, from ashcakes and flatbreads to yeasted, sourdough, or chemically leavened varieties. Archeological and hieroglyphic records indicate that Egyptians baked fermented breads in ovens.

In regions where it grows, the cultural preference for wheat over other grains for bread making goes back at least five millennia. On the other hand, as grains go, wheat is the most finicky. Compared to other more forgiving cereals, its yields tend to be lower and more erratic, and its soil and climactic requirements more exacting.

In regions like Scandinavia, where conditions weren’t conducive to growing wheat, farmers cultivated hardier crops. Less-demanding cereals like rye, and non-cereal crops like buckwheat (named for its superficial resemblance to the beech nut) proved more dependable. Rye, in fact, was initially scorned as a weed; it likely coevolved with wheat as that grain was being purposely domesticated.

Throughout history, many cultures have treated wheat as a luxury food reserved for the more affluent. The masses might arrange their quotidian diet around other grains or starches, partaking in wheat breads and cakes only on feast days, while the wealthy ate these treats daily. Among the Romans, for example, different classes of bread corresponded to the rungs in the social hierarchy. Slaves and the poorest peasants ate coarse loaves of mixed grain bread, fabricated out of whole meal stretched with bran. The whitest, softest loaves of well-sifted wheat flour were reserved for the privileged classes. The “middle” classes got darker bread made with less-processed wheat flour, often cut with milling waste.

Even where wheat was a national staple, famine or scarcity forced millers, merchants and government authorities to extend wheat flour with less-valued substitutes. Wheat flour could be cut with lesser flours, such as those made of rye, barley, peas or beans, as well as weed seeds and the usual bran.

This pattern of substitution was repeated in the New World. In Massachusetts, colonists tried to grow wheat from the beginning, but in the early settlements, marginal soils and growing conditions thwarted their efforts. By 1660, outbreaks of black stem rust, a destructive fungal disease, added yet another barrier to successful wheat production. The indigenous disease organism stayed in the background even when wheat wasn’t being grown, subsisting on the common barberry bush as an alternate host.

In much of New England through the late-eighteenth century, people who were prosperous enough to eat wheat bread often relied on wheat and flour shipped up the coast from the mid-Atlantic colonies, where the crop was better adapted and more profitably grown. But most people outside of wheat-producing areas could not afford it.

“Ryaninjun [rye and Indian corn] was the staple mixture everywhere [in colonial New England] for those for whom wheat either cost too much or was not to be had,” writes Betty Fussell in her classic, I Hear America Cooking: A Journey of Discovery from Alaska to Florida—The Cooks, the Recipes, and the Unique Flavors of Our National Cuisine (Viking, 1986). (Indian corn was the phrase used to differentiate maize from wheat. In Britain, the generic term “corn” refers to any grain.)

Deb Friedman, a culinary historian at Old Sturbridge Village, the central Massachusetts living history museum, describes rye and corn as “family foods,” like hamburger today. As in ancient Greece, more expensive wheat flour was held for the baking of special breads and cakes on holidays and for company.

“Thirded bread” was shorthand for baking with a mixture of rye, corn and wheat, the three common bread cereals. Each housewife adjusted the proportions according to her own preferences and domestic economy. Such compromise breads were much heavier than the more desirable and expensive ideal wheat bread.

Ultimately, better transportation would change the diet of those New Englanders—and rural New Yorkers—for whom wheat had been out of reach.

In what would eventually become the future state of New York, the environment allowed wheat to take hold early and become the major cash crop. In 1678, the governor of New Netherlands estimated that his province was exporting 60,000 bushels a year to the West Indies. Though this amounted to less than 2,000 tons, the quantity was enough to make it the granary of those sugar-plantation islands, at least for their European slaveholding population.

In New York, wheat was first grown on Long Island. After farmers had exhausted its sandy soil with repeated cropping, the grain found a more favorable environment on the river flats of the Hudson River. The Dutch and the English barns of the Hudson Valley were originally designed for drying and threshing the wheat crop.

After the War of Independence, Hudson Valley wheat production declined. Among the factors was a new scourge—the Hessian fly—that attacked the wheat plant after the grain headed out. The insect had apparently hitched a ride from Europe with some Hessian mercenaries employed as soldiers by the British, hence its name. First noticed in straw used at a military encampment on Long Island, the fly slowly extended its range, endangering the continent’s wheat fields for many years.

