Cake History Month 2: Flours

The most obvious ingredient in cake, one of the few that must be present for a thing to be a cake, is flour. You can make cakes without eggs, without sugar or honey, and with different different types of leavening, but the flour is the binder and the base of a cake.

A flour is a powder ground from a plant; the major baking flours across the world are cereal grains. The five most common types of culinary flours are also among the oldest:

  • Wheat: Used worldwide, and is the most common baking flour in North America and Western Europe. Wheat contains gluten, a protein that helps bread (and cake) dough bind together, trapping the expanding gas created by yeast and other leavening agents, so the dough rises.
  • Rice: Ground from rice kernels, this gluten-free rice has been popular in Asia for thousands of years, and is growing popular around the world as an ingredient in gluten-free foods. (“Glutenous” rice is stickier, but doesn’t actually contain gluten.)
  • Rye: A low gluten (but not gluten-free) flour common in breads, particularly in Eastern Europe, and in places where wheat doesn’t grow well because the soil is too sandy or peaty. Rye is also hardier than most wheats, able to survive even under a layer of snow. It’s not used for cake as often as wheat because of its strong flavor.
  • Barley: As a flour for baking, barley has been used around the world; it was cultivated around the same time as wheat in the Middle East, and in China and India a short time later. However, barley is most useful to baking as a malt–it’s been an ingredient of beer since ancient times, and its yeast is used as a leavening for breads and cakes.
  • Corn: Cultivated for at least 10,000 years, maize is a popular staple food in Mesoamerica, and gluten-free corn flour is one of its earliest uses. After the colonization of these lands by Spanish invaders, corn was introduced to Europe as well–though Spaniards worried it wasn’t nutritious because it wasn’t native to Europe, and wouldn’t use it as a substitute flour for communion wafers even after forcing the indigenous populations to convert to Catholicism, because Catholic doctrine stated only wheat could be transubstantiated into the body of Christ. [1] Corn flour is rarely used for cakes, though there are some interesting exceptions.

The way to a baker’s heart is through her flours…

Flour developed almost immediately after the beginning of agriculture, but how it was processed has evolved over the millennia [2]. Early bakers ground the grains by hand between stones, and this is true all over the world, for thousands of years. Romans experimented with water-driven mills, and they were popular for a while, but mechanical flour mills became mainstream in Europe in the middle ages with the introduction of the windmill, which probably originated in Persia a few centuries before.

By then, in Europe at least, the home cook could get wheat flour pre-ground, though the quality depended on the mill, the harvest, even the weather. Having access to mill-ground wheat didn’t necessarily mean that the average family had better food. They just had it without the extra work of grinding it themselves, and that savings in time made a huge difference in the (mostly female) cooks’ lives.

London’s first steam mill was erected in 1786, which moved flour production into the industrial age, which now produce hundreds of types of flour, billions of pounds a year. Now, getting flour is as easy as picking it up from the store, or ordering it off the internet. Now, we have a choice in what type of flour we want to use in our baking, and there are recipes to go with every choice. But think back to those earliest bakers, who had to bring wheat or corn or rice in from the field… who had to dry it, and grind it–by hand, pushing the kernels into a powder with a rock–for hours, just to get enough flour to make a loaf of bread.

When a serving of bread is the product of hours of work, how much more special then is cake?

[1] Rebecca Earle, The Body of the Conquistador: Food, Race, and the Colonial Experience in Spanish America, 1492-1700. New York: Cambridge University Press 2012, pp. 17, 151.


Dear Writers: Let’s talk about the history of food (& November is Cake History Month!)

Food history is an interdisciplinary field that examines the history of food, and the cultural, economic, environmental, and sociological impacts of food. Food history is considered distinct from the more traditional field of culinary history, which focuses on the origin and recreation of specific recipes. – Wikipedia

As a sociocultural art historian and an avid foodie, food history fits neatly into the venn diagrams of several of my interests. It’s not just finding out which cultures ate what foods, and it’s more than a desire to recreate certain recipes. If you know how a society gets dinner on the table, you know whether they’re more hunting- or more agrarian-based. You know whose job it is to cook, and who isn’t allowed to. You know whether your chef has to spend hours a day focused entirely on feeding herself and her family, or whether food is so easy to get that some folks take it for granted. How involved is your cook in the growing process? Are some foods prepared in advance? Is there refrigeration and canning and chemical preservatives, or does everything need to be eaten shortly after acquiring it so it’s not wasted?

As a writer, knowing every step of the culinary process tells me who my characters are. As a reader, details (or the lack of them) about your culture/character’s food journey tell me whether you’ve done your research. This is especially important in “historical” stories (whether fantasy or alt-history lit) and science fiction that is set outside of our current culture or time. If you’re writing about the here and now, you can get away with not talking too much about food unless it impacts the story you’re telling; if you say your main character grabbed a quick bite at a drive-through on the way home, we’ve got a pretty good idea of what that means, how that food got to your character.

