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In which John discusses the quality of 18th century French bread and the nearness of history.

The books that most inspired this video are Cuisine and Culture by Linda Civitello and Food in History by Reay Tannehill. I also loved this short essay from the Ultimate History project:

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Good morning Hank, it's Tuesday.

I've been thinking a lot about bread. Specifically about what bread tasted like right before the women's march on Versais in 1789, in which a group of French women who were, depending on your perspective, either protesting or rioting besieged the king's palace in Versais and forced him and his family to return to Paris.

It was a big moment in the French Revolution and it was caused, in part, by bread. Mostly the price of bread, which had risen dramatically due to failed harvests and bad monetary policy, but also the quality of bread, which always declined in hard times.

Like the French peasant bread of 1789 often included lots of chaff, the indigestible husks surrounding the edible kernel of grain in wheat. But it was also common to bulk up wheat or rye or buckwheat dough with sawdust or hay or even animal dung.

And at the time, bread wasn't just like a staple of the French diet. For most people, it was the diet. Like the average French adult ate 2-3 pounds of bread per day every day.

And while they did sometimes have access to other foods, many days, possibly most days, it was just bread. Sawdusty, possibly animal poopy bread.

I've been reading about this, partially for the cooking history videos that Sarah and I are going to make later in the year, and partly because-I don't know, I just fall down research rabbit holes...

Like I'm reading one book, and then other, and pretty soon I'm looking up 5,000 year old recipes for grain paste and my kids are like, "Dad, can you make breakfast?" and I'm like, "Oh my god, it's morning?"

Anyway, the thing that gets me about bread is not how shockingly horrible it used to be, it's how recently it was shockingly horrible. Like you know Halley's Comet? (or possibly Hahlley's Comet or Hawlley's Comet depending on whose pronunciation you believe) It's this comet that is visible from Earth every 75ish years.

So like a good human lifetime. The last time Haley was visible from Earth in 1986, I was 8. The time before that was 1910. And the time before that, Luis XVI's cousin Philippe I was King of France, having  become King after the so-called Second French Revolution which was caused, in part, by, you guessed it, failed harvests and rising bread prices.

Put it another way, we are two human lifetimes removed from the US Civil War and only three removed from a time when not just the poorest people, but most people, were eating sawdust bread in France.

Of course, this doesn't mean that we've achieved some great victory that we ought to celebrate or anything, there's still lots of people who don't get adequate nutrition. And not only in impoverished countries, but also in wealthy ones.

But it does mean that we can make progress. And when you look at history through the lenses of lifetimes, both the pace of change and the nature of change are, to me, really encouraging.

And frankly, I could use some encouragement in these strange times because I find that despair mostly just makes me complacent. Like, 'oh there's nothing to be done about this horror or that horror, it's just hte nature of things.'

On the other hand, feeling like progress is inevitable also makes me complacent. Like, 'oh I can just sit back and watch rising grain yields feed the world and Elon Musk fix climate change and disease cure itself.'

But reading history fills me with the uncomfortable but productive feeling that better human lives are possible, but not guaranteed.

Of course, it's overly simplistic to say that the women who led the march on Versais brought about a freer, more equitable, less hungry France. The French Revolution, like so many revolutions, failed to achieve many of its ambitions.

In my experience anyway, the changes we seek in the world almost always prove harder to make than we first think they'll be.

But looking at history in lifetimes shows us that change can and does happen anyway. Something I'm reminded of every time I bite into a nice, sawdust-free slice of bread.

Hank, I'll see you on Friday.