A quest for more fertile, cheaper, less-crowded farmland (removed from the threat of devastating insect pests) drove the center of wheat production westward. It first shifted to the Mohawk and Schoharie Valleys and central New York. In the march of wheat to the frontier, agricultural migrants were also drawn to the expansive, flatter landscapes of the Genesee Valley region encompassing the Finger Lakes to the shores of Lake Ontario.

Soldiers had recognized the quality of that region’s land for agriculture during the military campaign against the Iroquois ordered by President Washington in 1779. Later, many former soldiers returned as pioneers in a second invasion. After clearing the land, they initially grew corn. As soon as they had cleared away enough stumps to fit in a team of oxen to prepare the soil, they sowed wheat.

Before the Erie Canal opened in 1825, to get around the problem of limited transportation, many settlers grew corn and made it into whiskey. The canal made Genesee Valley wheat into a feasible and well-paying cash crop that soon displaced Hudson Valley wheat from the marketplace.

Jared van Wagenen, Jr. documents the bygone days of agriculture and rural subsistence in New York in his book, The Golden Age of Homespun (Cornell University Press, 1953), published when he was 82. In 1845, at the time of the first Census of Agriculture, farmers were producing wheat in every single county in the state, including four acres in Manhattan, then a city of 370,000.

Theoretically, the total wheat production would have been sufficient to feed all the state’s residents, according to van Wagenen’s calculations. But New York and Pennsylvania led the nation in wheat production and much of the crop was exported. He surmises in the parts of the countryside where little wheat was grown, farmers, having minimal disposable income, mostly did without, using substitutes like corn and rye for their daily bread.

Not only did early European Americans want wheat flour, they seem to have wanted it white. According to Colin Spencer’s British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History (Columbia University Press, 2003), by the end of the eighteenth century, workers in England had firmly rejected the cheaper, darker breads of rye or barley. Instead they insisted on eating only white bread. When the price of vegetables soared and meat vanished from their tables, bread and cheese became their standard fare.

But the white flour used during that era was not the white flour of contemporary times. One of the major differences comes from how the wheat was processed into flour.

Wheat is made ready for milling after the harvest and the separation of the wheat from the chaff. The rudiments of milling date back thousands of years. In traditional milling, grain is crushed between two large stones. The English word molar comes from the Latin mola for mill, so molars are the “little mills in our mouths,” according to Tom Kelleher, Old Sturbridge Village’s curator of historic trades and a wealth of information on milling.

For several hundred years, American gristmills used this ancient principle to process grain. Small grist (grain) mills dotted the countryside wherever the volume of water and drop in elevation in the body of water allowed waterpower to be harnessed. Otsego County (around Cooperstown), for instance, had 70 gristmills in the 1830s. Such small local mills provided a service to nearby farmers and anyone else who brought in grain to be milled. The miller charged a small toll in kind, set by state law.

Besides these local community mills, “merchant mills” added value to grain to be sold in cities or shipped further away. These mills purchased grain from the farmers and sold flour by the barrel as a commodity.

In the late 1700s, flourmills concentrated between Baltimore and Wilmington, Delaware, to serve the mid-Atlantic grain belt and the Caribbean export market. Later, the Erie Canal facilitated the development of a new milling hub around Rochester, New York, using watercourses like the Genesee River. Rochester acquired the nickname “Flour City.” Its mills kept operating even after wheat production collapsed in western New York. But by 1860, the milling capital had moved west once again to Minneapolis. Eventually Rochester decided it was time to celebrate a new identity as the “Flower City” as grain and flour production moved westward.

Few Americans today have ever seen fresh, stone-ground flour. Newly milled (even if much or most of the bran has been sifted out), this flour is not white, but rather yellowish with a light greenish cast. This coloration comes mainly from flecks of wheat germ, the oil- and protein-rich part of the seed that germinates into a new plant.

In the 1800s, skillful millers knew how to process wheat so that the bran—the less—digestible outer coating of the grain—came off in big flakes. This allowed the bran to be more easily separated from the starchy endosperm—the white flour fraction of the wheat. (Stone millers did not have the means to remove the wheat germ.)

But one of the realities of stone milling is that some bran inevitably slips through, and some of the starchy endosperm sticks to flakes of bran and is lost. The condition of the grain and of the millstones both make a difference. The grain has to be tempered to the right moisture content: too wet and milling turned it to mush; too dry and the bran becomes brittle and breaks into tiny pieces.

