Where did flour come from?
February 24, 2009 8:21 AM   Subscribe

Where did flour come from?

So I was recently thinking about my diet and the un-natural components of it, and I started thinking about how weird it is that the staple of our diet is a ground up seed, that is then mixed with water and other stuff and baked. Seems sorta un-natural to me...Where did this idea start, what was going through the first guy(or girl)'s head when he/she took a wheat grain and ground it up and made a paste with it? Why did it happen? Where did it happen? How did it develop?
posted by allfortheBoss to Food & Drink (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Seeds are very hard to digest even when they are cooked. Grinding the seeds into paste makes them easier to digest and creates less wear on teeth than eating whole seeds.
posted by entropyiswinning at 8:33 AM on February 24, 2009

You are hungry.
You have seeds that you can't swallow whole.
You have bad teeth.
You have a couple of rocks.

What do you do?
posted by jon1270 at 8:37 AM on February 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

Grains grow naturally. Early humans were literally dying for want of calories. Grinding things up is a pretty early innovation and it makes sense that early human civilization would have ground up everything for storage and moving. Applying heat and water to ground up things seems pretty logical at that point.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:41 AM on February 24, 2009

These kinds of questions interest me greatly, and there are a lot of them discussed in Guns, Germs and Steel, which I couldn't put down.
posted by iknowizbirfmark at 9:12 AM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Indians here in California were grinding (and blanching) acorns in mortars in pre-history. Perhaps this preceded corn.
posted by troy at 10:18 AM on February 24, 2009

Seconding the Guns, Germs and Steel rec if you are generally interested in this type of thing. There's also a book recently translated to English from the French called the History of Food that has a lot of this info in it as well, but its a lot more...lackadaisical in terms of historical accuracy.

IIRC domesticated wheat is pretty unlike whatever its wild ancestor was, but basically, hunter-gatherers were like "wtf is this crap and can i eat it? no. what if i mashed it a bit? ok. but eating dust stinks. maybe if i mix the dust with a bit of water?" Leave some of this porridge on a hot rock one day and you get like, matzoh basically, or hard-tack. There are ancient "cake" remains of grain flour mixed w/ whatever found in all kinds of ancient settlement sites by archos.

I think the current theory on how they advanced it to bread was someone left a bowl of this grain porridge out over night and some wild yeast got into it (apparently the species of yeast from which we get wine, beer, bread, fuel, and proof that god loves us has "cerveza" in the name but i can't remember the first chunk of its latinate double-barrel). They decided to cook it anyway. Bread. Eventually, someone was like "you know, adding a pinch of salt would REALLY make this tasty." For some reason, this knowledge never spread to the Italian region now known as Tuscany, which is why to this day, Tuscany is a backwards place with bad-tasting bread.
posted by jeb at 11:48 AM on February 24, 2009

in our modern world, we are so used to automated, mass, factory production of foodstuffs that we are totally disconnected from the older ways of hand-preparing our foods. Do you ever watch television programs that show food preparation among cultures around the world? You might find these shows to be very interesting. Currently on the Travel Channel is another season of Mark & Olly's adventures living in remote regions with locals and learning how they live. This year they are in the Peruvian jungle, I believe, with the Machiguenga tribe. If you watch shows like this you will see that grinding various parts of plants to create edible foods is quite common.
posted by Piscean at 12:52 PM on February 24, 2009

I see your point. If you just look at modern bread, the evolution of it seems too complex to have happened by chance. It must have slowly developed:

cracked wild seeds
crushed seeds
wet crushed seeds
wet pulverized seeds
hot wet pulverized seeds
unleven bread
leaven bread
A cake shaped like a carousel with tiny fondant horses
posted by cockeyed at 12:54 PM on February 24, 2009 [7 favorites]

cockeyed, you're missing a few simpler steps, which probably preceded your list:

Allow seeds to sprout (accidentally at first) - MEGAnutrition + sugar calories!
Allow sprouts to die & dry out - discover they can be eaten later
Dry sprouts over fire, to avoid mold in rainy season - discover baked sprouts are more easily digested/chewed than dried sprouts, and are less attractive to vermin
Grind soft sprouts to flour, add water, and bake into Essene bread.
( continue with cockeyed's list... )
posted by IAmBroom at 4:13 PM on February 24, 2009

I've wondered about this also, and have two totally made up theories. 1) Hungry human sees birds eating seeds, and figures there must be some way to get in on that action, tries smashing, wetting, heating. 2) There is a natural fire in some wheatgrass, and human says, damn that smells like food, maybe I should put some of those grains near the fire, but wet them so they won't burn.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:36 PM on February 24, 2009

Surely discovering yeast, not salt, would have been the 'holy crap' moment, no?
posted by Rhomboid at 1:59 PM on February 25, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers, I now definitely have a few theories and have a little bit less of the feeling of "How the hell did this happen?!" I didn't think about chewing before, that is definitely (in my mind) how the whole "Grinding food up craze" got started. Some guy was like, "man, this is hard to chew, what if I used rocks to chew it for me, and then ate it?" and the rest is history...

Thanks for the book rec. I will check it out!

I am feeling much more enlightened, thanks MeFi!
posted by allfortheBoss at 7:15 AM on February 27, 2009

FWIW, GGS is not without its criticisms and heavily banks on the old idea of environmental determinism. While I think its a neat pop-culture phenomenon and brings up interesting ideas I would still read it with a very skeptical mindset.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:46 AM on February 27, 2009

Surely discovering yeast, not salt, would have been the 'holy crap' moment, no?

Rhomboid, considering yeast was essentially discovered by Louis Pasteur, who (AFAIK) was born somewhat after the invention of bread, I'd say... no.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:25 PM on March 1, 2009

That's nonsense. People have been using yeast to brew beer and leaven bread for at least 4000 years. The only thing that Pasteur did was show that it was a living organism where before it was thought to be a chemical reaction, but you don't have to understand the exact underlying physical mechanism of a thing in order to utilize it. That's like saying early prehistoric humans didn't discover fire because they didn't know that it is an oxidation reaction, or that that Darwin couldn't have drawn on hereditary genetics to conceive of evolution because he had no concept of DNA.
posted by Rhomboid at 2:15 PM on March 1, 2009

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