Albert’s Fun Fact Science Corner: Rise, Lowly Dough, on the Wings of a Free Floating Spore

Enkidu was a wild man. Enkidu ran with the gazelles. Enkidu ate grass with them. The people feared Enkidu. He would fill in their pit traps and disassemble their snares. Enkidu was not like men. Enkidu was strong. Enkidu was like one of the mortals. Until Shamhat fed him Bread and Beer. Enkidu ate so much bread and drank so much beer that he became a man. Enkidu had left the world of the wilds and was folded into civilization, made to agree with and abide by it. Enkidu had been domesticated.

Humans as a class make distinctions. We are social, and we decide what is in and what is out of our society. We even do this with animals. Dogs? In. Wolves? Out. Water buffalo? Out. Cattle? In. To domesticate a creature is to change its way of life to suit ours. Domesticated animals have been bred to be tamer, more docile, more social, and often tastier. But animals aren’t the only things we domesticate.

Hunter-gatherer societies took what they could. They ate fruits and roots, foraged seeds from grasses, and would scavenge the occasional prey animal. Heck, they might even go hunting from time to time. At some point, (about 10,000 BCE), humans realized that seeds weren’t just for eating, they were for planting. Instead of moving about all the time, humans settled down. Instead of using the uniquely animal trait of voluntary mobility to migrate, we rooted ourselves in place and became the sowers of crops. The plants domesticated us, folding us into their way of life. But the relationship was reciprocal; we made the grains easier to harvest and eat, as well as larger and more fruitful.

But eating a seed isn’t all that fun of a process. Maybe some seeds are really nice to eat on their own like sunflower seeds, but modern sunflowers only arose after thousands of years of what was potentially the most awe inspiring act of domestication in human history, the Eastern Agricultural Complex, in which Indigenous peoples of the now so-called eastern U.S. essentially domesticated entire ecosystems to produce food in sustainable ways. In most places, people started grinding up grains into flour to make breads. The first leavened breads were probably made in Sumeria in 6,000 B.C. Yeast is all around us, and warm, wet dough is a very inviting environment for it. Dough left out in the warm Sumerian climate would eventually begin to ferment and rise, making it much more pleasant to eat. In 3,000 B.C., the process was refined in Egypt when people started adding yeast to their breads. They would hold on to starters and repeatedly use the same dishes for making bread so that yeast would begin to colonize onto their bowls and jars.

Baker’s yeast has changed significantly since then. We have refined yeast to serve our needs, we have domesticated it. Yeast is much more efficient at breaking down sugars than it used to be, and it works better with our modern grains. Bakers use different strains of yeast for wheat flour or rye, brewers use different strains altogether. Some produce stronger yeast flavors that one might want for a heavy weissbier or a bock, others produce as little yeast flavor as possible for a delicate champagne. Seamus Blackley, inventor of the Xbox and amateur Egyptologist, famously pulled some strings with some archaeologist and microbiologist friends of his to isolate a strain of yeast that was found on ancient Egyptian cookware. This yeast behaved differently from modern yeast. It preferred a grain called emer which was commonly used at the time of the cookware’s origin, and did better when Blackley imitated baking practices that would have been contemporary to its origins. The yeast had evolved to work alongside ancient Egyptians, not alongside Seamus Blackley’s usual kitchen routine. The yeast had been domesticated for someone else.

Fermentation is abundant across the world. Alcohol is made pretty much everywhere and bread is common anywhere that the most common grain species contains gluten. In much of East Asia where rice is the predominant grain, diversity of vegetable fermentation practices is through the roof. Rice goes through all sorts of fermentation processes as well. In Japan, kōji, a mold which grows on rice grains, has a long and complex cultural relationship with humans, being involved in the creation of everything from sake to miso to soy-sauce. Much like strains of yeast in Europe, different kōji have different purposes and specialties. In the Americas, there are a plethora of traditions around alcohol, from the mildly alcoholic maple sap drinks of the Huron, to the Unangan and Yuit of Kodiak island making booze out of fermented raspberries. Indigenous peoples in pre-colonial Mexico made a water based fermented beverage called tibicos using colonies of polysaccharide forming bacteria often found on prickly pear cactuses.

Fermentation is a very common process because it’s not all that difficult for humans to do. Mix together the right ingredients, ensure the right microbiota inhabit them, and wait. But did humans really know what we were doing when we first started making beer and bread? Did we have a sense that we were working with something alive? That there was a little creature doing the heavy lifting for us? There are many deities of bread or beer or wine or all manner of fermented goods, but they are often linked to properties besides fermentation as well. Dionysus is a god of wine, but he’s more about wine’s effects than the microbiome which makes it. And Dionysus certainly doesn’t have any purview over bread or non-alcoholic fermented goods. In search of a god of fermentation itself, I was of course drawn to my own Lithuanian heritage. I’m not saying he’s the only one, but Raugupatis, or Raugo Žemėpatis, was a god who really was all about fermentation. He wasn’t just a god of bread or beer, he wasn’t even really an anthropomorphized god. He was buddies with Ragutis and Ragutiene, a married couple of beer gods, but his purview was more general. Raugupatis is more of an overarching spirit, a natural force, the driver of fermentation itself. He’s what turns dough into bread. His name comes from “raugas,” which is a word that can refer to yeast, sourdough starter, or symbiotic colonies of bacteria and yeast [SCOBY] for fermenting kefir or kombucha; “patis,” which means “self”; and “Žeme,” which means earth or land. Raugo Žemėpatis is some proof that neolithic humans knew that they were working with something else, some living force.

Humans want the world to be good to us. We want ecosystems to serve us; we dream of lands of milk and honey. For a long time, we got there by working with the non-human world around us. When the plants wanted us to stay put, we stayed put. When grazing animals wanted us to move, we formed nomadic tribes and moved with them. When our dough needed to be warmed to rise, we left it out in the sun. We allowed the world to domesticate us while we domesticated it. With the rise of increasingly powerful technology, we haven’t had to become domesticated by non-humans in a long time. We are constantly, however, embroiling ourselves in the domestication game. We genetically engineer colonies of E. Coli to produce chemicals for us like insulin. When the patents on those methods of insulin production get close to the end of their lifetimes, when insulin producing bacteria seem like they’ll finally be free from the stranglehold of U.S. intellectual property law and let loose to home labs across the country, companies like Novo Nordisk re-engineer their E. Coli plasmids (the sections of DNA that get inserted into the E. Coli to make them produce insulin) with non-functional changes that are just different enough to renew the time limit on their patent. We have domesticated E. Coli not to suit our needs, but our laws and corporations.

Even though we are no longer domesticated by the non-human world very often, we are constantly changing our ways of life in response to… something? The entire economy has been reworked since the boomers were in charge, globalization means that colonization can spread through insidious routes that don’t come off as human-rights offenses to the well meaning American liberal who financially supports it, manufacturing jobs shift overseas where historically agricultural communities now find themselves mass producing goods they will never use or see used for people they do not know and will never meet. Ways of life are changing against many people’s wills. It feels like we are being changed to conform to something, our ways of life being changed to fit into, to fold into the ways of life of others. It feels as though we are in the process of being domesticated. But if we’ve largely freed ourselves from the forces of the non-human world, who is trying to domesticate us?

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Reed College Quest
Reed College Quest
1 year ago

On revelrous nights, noise rises to the air
And a wayward dancer might find themselves here
Climb ever higher into the smoke filled night
And stumble upon your yeasty delight