What’s So Special About French Bread?

At times, very rare times, quality is more important than profits: a mini-history of French bread.

Originally published August 8, 2016

This Cotton Gin Story is brought to you by Ary Albán, the shoemaker from Cali, Colombia who continues making and repairing shoes because it is what he knows and what he enjoys.

Listen to it here or read the story below.

The shoemaker’s father was a bread maker. Ary helped him in the bakery and watched him mix the ingredients and knead the dough and produce bread that nourished the neighborhood.

Ary’s father told him about the industrialization of bread making in France, and the story went like this:caption_edited

In France, the corporations wanted to make more money. The bread making businesses decided to change their processes so that, instead of people mixing ingredients and kneading the dough, everything was done by machines.

But what happened? The French people started buying less bread. They didn’t like the industrialized version of their baguette. So, the corporations responded by researching. They discovered that bakeries in the neighborhoods still produced bread that people enjoyed eating. And how did they make this bread? By hand.

The story goes that the corporations discovered that by mixing and kneading the bread by hand, the human touch added something to the quality of the bread. The human touch made the bread good.

So, the bread making industry began to change their processes. They reversed some of the machine mixing in order to involve more people, and produce bread that everyone would buy and enjoy.baguette

Now, what I like about this story is that it highlights the dangers of removing people from the production process. It develops the idea that machines cannot do certain jobs as well as humans, and that while it may not be as profitable, people add an, often intangible quality – humanity – to their work.

It’s a good story. It communicates a lovely message. But, it made me wonder, is it true? Would a business actually be willing to give up profit to ensure higher quality?

As it turns out, the process of industrialization of bread making did not just involve the use of machines. Bread was industrialized through the use of ingredients that had also been industrialized – modified and transformed for a more profitable use in the marketplace.

wonder breadAmanda Benson, from the Johnson and Wales University describes in her thesis, “The Rise and Fall of Bread in America”, how millers and bakers influenced farmers to produce the wheat used to make white flour. She explains that because the extraction of white flour from wheat was wasteful. By being wasteful, it made white flour scarce, and therefor desirable by upper classes. This demand allowed millers and bakers to pressure the farmers to grow the wheat they could capitalize on.

6778252056_6ca59fbbd9Benson goes on to detail the use of bleaching agents to achieve a whiter colored bread, mixing machines that helped guarantee the form and consistency of the bread, and advertising campaigns that reinforced consumer habits and brought us the idea that this bread was better than darker bread that was not completely uniform in its shape.

Michael Pollan, a renowned food writer and activist, pointed out in his documentary series “Cooked”, that the milling and bleaching processes in flour had reduced the amount of nutrition that they contained, which in turn generated the opportunity to create enriched flour. Vitamins and minerals were added to restore its nutritional value. This of course is both redundant as well as profitable, adding an additional process to the industrialization of bread.

Back to the story, though.

Ary claimed that it was the French who had somehow battled industrialization to make their bread better than the mass produced stuff being sold around the world. It turns out that there is some truth in the story. However it was not as heroic as he told me, with a reversal of the mechanization process.

sliced breadWhat happened was that, as Amanda Benson describes in her paper, the French, after a time consuming the extra-white, mass-produced, cheap, industrialized bread – they began to miss their traditionally made French bread. Due to the national pride in their cuisine and the important staple that bread is in their diet, demand for a higher quality product grew. She states, “the quality of bread was more important than quantity and/or volume.”

French millers felt a responsibility to provide better quality flour for the bakers, and to top things off, in 1993 the French government released a decree, “The Bread of French Tradition”, that outlined the standards and processes required by law to make bread.

These steps in conservation of bread making tradition were accompanied by an international bread making competition, that not only brought attention to the quality of bread that was being produced, it also inspired producers of ingredients to amplify their offer of higher grade flours and yeasts.

So, it turns out that Ary the shoemaker’s story of epic conflict: the human versus the machine, a conflict that seems to be won more and more often by the machines as we move second by second into a mechanized and technified future, was not quite accurate. Instead, it was a story of a culture against a corporate consumerist machine. Which is also a story that seems to be won all too frequently by the “machine”. In this case, however, due to a set of factors that favored the quality of the product over the profit to be made, the French were able to save their French bread.



Machete or Machine?

Originally published June 6, 2016.

The valley of the Cauca river in south-western Colombia is full of impressive views. It is in the cradle of two imposing ridges of the Andes mountains; dotted with bamboo groves and giant saman trees, the overwhelming feature are the endless sugarcane fields that stretch from the southern most point climbing up into the foothills, all the way to the northern tip.


