Wheat, our oldest sustainer, now dependent

One of the earliest stories of wheat in human culture is of Noah, a figure equally venerated by Jews, Christians and Muslims who, after the flood, prepared a sweet porridge of wheat, chickpeas, apricots and figs called Ashure. 
Photo: Gwendolyn Best

By Carolyn Best

The story of humanity and the story of wheat have intertwined for 70,000 years, since we first left Africa where there was no wheat and came to western Asia where it flourished in the form of a wild grass. There, for tens of thousands of years, people did not grow wheat, they picked wheat. At that time the wheat stalk, the stem that holds the grains, had a very different form. It was brittle and would shatter easily. Our hunter gatherer ancestors picked its seeds one by one. Until 11,000 years ago, human beings of the Fertile Crescent found their sustenance in acorns, gazelles and these wild grass seeds.

Then began an enormous transition. Through careful selection and sowing, humans produced kernels much larger than the original seeds. They also modified the grass’s fragile rachis – as it is called by biologists – the stem that holds the seed or grain. For the wheat plant in the wild, the “brittle rachis” was an evolutionary advantage, since it allowed the ear to shatter easily for maximum seed distribution and reproduction. To human harvesters, it was an obstacle to be overcome.

Increasing the size of the wheat kernel and effecting the disappearance of the wheat seed’s dispersal mechanism – the turning of the wild grass into the domesticated grain – speaks of an intuitive understanding of the plant world, infinitely surpassing the possibilities of the random. With this accomplishment a great tide of humanity began moving to a settled agricultural way of life.

Humans have adapted and spread wheat throughout the planet. It is grown from the near Arctic regions to the equator, from sea level to the Tibetan plateau, different varieties engineered to thrive in different locales and growing conditions. Emmer wheat, the earliest known form, arose in the Levant between 11 and 12 thousand years ago, while einkorn wheat was derived from its wild ancestors on the slopes of Mount Karacadag, in southeastern Turkey, perhaps a thousand years later. Four thousand years ago, with paddy rice still thousands of years in the future, the domestication of wheat reached China. The variety there, unsuited to the rising of bread, was prepared as noodles, which require only modest fuel, and was better suited to areas of dense population.

As more of the earth’s population adopted tillage and planting, the scope of human endeavours changed. Sowing, reaping and threshing became established human labours; so, too, did baking and fermenting. The capacity to store grain, along with which came owning and hoarding, made population growth inevitable, leading over time to the founding of the first cities.

The ancient Egyptians were the developers of bread and the builders of ovens. In the fertile Nile delta wheat was widely grown and bread baking became the first large-scale food production industry. As Egypt coalesced into a single kingdom, the annual wheat harvest became central to the fortunes of its pharaohs. Good years brought stability and contentment, but drought and failed harvests resulted in famine, social unrest and the breakdown of the social order. This is reflected in the Old Testament story of Pharaoh’s dream, in which seven lean cows devour seven fat cows and seven withered ears of wheat devour seven fat ones. Joseph successfully interprets the dream as predicting seven years of good harvests, followed by seven years of severe famine. He recommends that Pharaoh store one-fifth of the harvest from each of the fat years to use in the lean years “so that the land of Egypt may not perish.”

Wheat has symbolic importance in the religious observances of the three monotheistic faiths; in the unleavened bread of the Passover, the host of the Christian Eucharist and in the Muslim worlds of central Asia, in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan where bread is treated as sacred in everyday life. There, leavened round loaves of wheat are stamped before baking and must be kept upright and treated with respect, never left on the ground or thrown away in public.

One of the earliest stories of wheat in human culture comes from a tale associated with the Biblical account of Noah, a figure equally venerated by Jews, Christians and Muslims. Legend tells us that when the ark came to rest on Mount Ararat, Noah prepared a meal from the few remaining stores that they had carried with them. He boiled wheat, chickpeas, apricots and figs together in a pot. The resulting sweet porridge is called Ashure. A dish of great significance in the Levant, Ashure is always vegan, separated from blood and violence. It is served in the belief that, as opposed to material wealth, which is gained by hoarding, the richness of Ashure can only be achieved by sharing.

But now to wheat in modern times. What were once distinct “landraces,” which historians and agriculturalists call the informal farmer-maintained population of a plant with high morphological diversity, have all but disappeared. The wheats of antiquity are gone. Across the globe, particularly in Asia and Africa, the westernization of diets, associated with increasing prosperity and the exodus from villages and rural areas, leads to an ever-growing demand for wheat per capita. It is the world’s largest crop and the percentage of earth’s arable land dedicated to its production increases steadily. One reason is that the westernization of the world’s diet is very wheat-centric, and the other is that the global demand for what are called the “viscoelastic and adhesive properties” of gluten becomes steadily larger. These properties are essential to the production of processed foods for which there is an ever-escalating demand.

The Green Revolution, which saved so many people from starvation, reduced the biodiversity in which many genetic traits had been bred into traditional varieties of wheat over thousands of years. And wheat has become supreme in countries where it was policy. Modern agriculture constantly escalates uniformity. Some plant biologists consider that were human beings to disappear from the planet, then wheat would survive us by no more than three years. It has become a thoroughly human-dependent plant.

Carolyn Best is the former proprietor/chef of The Pantry vegetarian tearoom, and a regular Glebe Report contributor on food.


Ashure or Noah’s Pudding

3 cups wheat kernels
1½ cups cooked chickpeas
2 cups dried apricots (California sour apricots preferred)
2 cups dried figs

Wash and soak the wheat overnight. Drain and cover with fresh water in a large pot, bring to a boil and simmer gently until tender. Leave to cool (the grain will absorb more water). Add chickpeas and coarsely chopped apricots and figs. Add more water to cover and bring to a slow boil, stirring as it thickens. Pour into bowls and serve warm or cooled.

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