Very hard stone was selected for fabricating millstones, especially those used for grinding fine flour (as opposed to animal feed or meal). These millstones ranged from 3 to 7 feet in diameter, with a stationary bottom millstone paired with another millstone revolving above. At one time, millstones were quarried in large numbers of local rock in and around Esopus in Ulster County. Imported French burrstones, though, were considered the best.

Keeping the millstones “sharp” was a necessity—the groove in the stone has to be dressed in a slow, tedious process. Many millers owned two or more pairs of stones so they could keep milling even after one pair got dull.

Once wheat was ground, the “entire” meal could be sifted to remove the bran and make it into “white” flour. Early American mills and the more basic rural mills left this step—called bolting—for the housewife to do at home. She used her own discretion to determine how much of the bran to sift out, and fed the extra ban to livestock. By the early 1800s, many mills had installed bolting equipment so they could refine or “whiten” the flour.

The prolific early American inventor Oliver Evans introduced further advances in the pursuit of white flour. Traditionally, millers sent grain through their gristmills only once. Evans advocated “progressive breaking and bolting,” or “making middlings,” to increase the yield of white flour from each bushel of wheat. This involved grinding the same wheat multiple times. After each pass, the millstones were re-adjusted for a finer grind and then the fine flour would be extracted by bolting.

Evans strongly influenced contemporary technology. Besides obtaining the U.S. Patent Office’s third patent ever for his automated flourmill, in 1795 he authored The Young Millwright and Miller’s Guide. The book became the millers’ bible for the first half of the nineteenth century.

Smart early-nineteenth-century homemakers bought flour, or had wheat milled into flour, as they needed it. It didn’t keep well. The presence of crushed wheat germ in un-refrigerated flour made it go rancid; excess moisture made it turn musty. And infestation by grain moths, rodents and other critters was always a risk.

Housewives back then had to be conversant with all the agents of contamination in wheat and flour. These included the natural scourges that ruined quality as well as those that dishonest millers might deliberately introduce. In her 1839 book, The Good Housekeeper, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, an American domestic expert of her day, wrote, “Fresh ground flour makes the best and sweetest bread. If you live in the vicinity of a mill, never have more than one or two bushels ground into flour at a time.”

Hale recommended washing wheat first as a precaution, especially if any smut was present. (This fungus disease turns the grain it infects into a dark mass of spores.) After washing wheat in multiple changes of water until the water ran off clean, the wheat had to be dried completely in the sun.

As soon as trade between regions was established, flour was transformed into a commodity. Except in the countryside, where the local gristmill still ground flour and meal from farmers’ grain, most consumers relied on a product shipped from a distance to make their daily bread.

As early as the 1830s, Americans were concerned about processors slipping adulterants into their food for their own gain. In France and England, flour adulteration had an illustrious history. To warn her readers to be on guard, Hale listed whiting, ground stones and bones, and plaster of Paris as substances added to flour in Europe “to swell its bulk and weight.” They also helped whiten flour to fulfill the cultural prejudice.

Hale outlined several procedures to determine if the flour was free of these culprits. For instance, lemon juice or vinegar will cause flour that contains stone-dust or plaster of Paris to effervesce. Another test Hale recommended was squeezing a handful of flour very tightly for a minute. Pure flour will keep the form you have given it when you open your fist. Even the grains and wrinkles from your skin will be visible. If it contains foreign substances, it will crumble almost immediately.

Some families preferred more healthful, whole-wheat flour, called Graham flour, after Sylvester Graham, the early nineteenth century evangelist for dietary reform. But even they might be sold an adulterated product, like bran cut with sawdust, with the more highly prized fine flour removed. Hale told homemakers that by supplying wheat to the mill, rather than buying already milled flour, they could avoid this rampant deception.

The pursuit of greater speed by the titans of industry ushered in the next stage in the degradation of flour. Around 1880, stone mills began giving way to newer “roller milling” technology, which processed wheat into flour much faster than stone mills, even those that employed the largest, hardest millstones. It took several decades for this European invention to traverse the Atlantic and get established in the Twin Cities under the auspices of Pillsbury and Washburn. Their huge, centralized factories depended on railroads to move vast quantities of flour around the country.

