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What if rye-bread eaters had prevailed?

While others were watching their brackets get busted in overtime Friday evening I was reading “Six Thousand Year of Bread: Its Holy and Unholy History.” Why? Because a book about brewing with wheat should include the role wheat has played in various cultures where people drink beer.

It’s not exactly light reading, so maybe I was looking for a reason to laugh when I came across the explanation of how wheat became the grain of choice in Europe in the nineteenth century. That’s a longer story involving French tastes, but here’s the excerpt that might make you smile:

“In the Middle Ages Europeans were very fond of the taste of rye. Some of the East Germans had called themselves Rugii (rye-eaters) — undoubtedly to distinguish themselves from the ignoble eaters of oats. In Anglo-Saxon England August was called Rugern, the month of the rye harvest. As late as 1700 rye formed 40 percent of all English breads; around 1800 the percentage had dropped to 5.

“Where rye bread was firmly established — in large parts of Germany and Russia — it remained. Physicians and farmers insisted that people who for centuries had eaten the dark bread of their fathers, which gave forth a spicy fragrance like the soil itself, could not find the soft white wheat bread filling. They pointed to the physique of the Germans and rye-eating Russians. The wheat-eaters countered with the claim that rye made those who ate it stupid and dull. Wheat-eaters and rye-eaters eaters spoke of one another as do wine drinkers and beer drinkers.”

Beyond the old beer vs. wine thing I thought first about lager drinkers vs. ale drinkers. Then I recalled a conversation during Zoigl Day in Neuhaus. The local I was talking to asked me about what sort of beers I like to drink. When I mentioned I’d been seeking out weiss beers he quickly explained he didn’t drink those. He had to make too many trips to the bathroom if he did.

Thought never occurred to me to ask if he preferred rye bread to wheat bread.


3 Responses to What if rye-bread eaters had prevailed?

  1. Todd March 22, 2009 at 10:31 am #

    Sounds like an interesting book from a different angle.

    Have you read, “Against the Grain: How Agriculture Hijacked Civilization by Richard Manning” yet?

    You may find another side of this grain topic quite enlightening.

  2. Todd March 22, 2009 at 11:44 am #

    Farmers and nature decide excess production for use in value added products such as beer or bread. Consumers get the excess and salesmen make it so. Newspapers are/were a crucial tool for the sale of excess production.

    All of this topic is Agroecology-the science of sustainable agriculture.

    A fun study in interconnectedness!

    Stan- Thanks for pointing out some of the social components of this complex topic.

  3. Amy March 23, 2009 at 10:30 am #

    Stan, this is a interesting post. The preference for rye seems to have remained as a cultural/ethnic practice among East European Jews and Jewish-Americans. Triumph Brewing has developed a Jewish Rye Ale, brewed with rye and caraway seeds. I haven’t tasted it but since I really like rye bread I would probably like the beer.

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