The Book of Bread (1903)

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”, writes Owen Simmons at the outset of The Book of Bread (1903), a work he hopes will definitively establish “the link between the bakery and the laboratory” and speak to “the needs of the baker and of the miller”. And the text, at times, does indeed read like a lab manual for commercial bakeries: Simmons was a breadmaker’s breadmaker, co-founder of the National School of Bakery in London and frequent contributor to The British Baker. The book contains equations for the conversion of starch into alcohol (by way of maltose, dextrin, and glucose), chemical explanations for why viscoelasticity is “injurious to the proper manufacture of several kinds of biscuits”, and intricate discussions of nitrogenic proteids, which, once transformed into peptones, “nourish the yeast by percolating its cellulose”.

In addition to its scientific learning, the preface notes two unique aspects that set The Book of Bread apart from competitors: a tabulated appendix, featuring the results of more than 360 baking experiments, and its “most expensive illustrations”, which will force readers “to admit that never before have they seen such a complete collection of prize loaves illustrated in such an excellent manner”. An early entry in Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s history of the photobook, the attention lent to loaves left the writers in awe: “Here, at the beginning of the twentieth century, one of the humblest, yet most essential of objects is catalogued as precisely, rigorously and objectively as any work by a 1980s Conceptual artist.” Kenneth Josephson’s later photographic experiment, The Bread Book (1973), seems to directly reference Simmons’ work.

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In many ways, The Book of Bread anticipates the rise of molecular gastronomy in the 1990s and 2000s. Simmons’ demonstrations of scientific learning are purely in service of the glutenous arts, and his passion for bread leavens, here and there, moments of flat discussion. The author elaborates on the “vigour of yeast”, the textural superiority of a “soft, pliable, and springy crumb”, the causes of “crumbliness”, “ropiness”, and “blisters and bladders”. Yet Simmons’ tireless displays of authoritative gravity — his chapter epigraphs include lines from Pope and Tennyson — occasionally come across as humorously overbaked. Consider, for instance, his taxonomy of holes:

Concerning holes in bread there are many conflicting opinions. Men engaged daily in the handling of dough differ ; thinking men who commit their thoughts to paper are diametrically opposed ; but we think the differences of opinion would disappear if the different kinds of holes were kept in mind, and the subject more fully discussed. Holes in bread may be divided into two classes—those, on the one hand, which are more or less distributed in a loaf, being of medium size and numerous, and those, on the other hand, which are very large, being only one or at most two in the entire loaf. There are many subsidiary causes, which we shall proceed to discuss. . .

After roughly three hundred pages of dense, carbo-scholastic prose, Simmons offers no conclusion or parting remarks. His last sentence, before turning to tabulation, is a minor caution to bakers: “In using compressed yeast see that it is fresh, and not too soft.”

Simmons preceded the trade edition of his book with a stunning edition de luxe of roughly 350 copies, bound in red grained Moroccan leather with the original silver bromide prints pasted in. While the larger print run of the trade edition necessitated a switch to more cost-effective photomechanical illustrations, Simmons still made the unusual step of retaining two pasted-in silver bromide prints (the ones bordered by green below) in addition to the beautiful chromolithograph plates, where golden loaves glow against an ultramarine background. As @incunabula notes, this reference text is surrounded by mystery. The talented photographer remains nameless and, for unknown reasons, very few deluxe editions of The Book of Bread have survived, despite a fairly generous initial printing.

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