Roller mills had the advantage of more neatly separating out the wheat kernel into its three components. Wheat “berries” first pass through corrugated rollers that break them into their constituent parts—the endosperm for white flour, the germ, and the bran. A succession of other increasingly smooth rollers grinds the flour finer and finer. Sieves and blowers separate out particles of different sizes, yielding various grades of flour.

To make whole-wheat flour appropriate proportions of germ and bran are reassembled with the “white” flour (otherwise these “byproducts” found buyers as animal feed, or health food stores). This contrasts with stone ground whole-wheat flour, which consists of the entire product of milling, sometimes with the coarsest bran particles sifted out.

Given the quantities consumed, bread seems to have made up a large portion of the diet a couple centuries ago. In The Good Housekeeper, Hale gives directions for making bread to feed a family of four or five for a week. The recipe calls for 21 quarts of flour to make seven 4-pound loaves. Hale says a large family would need a bushel of flour—60 pounds—for their weekly bread. “In the winter season bread may be kept good for a fortnight; still I think it the best rule to bake once every week,” Hale writes.

Even in early colonial America, not every family made its own bread. Commercial bakeries appeared before 1700 in cities such as New Amsterdam (Manhattan), Albany and Boston. They served an important function for the urban poor, who lacked access to bake ovens and couldn’t afford the firewood to heat it once the nearby woodlots had been depleted.

Weekly baking was customary for those whose homes included a brick beehive oven (or who had access to one).

Using beehive ovens required considerable skill. “Every housewife was a heating engineer,” notes Everett Rau, an 89-year-old student of agricultural history who still resides on the farm where he was raised, in Altamont, near Albany.

Bread and cheese with beer or buttermilk comprised a traditional Dutch breakfast in the eighteenth century, and bread was a major foodstuff in other meals, as well. Commenting on the weekly baking regime, Kathy Browning, culinary historian for Historic Hudson Valley, says it didn’t matter if bread went stale. Bread was commonly eaten in soups and stews or dunked into whatever one happened to be drinking. Grating turned stale bread into breadcrumbs, used in place of flour in many eighteenth-century recipes.

Without a bake oven, homemakers could still make proper bread. Even into the nineteenth century, some families living on the frontier or constrained by poverty made their bread in bake kettles or Dutch ovens in their fireplaces. These contraptions were much smaller than a brick oven so they would either bake more frequently or eat porridge instead. Their breads would have been different from the ones described in early-nineteenth century cookbooks.

American homes started using the cast iron woodstove for heating in the late eighteenth century, but adapting it for cooking and baking came later. And it wasn’t until the middle of the nineteenth century that the cook stove became the norm in New England households.

In her research, Deb Friedman, of Old Sturbridge Village, found widespread resistance to the wood-fired cook stove among women. Housewives had good reasons for their initial rejection of this new technology. Using a cook stove would force them to relearn how to cook, given the differences in its heating dynamics compared to an open hearth or a beehive oven. The smaller capacity of a cook stove for baking altered the routine by requiring more frequent baking than the previous weekly interval. Housewives needed to acquire new equipment, like flat-bottomed pots and pans. The results of their labors also looked and tasted differently.

The cook stove’s efficiency as a heating source was problematic in summer. Unlike a fireplace, which let most of its heat escape up the chimney, the cook stove had the miserable consequence of over-warming the kitchen as well. Indeed, the summer kitchen only became a fixture of affluent northern homesteads in response to the discomfort of cooking on a stove.

In contrast to their spouses, husbands more readily embraced the iron cook stove, as it reduced the amount of wood they had to cut and split. Where firewood was scarce, cook stoves gained popularity more quickly than elsewhere.

We can accurately locate the momentous change in the nature of our country’s daily bread in the 1800s. As the late pioneering culinary historian Karen Hess pointed out in her 1994 keynote address at a Smithsonian Symposium on the History of American Bread, “Standard white bread in the colonies had been made of flour, water, salt, and yeast, as in England and France.” Sugar in bread was considered a heresy.

But the simple list of ingredients in basic everyday bread would expand, as flour got even whiter and its quality declined. In the later years of the nineteenth century, additions such as sugar, shortening and milk were made to compensate for lifeless flour.

In The Taste of America (1972; rpt. University of Illinois Press, 2000), John and Karen Hess analyzed the bastardization of the American loaf. They attribute much of the blame to changes in milling that ruined the flour. “Mrs. Cornelius [author of The Young Housekeeper’s Friend, 1845] had observed that, as everybody knew, good flour was yellowish. The new flour was chalk white. Even the yeast bugs didn’t care for it, so bakers added a little sugar to help the fermentation, much as vintners may cheat by adding sugar to the grape juice in a poor year.”