Green sugar cane grows throughout the valley of the Cauca River.

Traditionally, when the sugarcane reaches maturity is set on fire to burn away the leaves, whose cerrated edges can cut skin, and to kill of any pests that have infested the crop. After the burn, the stalks of cane need to be harvested. Enter the sugar cane cutter, who armed with a large machete, called a katana or bamba in Colombian Spanish, is assigned a plot to clear and leave the cane prepared for later processing.

It’s a difficult job: early rising to get to the fields as soon after the sun comes up as possible. A massive breakfast and lunch to keep the energy levels up, constant hydration beneath the equatorial sun, and hack, cut the cane, hack hack, cut the tip and size it, toss to one side for collection. What’s more is the days are all the same: enter the burned out field, hack, bend, hack hack, toss. They never plant the cane, or watch it grow. Their job is to get it off the ground and into a truck.

They are long hours of physical labor, but according to Aldemar, a veteran with 27 years in the sugar cane industry, a diligent worker can make between two and three times the minimum wage for Colombia. For a population that has very low levels of education, and is often times migrant, this salary means the possibility to keep their children in school, and with some discipline, possibly buy a house.

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Photos by Satomi Yabe


In US folklore, there is a character named John Henry. He was a worker building the railroads, and his job was to drive the spikes that attached the rails to the ties. The story goes that when they brought in a steam drill, a machine that did the same job as John Henry, the two competed, and John Henry beat it until his heart exploded from over-exertion. Not exactly a story of hope and beauty, but person vs machine is rarely beautiful. Enter the sugarcane harvester.

Cane cutting is obviously labor intensive. The sugarcane harvester makes it much less so. These machines can do the work of 120 men. They can work 24 hours a day. They don’t require that the cane be burned before cutting – something that is important for the sugar mills since the issue of atmospheric pollution has become important.

The process of industrializing the sugarcane industry in Colombia has been slow. Often people do jobs here that machines would do in a more efficient, cheaper way, because there are simply so many people who need work. It is almost like a sense of social responsibility on the part of the businesses to keep people employed despite the inefficiency, and the sugar mills were no different.


It is difficult to pinpoint any one factor that has caused the great decline in sugarcane cutters. Aldemar pointed out, “There aren’t any cane cutters who have only been working for five years. The sugar mills simply aren’t hiring new cutters.”

The Cauca River Valley is primarily fields of sugar cane dotted with trees and bamboo groves.

Hildefonso Rincón, from the Center for Intercultural Studies in the Javeriana University, explained that there are 5 main strategies that the sugar mills have employed to cut back the number of cane cutters. “First, they have tried to return the migrant cutters to their place of origin, which is the Pacific coast of Colombia. Second they have provided compensation to people who willingly give up their position to try to start a business or other activity. Third, they have moved cutters to other posts within the companies. Fourth, they promote cutters up the ladder to higher positions. Fifth, they wait for the cutter to retire, and they never replace him.”

None of these strategies are particularly aggressive on the part of the sugar mills, and seem to indicate a respect for the population that currently earns its living from this livelihood. What is clear is that the land use dedicated to growing sugarcane is increasing, and the number of cane cutters is clearly decreasing. According to Claudia Calero, the director of Environmental Management for the Association of Sugarcane Growers (ASOCAÑA), there are a total of 205,000 hectares (2,050 square kilometers or 791 square miles) that are dedicated solely to sugar cane production in this region. Needless to say, harvesting is a major ordeal.

Calero also made the point that the sugar mills are reaching the point at which they cannot use more machines to harvest the sugar cane. There are three limiting factors that necessitate the existence of machete swinging cane cutters: a machine cannot be used on land that is sloping to a certain degree; they cannot be used in properties whose soil is too soft as they compact it and make the cultivation impossible; if there are too many rocks in the field, a machine cannot be employed for the harvest as it will end up being damaged. “At the moment, the land that has been adapted for the use of sugar cane harvesters is 50%, and currently we use machines to harvest in 42% of the area.”

One of the sugar mills where the cane ends up, regardless of whether is was harvested by machete or machine.

Is it wrong for an industry to replace people with machines? Evidently not, since technology has benefited production processes for centuries. Is it wrong to phase out a job that is back-breaking and hazardous? Obviously not. The question is, will the sugar mills continue to respect the rights of the men and women who work as cane cutters, and will there be new opportunities for the communities in this region that have depended on this source of labor for decades? As this job slowly declines into non-existence, it can only be hoped that the answer to both of those questions is yes.