The Garden GATE: Grains traditionally supply us with our staff of life

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

Grains have been a major diet staple from the beginning of time — and in every civilization.
Breads made from grain are the “staff of life.”

The Bible has hundreds of references to bread and the various grains from which it can be made.

There is also reference to what some of these grains in ancient times were and how their counterparts compare.

We seldom hear about spelt, millet, pulse or maize, although spelt can be found in health food stores today.

Rye, buckwheat, barley, wheat, rice and corn, however, are very familiar.

Spelt was the most common form of wheat in early times. Grown in ancient Egypt, it was a staple grain in the time of Moses. Native to Mesopotamia, it was common in southern Europe and was often used with other grains. It makes a good, but rather coarse, bread.

Wheat and spelt were not planted until after the other grains were. It is thought that this is why the hailstorms destroyed Pharaoh’s barley, but not his wheat or spelt.

The earliest farming methods were developed about 6000 B.C. The fermenting of liquids was also discovered at about this time, prompting the beginning of yeast and what it could do to make bread dough rise.

At about 1000 B.C., the ancient Greeks invented the first primitive mills to grind the universally grown wheat and barley. Greek bread was used as leaven made by soaking millet flour in grape juice, a practice similar to modern methods.

The Romans invented a new type of mill that used circular revolving millstones to make a finer flour than had been previously possible. Bakeries were established, and with them came the first real distinction between bread for the wealthy and poor. Roman aristocrats insisted upon fine white breads, a practice that still persists.

Medieval households consumed tremendous amounts of bread. Few recipes were written down.

Apprentices learned from master bakers, and girls from their mothers. Often, they were not literate enough to write the recipes.

The Bible is full of references to barley, both as a staple food and for ceremonial use. It is still a staple food in lands of the Middle East.

No grain being brought into cultivation by mankind equals barley to the extent of climatic variation under which it will grow and thrive. Barley has been described as the most universal cereal in the world.

In addition to its references to bread, the Bible also refers to the various grains from which it can be made.

Wheat was usually referred to as corn in the Bible. It is mentioned this way more than 70 times. Wheatfields are often referred to as cornfields to this day. This is not to be confused with American corn, which is properly maize.

Corn, in the biblical sense, was often a mixture of peas, beans, lentils, barley, millet and spelt, with wheat as its principal ingredient.

Egypt was a great grain-producing country. Rome and Constantinople regarded it as an inexhaustible granary to the Roman Empire. Even today, Arabia imports all of its wheat from Egypt via caravan. The mills, millstones, granaries and threshing floors mentioned in Scripture refer to equipment used in processing mostly wheat and spelt to make flour.

Grains of wheat have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs and the remains of prehistoric lake dwellings of Switzerland. Babylon, Syria and Palestine were all known in ancient times for the quality of their grains. Millet was given to Ezekiel to use for bread and medicine.

Ezekiel’s bread, made in the traditional way, can still be found in the modern supermarket. Very good it is indeed, as it always was.

Pulse was perhaps the most ancient of all grains used for bread. Lentils, chestnuts, peas, spelt, grits and chickpeas were ground together to make flour.

In the first century, a Roman scholar wrote a book about food in the time of Tiberius. He listed many foods popular at that time.

Indian corn, or maize, is a staple food in many countries. Rice is the mainstay grain of Oriental countries.

Barley was so well known in ancient times that it even supplied the Hebrews with a unit of lineal measurement: 2 barleycorns, making a finger’s breadth; 16 a hand’s breadth; 24 a span; and 48 a cubit, or 48 inches. This system of measurement is still used in some parts of the world.
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.