But if you’re writing about a time and place removed from what your reader knows intimately, the plausible creation of your character’s food journey is just as important as the politics, gender/sexuality, parenting, and education invented for your imagined culture. Food–and especially the lack of it–builds kingdoms, starts wars, elevates your citizens, or keeps them oppressed.

This probably matters most when you’ve based part of your world-building on existing times and places. If you set your story in ancient Mesopotamia, for example, say in the major city of Ur, you should know:

  • they wrote cook books, and had recipes for over 800 different foods, plus everyday access to maybe 1600 different foods in their markets and kitchens.
  • that women were the cooks at home but important chefs (temple chefs, royal cooks, the culinary artists employed by the richest members of society) were usually all men.
  • they grew wheat and barley, grapes and figs, olives, melons, apples, eggplants, beans, lettuces… they raised sheep, goats, and cattle.
  • they brewed beer, and also used fermentation to leaven breads and cakes; grapes were used to make both raisins and wine.

So your characters in this story, set circa 3000 B.C.E., either ate a diverse spread of foods on a daily basis, and were part of a rich food-making culture, or they were somehow outside of that, and their lives involved a substantial amount of awareness that they could be eating better. Just from knowing what their food potential was, you know all of that.

Same is true whether you set your story in a version of Revolutionary France, colonial South Africa, the Phillipines during WWII, or during the breakfast hour in northern Thailand, last week. Food is culture.

My birthday is at the end of November, so I’ll be dedicating this blog to the history of cakes all through that month. Cakes because it’s my birthday month! And I like cake. But more importantly, by choosing one type of food to start with, we can begin to talk about food history and everything that goes with it, in a focused way.

I’ve already started trying out recipes and writing posts. I’m going to start with a basic history of cakes (including definitions), then start off with a recipe for temple cakes of Ur. I’ll go through evolutions in wheat, leavening, and ovens, as we make our way through unleavened fruit cakes into beginning pastries, through politics and colonialism and the economic factors that influenced recipe design, into the advertising behind certain early 20th century cakes and the psychology of cake decorating in the 1950s, before ending up with a couple of posts on cake mixes and novelty cake molds. Each recipe post will have pictures and instructions, as well as my notes about the sociocultural importance of the featured cake.

My Patreon subscribers will gets advance notes and previews all through September and October, but everyone will be able to read these posts for free as they post each day in November. (Want to kick in for ingredients? My PayPal is here. Or, you can check out my Amazon list for basic cooking tools which would help me make all the things.)

I’m really excited to start this discussion with, to share my love of food and my academic studies with other writers and readers. Please feel free to ask any questions!

And thanks again for reading.

Mini Movie Review: “Somm” and “Somm: Into the Bottle”









I’m reviewing these two documentaries together because they’re a matched pair: same director, much of the same cast, and two sides of the same coin.

You should watch Somm first, because it was filmed first, and introduces you to people you’ll see in the next film. It’s not the better movie, though. Somm is the backstage look at a small group of men who are preparing to take the Court of Master Sommeliers “Master Sommelier” exam, a three-part test to award the title and prestige that comes with being a master somm. (It is very prestigious; there are only about 200 Court-certified masters in the world, and ascending to that level comes with cache, swagger, and immediate job offerings all over the world.)

The test is truly difficult. It’s subjective, and it’s broad-ranging. To be a master, you need the skills of a botanist and a historian, along with a sensitive nose and an excellent memory for tastes and smells. It takes a combination of genetics and dedication, then, along with the money and privilege necessary to access the variety of wines you’ll have to memorize before the exam. So, of course these guys are stressed, and not every one passes.

If you already care about the master test, or you are working as a sommelier, this behind-the-scenes look will probably interest you. I learned a few things, watching it.

But Somm: Into the Bottle is far more educational. It brings back the guys from Somm, now employed by various wineries and restaurants, and has them help explain the history and mysteries of wine production. There’s obviously a bigger budget, and the director manages to get into some rare European locations to speak with winemakers whose families have been making wine since before there was an “America”, before the existence of many of the countries we know in Europe today.

I’d have liked to learn more about South American and Asian wines, but they do cover Australia, Europe, and California pretty well. They go over the botany, genetics, and economic/political pressures which make up a wine’s lineage and flavor profile. (War! Infighting between small wineries! Drinking lots of expensive wine!)

I don’t drink much wine, mainly because I could never afford to learn anything about it. I know a couple of things I like (bring unto me your finest Riesling, if you want me to be happy with your wine selections) and a decent amount of history (because, art historian). But knowing wine at the level of masters means knowing everything.

The thing is, I like to know everything. And I don’t like the realization that there’s this whole field which impacts culture and is grounded in history… which I haven’t accessed.

I need to read a few more books.

And definitely drink more wine.

(Both films are currently available on Netflix.)