Since Mary Cornelius’s critique predates the advent of the roller mill, it seems fair to say that inventor Oliver Evan’s superfine flour milling innovation bears the responsibility for this decline in quality.

The replacement of brick bake ovens with the cook stove also affected the nature of bread. Bread baked in pans replaced the customary round, free-form loaves. Hard-crusted bread gave way to soft. With women baking more frequently to compensate for the smaller size of a cook stove oven, it took too much time to make yeasted breads. Quick breads leavened with chemical agents came to supplant biological fermentation in much of the baking repertoire. In the early nineteenth century, housewives sometimes used precursors of modern baking soda, like saleratus (bicarbonate of potash) and pearl-ash (potassium carbonate), but by around 1850 they could purchase baking powder commercially. This in turn led to sweeter, puffier breads.

The ideal mid-nineteenth century bread seems to be an airy loaf. Hale said as much in introducing the question of yeast. “It is impossible to have good light bread, unless you have lively sweet yeast,” she warns.

Managing yeast under less-than-ideal conditions and without any scientific understanding must have presented a constant source of frustration. Until the immigrant Fleischmann brothers established the first commercial compressed yeast factory in the U.S. in the 1860s, housewives either had to make their own yeast or obtained it from a local brewer. Those who brewed their own beer had a ready source of yeast. Hale advised if beer is “well brewed and kept in a clean cask, the settlings are the best of yeast.”

The Frugal Housewife urged its readers to think ahead. “When bread is nearly out always think whether yeast is in readiness; for it takes a day and night to prepare it.” The Good Housekeeper gave these instructions for a basic yeast recipe: Take two quarts of water, one handful of hops, two of wheat bran; boil these together twenty minutes; strain off the water, and while it is boiling hot stir in either wheat or rye flour, till it becomes a thick batter; let it stand till it is about blood warm; then add a half pint of good smart yeast and a large spoonful of molasses, if you have it, and stir the whole well. Set it in a cool place in summer and a warm one in winter. When it becomes perfectly light, it is fit for use. If not needed immediately, the yeast culture could be bottled after it cooled down. Corked tightly only after the yeast was done “working”, it would keep ten or twelve days in a cool part of the cellar.

Food reformer Sylvester Graham was not alone in preaching about the virtues of homemade bread. The elaborate arguments on this subject advanced by domestic advisors like Sarah Hale suggest that the role of commercial bread bakers was growing, displacing what had been an important function of the housewife.

In her paean to bread making, Hale pleads with her audience. She assures her readers that bread could be made in one morning a week, four or five hours, from setting the sponge to taking the loaves out of the oven. Most of that time, she says, “might be employed in needlework, or other pursuits.” Kneading dough strengthens all the muscles of the body and is a good corrective for “the debility and languor” afflicting ladies. It is neat (unlike heating and cleaning the oven, she notes) and makes “the fairest hand fairer and softer” and gives a “healthy pink glow to the palm and nails.” Finally, bread making is a work of the mind, requiring observation, reflection and quick judgment.

Beside reasons of economy (if you use a cook stove, in winter the fuel costs would be negligible), Hale asserts the benefit of being certain that your bread is made of good flour, rather than an inferior variety that has been doctored. “This is not always sure when eating baker’s bread,” Hale wrote, leveling harsh charges against that occupation.

“Much damaged flour, sour, musty, or grown [left in the field too long in wet weather, so the grain swells and is ruined] is often used by the public bakers, particularly in scarce or bad seasons. The skill of the baker and the use of certain ingredients—(alum, ammonia, sulphate of zinc, and even sulphate of copper, it is said, has been used!)—will make this flour into light, white bread. But it is nearly tasteless, and cannot be as healthy or nutritious as bread made from the flour of good, sound wheat, baked at home, without any mixture of drugs and correctives. Even the best of baker’s bread is comparatively tasteless, and must be eaten when new to be relished.”

Hale’s admonishments resonate today. Though the names of the additives and the characteristics valued in good bread have both changed, the controversy remains remarkably relevant 150 years later. If ladies were familiar with the art of bread baking, she says, they would not tolerate “the hard, heavy, sour, crude stuff, now often found under the name of ‘family bread.'”

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