Warning – this is pure opinion not backed by research – other than life and a ton of reading. You can do the research and draw your own conclusions if you like. But – I bet I’m right.
Baking perhaps shows the difference between American society and the rest of the world more clearly than any other activity. Nowhere else is the emphasis on home baking as pronounced.
In the beginning, humans were a primitive group society. To see what the earlier society looked like, just look at chimpanzee society. Jane Goodall, to her credit, has reported what she has observed for almost 50 years. Good, bad, ugly, she has been honest even where her observations horrified her. In the beginning, she assumed that chimps were like humans, just nicer. Since we share around 95% common DNA and are both tribally social creatures, this is not an unwarranted starting point. Unfortunately, she discovered that chimps are not nicer; they are, in fact, just like humans. Period. They practice all the human virtues and vices, including premeditated organized warfare, murder, grieving for lost ones, etc. The main difference is that since chimps do not have advanced weapons, the large, psychotic bully usually beats his victims into a slow, painful, brutal death. And since there are no advanced weapons, it is not possible to sneak up on said bully and rid the tribe of him quickly. Sometimes her, but very rarely. Usually the females aren’t that big and strong and don’t make tribe leaders. They can be just as nasty; they just don’t have the muscle to back it up.
Anyway, as we evolved, we stayed with the tribal structure. Mostly loners died off. The oddball and different were expelled from the tribal mix. Early food preparation was a communal affair. It took cooperation to grow, harvest, store, and prepare the food. This was the central activity of the community. (You don’t work = you don’t eat = you die.) Even the mobile raiding tribes such as the Goths stayed with the cooperative community approach to food and life. And, when they settled down, it was as a community.
As we grew from migrating tribes, we evolved the village. In the village, specialization began to formalize. Notice that in the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer has the Miller’s Daughter (Reeve’s Tale) who is going into the nearby village to get bread from the baker. This demonstrates the fact that bread is one of the most complex tasks that we ever undertake, and one of the first to become specialized.
Milling grain into flour takes one tremendous amount of personal labor and energy, and/or specialized equipment. If you do not believe this, try grinding your own. I don’t mean with one of the handy-dandy home mills. No, no. Try taking a couple of flat rocks and grinding the grain into acceptable flour. Oh yeah, well, first you have to shape the rocks into something useable. Have fun. Back to the grain. That should pretty well kill a morning and use most of your day’s energy. Now it is one thing to grind a coarse meal for some flat bread like tortilla. Quite another to produce a well made loaf of good table or sandwich bread. OK, we’ll be reasonable. Grind your grain on one day, and let it rest for several days. You really should do this, anyway, since flour has to rest for proper oxygenation or it doesn’t work right. (Home grinders – pay attention!)
So, now you have some flour. If we’re doing this the old way, we have to capture some wild yeast, mix the stuff up with flour, water, yeast, and salt. Oh, yeah, we had to get the salt from somewhere. We got it mixed up; we were savvy enough to get the dough just right, good texture, and good rise, ready to go. Ok – just exactly what are you going to bake it in? A good bread oven is a large, complex affair. Yes, I’m talking about the old wood-fired sort of oven. You can’t make good bread in a fireplace or open fire. Even in modern times, you can still see women in some areas of the Middle East, particularly, that pre-make the bread at home and then go to a community oven to bake collectively. Of course, this means that everyone has to bake at the same time and that someone has to be compensated for maintaining the oven and firing the bread. Not exactly as convenient as turning over the whole baking mess to a professional.
The modern baker’s ovens mostly are trying to mimic the old type without the fun of tending the fire. (There’s a whole discussion in ovens, I’ll have to get to it one day.)
So, as societies evolved, the whole bread thing became very specialized, and the miller and the baker were men of substance in the community. Medieval law even guaranteed the incomes of these two specialists. European, Middle Eastern, Eastern, you name it, all the advanced societies had/have this specialization. This is not to say that rural people don’t have to make their own bread – they do. But recollect that until very recently, France, Germany, etc. tended to sneer at such efforts and the results thereof. There has been some increase in respect for the country breads in recent history, but it was generally done out of lack of a local baker than for any other reason. In France, this was part of the whole Nouvelle Cuisine movement, where the great glories of French cooking were sort of peasentized (dare I say somewhat Americanized – heresy!). This may or may not be a good thing, use your own taste buds.
Then came the Americans. We were founded by people who could and would leave the settled, comfortable life of stable communities to try it on their own. Or we ran away from poverty and hellacious existence. Or we ran away from the law. Or the law shipped us involuntarily (Oglethorpe, Georgia). Most of our people settled in the existing communities. But not all. Our national character has been formed by people who were willing to root hog or die (or had no choice). And indeed, the penalty for failure was death in the early days of the settling of America. We have evolved into a people who like to do for ourselves. The failures mostly didn’t pass on genes or attitudes. (This is not true of modern society, to our detriment.)
The concept of home baking of bread has become part of the independent spirit of our people. The French do not make their wonderful bread in the home. French bread is still made by professional bakers with complex ovens and practices and each householder picks up a day’s supply on the way home each day. It does not occur to the Frenchman that he might even want to think about trying to make this bread for himself at home.
This is not to imply that there are not hearth breads, pan breads, and campfire breads and such that have been made from time immemorial in the local home fire. But these are not the same thing as a nice loaf of bread suitable for toast, sandwiches, dunking into soup, or whatever. It is called the staff of life for a good reason. It is the truth. It is just as great a delicacy as the either of the other two great fermented foods – booze and cheese – and just as complex to get just right.
Not only is bread baking endemic in this country (and not just plain either!), but look at the number of people who make fancy cakes, etc. In European society, if you want to make fancy cakes and confections, you work in a store under a master. Here, you just start, read, research, maybe even take a class or two, and trial and error until you get there, whether for you own use and pleasure or for sale. No other society in the world has taken what are normally specialized village tasks and done it in the home on as massive a scale.
Why do we bake at home when the local bakery has stuff that’s pretty good? Taste, taste, taste! Fun! And some think that there is additional nutrition. Probably not a whole lot. Cost is not one of the factors. Good bakery bread is cheaper than what you can make at home. Sure it is. Figure in all the costs of setup and materials and your labor. Bakery is cheaper. Store bought, factory bread just is not in the equation, it’s pretty gross stuff. But good bakery bread is hard to beat. Unless you want the taste of your own and the variety (and the fun!). You cannot get good salt-rising in 99% of the bakeries out there. I know of no bakery in this neck of the woods that makes a good, genuine Westphalian Black Bread (heavy rye). The rye in this country is not the same animal. These are specialized regional breads just not available unless you make them yourself.
So, where do we go from here? Mostly, bake your own bread if you have the independence of spirit. Otherwise, get it from a local bakery. Forget the store brands, mostly they are not good bread. Experiment, read, learn, grow – be an American original.