Interview with William Rubel, Food Historian (part 1)

My friend William Rubel is writing a history of bread. I’m sure it will be fascinating, so I interviewed him about it.

ROBERTS Can you give the background of your book, the book you’re writing now? What led you to write it? Why did you want to write about the history of bread?

RUBEL I’ve been interested in bread since I was a child. I started making bread when I was eleven from the American Heritage cookbook. I made Anadama bread.

ROBERTS What kind of bread?

RUBEL It’s called Anadama. In the headnote it uses the word ‘damn,’ and that wasn’t a word used around my house so I was very excited to see it in print so I could show it to my mother, as I recall. It’s a molasses cornbread. And probably with an inaccurate culinary . . . the history in the headnote is probably not accurate. But that’s a different story.

I’ve always been interested in bread and I have for a long time been surprised at how difficult people seem to think making bread is. Long before I started this book, in conversations with people they’d say, ‘Oh but making bread is very hard.’ And I’ve always found it to be rather easy. I’ve always found bread to be a natural process that is pretty difficult to fail at.

One of my primary interests in researching the history of bread is to find stories about bread that will inspire bakers but also to find older ways or different ways of writing bread recipes so that bakers will feel empowered. I think that the modern recipe format, and this might be not quite on topic, but you can cut it to someplace else, the modern, particularly American recipe format with its specificity of measurement and technique, I think actually undermines the baker’s confidence, the cook’s confidence, rather than builds it. Right now particularly with bread recipes, the recipes are becoming increasingly specific so that a brioche recipe might run for ten pages and does in one of the cookbooks on my shelf. I think that you are in a vicious circle where more specificity breeds more tension and undermines confidence and actually reduces the number of people who are willing to just sit down and put together a bread.

ROBERTS I think that’s a great point.

RUBEL With the exception of pastries, which are chemical recipes that require precise ratios for a very, very specific effect. You can’t make a puff pastry if the percentage of butter is wrong, and there is a right and wrong for making something like the puff pastry. But for most recipes, and certainly for bread, there isn’t really a right and wrong. One thing that I’m learning, but it was also something I was looking for in historic text, is that there really isn’t, there’s rarely a single definition or a single recipe for a bread. For example, if we take modern breads, like the baguette, modern cookbooks offer a recipe titled ‘Baguette’ and then there is a recipe–a very specific recipe–for that bread. But if you go to Paris, which is indisputably the home of the baguette, and if you buy a baguette at every bakery you pass for a period of hours . . .

ROBERTS How many baguettes are we talking about?

RUBEL Well, it depends how fast you walk and it does depend what district you’re in, but you could certainly collect 20 or 30 baguettes in a couple of hours. You’re going to find that they are all long, skinny breads, and they all have diagonal slash marks along the top–that opens them up. But past that, it’s also clear that there isn’t one recipe. Some will be very fluffy inside with an even crumb and very white. Some are going to be cream-colored inside with large, irregular crumbs. Some are chewy, some are not. Some are made with whole wheat or certainly flours that are not all white. Some are made with yeast, some are made with leaven–with sourdough. There’s just every combination–many different recipes. I think you’re going to find that all wheat bread–and that’s really the definition of a baguette–something simple like a wheat bread that weighs approximately 450 grams and is long and skinny and has diagonal slash marks on the top.

By going back into history, I tried to find inspiration and confidence; stories for cooks that will help them understand that they can be more relaxed when they approach a bread and that there isn’t necessarily one answer.

But maybe more generally, and to answer that question more directly, I discovered in my book, The Magic of Fire, which is a book on hearth cooking, that cooks went from cooking in the fireplace, more or less in the blink of an eye–all at once–to cooking on iron stoves and then these gas and electric ranges. And nobody had written down, no cook wrote down, what it was like to cook in the fireplace. There was no manual. But all of our recipes are derived from hearth cooking.

When I took the recipes back to the hearth then I found that there was often potential for flavor and texture, in particular, that were implicit in the recipe once you got it to the fireplace. They were implicit in the recipe but unrealized until it was brought back to the fireplace.

ROBERTS By implicit in the recipe, you mean those ingredients could produce a much better result than they usually got?

RUBEL Take a lasagna. You layer the boiled big pieces of pasta down with some ingredients and maybe you put cheese on top. And then you put it in a pan in the over and you bake it. Originally it was not baked in the oven like that, it would have been originally baked in a Dutch oven, what we call a Dutch oven: a pot that you can put a lid on and you can put embers on the lid as well as embers underneath the put. Or it was baked in the bread oven.

Now if we take the hearth cooking situation, which would have been the most common, because most people did not have ovens at home, you have straight, independently controlled heat sources. You can heat the Dutch oven just from the sides closest to the fire, from the side heat. You can heat it from embers underneath and you can heat it by embers on the top. So you might have your lasagna well cooked–heated all the way through–but you want to brown the top. At that point you can throw embers onto the top and brown it. You can take away all the other heat sources and just focus on that top. You might like to have crust on the bottom and the sides, so you would also have control of the heat source just to do that, whereas in an oven, everything’s a steady 350 degrees, top and bottom.

ROBERTS I see. Now I understand.

One Reply to “Interview with William Rubel, Food Historian (part 1)”

  1. Speaking of lasagne, you don’t need to boil the noodles. They can absorb all the water they need from the zucchini, spaghetti sauce, and what-have-you layered in between, and you’ll end up with a more flavor-concentrated lasagna. Don’t use tomato paste.

    I’ve got very lazy about bread lately: I get Trader Joe’s pizza dough.

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