The role of bread in western civilization has been so important that it's ingrained into our very culture. As a food and also as metaphor it continues to be ensconced in everyday life. And its long history is almost beyond belief.
Wheat, from which most breads are derived, has been cultivated and stored since prerecorded times. And there's evidence that bread has been baked and used as a staple food for more than 6000 years. The truly amazing thing is that other than modern conveniences (gas ovens and electric mixers) not much has changed in the way bread is made.
The way in which bread originated is as humble as the loaf itself. Wheat was originally simply chewed and eaten for its nutritional value; it was also eaten in a sort of porridge. The first primitive "loaves" were undoubtedly derived from this porridge in the form of unleavened cakes baked over an open fire. Later, when grinding wheat into flour was learned, wheat was turned into batter or dough. But with the inevitable inoculation of wild yeast it was probably not much of a leap to discover, and ultimately manipulate, this into leavened loaves of bread.
Bread is used as much as metaphor as it is food. The most obvious examples that come to mind are from the Bible, in both the Christian and Hebrew texts. A simple search for the word "bread" in an online bible yields hundreds of results, and familiar stories abound. The book of Exodus reminds us that when the Jews were lost and starving in the desert God fed them with manna, or bread from heaven. And sometimes directions are pretty specific. In the book of Ezekiel, for example, the prophet is instructed to take wheat, barley, beans, lentils, and millet and make bread out of them for nourishment while he too was in the desert. In the New Testament Jesus uses bread as the ultimate metaphor when he refers to it as His body: blessed, broken, and shared. After more than two millennia this is still practiced in the form of Holy Communion each Sunday in Christian churches around the globe. And one of the most powerful Biblical metaphors is in the Lord's Prayer, where people pray to God for their life's necessities, while using the words Daily Bread. These, of course, are just a few examples of many.
Bread as religious metaphor is not limited to Judeo-Christian tradition or inspiration. Rumi, the 13th century Islamic mystic and poet, who is an important figure in Sufism and is usually accredited with the Whirling Dervishes, dedicated or inspired an entire series of poems to bread and how it mirrors life. To this day, in fact, bread is such an integral part of many Middle Eastern diets that in some Arabic dialects it is referred to as esh or aysh, meaning life.
The act of sharing bread or an entire meal together is sometimes referred to as "breaking bread." This is also the basis of the modern word companion, which is derived from the Latin phrase com pani, which loosely translates to with one whom bread is shared (com: with or together; pani: bread). Other modern, albeit slightly dated, examples are in the form of slang. Money is sometimes called "bread" or "dough."
The Middle East may be the area of the world where bread originated but it's certainly not the only area that's relied on it. All over Europe bread is an integral part of cuisine and daily life. The English word soup, for example, is derived from the Old English, sop, making reference to supping, or eating, but more specifically eating broth that has been poured over stale bread to make a meager meal substantial. And bread making in some countries, such as France, Italy, and Germany, has been elevated to a veritable art form. A boulanger, or bread maker, in France, translates literally as "ball maker," referring to the beautifully symmetrical balls of bread they make, which are the original French bread and predates the baguette. And the German Brotmuseum, or bread museum, located in the northern city of Ulm, which incidentally is the birthplace of Einstein, is devoted to nothing but the culture and history of bread.
The English word bread as used today comes from the Old English, and various forms are in use in most other Germanic languages; Brot (German) and Brood (Dutch), to name a couple. In the middle ages the word bread was used synonymously with food in general. But etymologists consider that bread's root word is more closely related to the word brew. This is not at all surprising seeing that it was the ancient Egyptians who first discovered and perfected bread making and brewing beer around the same period. This, too, is not surprising because the way in which bread is fermented, i.e. leavened. Fermenting a bread starter is not that much fundamentally different than the way hops are fermented for beer, and both processes require the use of yeast. The famed late Parisian baker, Poilane, whose breads are revered around the world, and who baked bread using strictly old world methods, would sometimes refer to his bread as "solid beer."
North America was once famous for its sourdough. The gold miners of the pacific northwest were so associated with their sourdough breads that they themselves were often called "sourdoughs" (legend has it that some actually kept their bubbling sourdough crocks in their beds while they slept to keep it warm and active), and the wood-fired ovens of New England and Quebec, which were once used to bake their version of sourdough, are now regional history.
One of the oddest things happening today, I believe, is the association of eating bread and weight gain. Low-carb diets have given bread a bad rap. Bread, to many, might as well be poison. But the simple fact that people have eaten bread for thousands of years, and in some cases have actually sustained themselves on it, denounces (to me) any overt credibility that today it is making people fat. I personally have no medical or scientific information to back up this somewhat opinionated statement other than the fact that I am of average build and eat bread at almost every meal; breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I have as long as I can remember.
I had read an article in the newspaper some time ago just after the war in Iraq started. A reporter that was involved in supplying food to the Iraqi people wrote the story. It was brief but powerful story, and in retrospect I wished I would have clipped it and saved it. In the story he talked about how surprised he was that while the aid workers had a large variety of provisions, the thing that the people were asking for mostly was flour…they wanted to make bread. The photo that accompanied the story was from the vantage point of someone standing on the back of a truck. There were woman on the ground with outstretched arms desperately reaching—begging—for food, and bags of flour. A couple of the women were looking directly into the camera, the camera through which I looked back via a printed photo. It's an image that stays with me still.