Brownielocks and The 3 Bears

Today bread is made in all countries, and with all kinds of grain and in all kinds of shapes.  Some of the old beliefs regarding bread are:

Because bread is created by fermentation ( a lot like beer), our ancestors believed that this process was a lot like the swelling of the female stomach when pregnant. This is how some believe you get  the bread is life  concept.  In fact, Italian women used to stand in front of their ovens which had loaves of bread in them and go through the motions of a mock birth (contorting their faces, etc.) in hopes of assuring themselves a risen loaf.  

In the late 1800's it was traditional to to force the older, unwed daughter (potential spinster?) to sit on top of an oven while the bread bakes to make her more attractive to suitors.

But, the most renown fight over bread was in France and focused on yeast, ancestry and patriotism.  Let's begin at the very beginning.

The French had some sexual symbolism for bread baking.  They said that the baker's oven was like a woman's womb and the baguette was like a penis.  Because of this, only France's finest were involved in the act of bread consummation. So, ONLY devout Catholics at this time were allowed to be bakers!  One day a week, a French baker, boulanger, had to go to confession before a priest.  If he didn't, it was believed that his sins would be passed on to others via the bread he made.  They also felt that baking itself was rather sexual and that the yeast was a kind of representation of semen.

The French took their bread so seriously that they practically ended up in a war over it. Why? Well, there is this type of bun called the pain mollet.  It's light and rich, often with milk added in, soft and usually reserved to be eaten by the aristocrats only.  All others had to eat bread that was similar to bricks!


Then we have French sourdough bread called, au levain, which is made by kneading, beating and massaging a huge amount of dough into shape.  It was felt that all this effort helped to create better moral character to the bread, and to those who ate the bread.  Opposite of all this work is pain mollet, also called "fantasy bread" because it's so easy it basically kneads itself.   Because of this, it was felt that eating this bread made you lazy.  Now, being lazy was all right for the aristocrats, but it was not very good for the peasants. The last thing France needed was lazy workers!

Now, pain mollet violated another custom.  The historical method of starting a loaf of au levain bread's yeast to grow was from some uncooked dough that was from another loaf previously set aside for this purpose the night before. You add this to the new batch but always left a little bit of dough for the next batch, and so it went.  This transferring of dough from one loaf to another created a generation of bread, so that loaves in a sense had some sort of pedigree that went back for generations!

The French loved their ancestry. So, the problem with this new bread called pain mollet I mentioned above is that it completely bypassed this need to get some dough from a previous loaf in order to be made.  The reason is pain mollet used yeast created from Belgium beer to get it to rise.  Oh Geez!  This was considered dirty, unnatural, foreign scum, etc.  And, just like their belief that bread that was made with hard work created hard-working people (when you ate it), now the French felt that bread made from foreign yeast created unpatriotic people!  So, now they're thinking they're getting not only lazy citizens but unpatriotic ones too!

Remember I said in the beginning that they considered yeast like semen? Well, since this yeast came from beer, that was not good because the French loved wine!  So, the controversy over pain mollet  bread vs. au levain  bread split Paris in half.  There were the Molletists vs. the Anti-Molletists.   In 1660 the Paris Faculty of Medicine banned mollet.  One year later this ban was overturned due to such protesting.  They said it was all right to make/eat mollet. But, to compromise they banned "foreign yeasts."  The controversy over these two types of breads continued for over 150 years.

The Italians had divided social classes between those that ate white bread called "Bread Mouths" vs. those that ate dark bread called "Fodder Mouths."  Just like with the French, the aristocrats ate the white bread only.  The Roman elite would attack someone if they offered them a slice of dark bread.  Caesar even made it a law that stated that anyone who served an aristocrat dark bread was to be punished with prison time.

In 1775, Philippe Cordelois, a shoemaker,  was arrested in his home by the King's men.  He was charged with "possession of a crouton of bread that was absolutely brown" and taken to the interrogation building below the du Chatelet (today a metro station).  Why was this brown bread so bad evidence against him?

Just like the Italian peasants, the French peasants also ate only coarse, dry and barely breads. It was believed that the peasants were slightly above pigs in those days. While, the aristocrats had very touchy digestive systems and could only deal with eating the softest breads that were well-buttered.  The only exception is the French Army, which was allowed to eat white bread only after they revolted when given rye.

When Napoleon Bonaparte visited Paris, he was shocked to see the white bread vs. brown bread controversy.  This situation finally exploded when a baker in Beaumont-sur-Otis attempted to charge white bread prices for rye bread.  Oh Gosh!  The housewives tied up this baker and threw him into the pond. Then they gave away all the baguettes in Beaumont. Then they went over to the next town of Meru and  gave away bread.  Within 10 days, over 300 bread riots broke out.  The markets were raided. The bakers were forced to sell their loaves at 1/10th the cost.  And, ships were relieved of their flour.  This rioting finally reached Paris where the rioters gathered outside the office of Mr. Anne-Robert Turgo, the Minister of Finance.

These rioters  even threatened to bombard the riot police squad with stale  green baguettes.  These protestors complained that bizarrely colored bread ranging from very dark brown to gray to green to black was now being sold by bakers in Paris all because of Mr. Turgot's free-trade policies.

What did Mr. Turgot do?  He made up some farfetched story that the  bread was being made by sexual transvestites  as propaganda tools against his government.  And, that these people had made the green bread weeks earlier.  Mr. Turgot had ordered the Paris police force to find anyone possessing bread that was bien brune (quite brown) and bring these conspirators to justice.  [Actual transcripts of these confessions are in the French National Archives today. ] 

Many of these documents finger the shoemaker.  With the most intense report stating  that Philippe Cordelois  had been seen on the day of the riots with a subversive baguette in his hands.  This is why Philippe was charged with possession of a brown baguette.  Philippe claimed he was innocent and that someone just gave him this bread. His story seemed to be valid and he was released after several interrogations.

The treasonous baguette was sent to the royal crime lab where the lab experts determined that it had really been baked the same day as the riots (not days before) and the reason it was green and black is due to its ingredients.  And, it was later learnt that a relative of  King Louis XVI's, the Prince of Conti had been behind the whole bread riot.  Mr. Turgot was forced from power after banning the bakery guild.

This whole thing was so ridiculous that even Marie Antoinette came out with a statement. "If the peasants were unhappy with their bread, why didn't they just eat cake?"  Ironically, in 1793, just a month after she said this, she was beheaded and the National Assembly voted to create a National Bread of Equality. 

Once the revolution got into full force, political correctness took over.  Suddenly, white was out.  Proletariat brown was in.  Political groups protested against the class separation caused by la mollesse (luxury white breads) and urged that it be banned to create some uniformity.  Court records of this time show who some bakers were arrested for politically incorrect baking.

This new Bread of Equality was declared to be made of 3 parts wheat, and one part rye. Suddenly, the people's daily bread now being used to help create a democratic nation. This utopian loaf law was passed on November 15, 1793.  But, it never got ratified. Why?

Six weeks later the French Parliament came up with what they felt was a much better solution. They now ordered that every able-bodied Frenchman now grow potatoes!

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Source: "In The Devil's Garden. A Sinful History of Forbidden Food"
By Stewart Lee Allen
Ballantine Publishing Group © 2002

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