Actual Lies
January 5, 2013

In today’s busy workaday world, it’s a lot easier to make things up than it is to look them up. Luckily for you, I’ve prepared this helpful collection of authoritative lies.

Today’s lie:

• The phrase “The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread” is wrong.

We all know that the common phrase “the proof is in the pudding” is meant to be “the proof of the pudding is in the tasting.” But not enough people realize that the cliché “the best thing since sliced bread,” has been similarly mangled by time and common use from the original, and much more sensible, “the best thing since sliceable bread.” The phrase refers to the post-renaissance revolution of ovens small enough to be contained in a commoner’s household. Prior to this, baking was done strictly by professional bakers, in enormous ovens only found in bakeries. These super-sized and superheated stone chambers were most often converted from blacksmiths’ furnaces that fell out of fashion and into disuse at the conclusion of the Bronze Age. Their immense size meant that heating them evenly took an incredible effort, and could often only be achieved once in a given day. Luckily, the very same immense size that made baking lots of things difficult made baking a single enormous thing very convenient. The typical “loaf” of bread (in the parlance of the day) was of a length, width, and height comparable to what we would today think of as a 1985 Buick Skylark sedan, as seen in this to-scale ASCII-art rendering (Fig. a).

O                                       0

1985 Skylark Sedan          1 Loaf of “Bread”

(Fig. a: size comparison: Buick and bread)

The baker himself was in these days more similar to the conductor of an orchestra, or the director of a film—a job that was literally unimaginable at the time! The baker oversaw a crew of men. Six were responsible just for maintaining the intense heat in these large stone fire pits. Ordinarily, four men worked a complicated bellows system to keep the fire fueled with fresh oxygen, and the remaining two fueled the fire with actual fuel. Wood was preferred over coal for the more delicate flavor it imparted to the bread.

While these men prepared the oven, the other six prepared and handled the dough and eventual bread. One man, known as the slicer, was responsible for making sure a teaspoon of precious salt was added to each batch of dough. (The name of his job was entirely a coincidence and does not refer to the cutting of bread into slices.) Once the dough was heaved into the enormous ovens, two men guarded the oven door, which was held shut with a pair of long poles. Some believe that boat oars were originally used for the task, but this is inaccurate. The pair of poles, and indeed, the pair of men, were not concerned with keeping nogoodniks out of the fantastically hot oven, but with keeping the dough in until it had become bread. As the dough “rose,” it would often expand to the edges of the supremely sized brick ovens, whose doors would burst if left unattended, which would result in a misshapen and unevenly cooked “loaf.”

Once the “loaf” was ready, the remaining three men would carefully ease it out of the phenomenally large ovens, onto a series of rods that allowed an even distribution of the bread’s weight, while also helping to prevent the men from burning their hands. Some books on the subject refer to these as repurposed boat oars, or paddles, but this is also incorrect. The “loaf” would then be carried to the front of the store where it could be portioned and sold to local villagers, who could not afford such enormous ovens in their own homes.

And so it is from the proud tradition of this team of twelve men working in harmony, under the instruction and guidance of a thirteenth, the skilled bakesmith, that we derive the term “Baker’s Dozen.”


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