Monday, January 20, 2014

Zucchini Bread: A History

Zucchini Bread, as we know it, kind of congealed into existence during the perfect storm of social and dietary changes that occurred during the 1960s and 1970s. We had been eating breads containing carrots, sweet potatoes, and even bananas since at least Roman times, but this is a completely different creature. Rather than being born of a desire for sweetness or to supplement and replace sugar in times of scarcity, Zucchini bread is born of abundance. The plant itself is extremely prolific, if a bit temperamental to grow, and the – botanically speaking – immature fruiting body has a subtle slightly bitter flavor that renders it a very successful culinary sponge ready to take on more dominant flavors. Zucchini Breads popularity is also an antonym to the 1950’s when the consumption of saturated fats, and dairy, are at their highest, our population is the most affluent it has ever been, and meat is king of the American table.  

The first quick breads would have been dense unleavened loaves intended more for preservation and portability than taste. Made with naturally sweet fruits or vegetables, whole grains, and nuts they would have been high calorie and nutrition packed: the first energy bars. Pleasurable enough to eat compared to much of the food of their day, but hardly a treat by today’s standards. With the invention of pearlash, the first chemical leavening agent and the expanding use of refined sugars, however, those baked goods began to have more of the texture we associate with contemporary quick breads. Pearlash, which entered common use in 1790 it is said had a heavy alkaloid (metallic) aftertaste, which was not only bitter but in many induced excessive salivation (foaming at the mouth) much like the early signs of heavy metal poisoning. Yum yum. Somehow it remained the chemical leavening of choice, even more common than it’s derivative saleratus - potassium bicarbonate - which had twice the leavening power. This meant, of course, that the baker, or cook, could use half the amount of the agent, thus reducing the unpleasant aftertaste. However; because pearlash did not require the direct addition of an acid source to produce the carbon dioxide required to rise the loaf, and saleratus did, one hypothesis for it’s slow adoption is that it meant changing trusted recipes. Both Pearlash and Saleratus were supplanted by Baking Soda - sodium bicarbonate - which not coincidentally can be used with or without the direct addition of an acid source, and has little to no aftertaste.  

Though sweetened breads containing fruit never completely disappeared, carrot and other vegetable sweetened breads fall decidedly out of favor as refined sugars became cheaper and more widely available. These fruit sweetened breads did find a new niche during the Second World War, when sugar again became scarce due to wartime rationing. Coincidentally this was the spark of necessity that spawned the beat sugar industry in climates that had been traditionally dependent on imported cane sugar. Zucchini, at least as we know it, really didn’t exist until after the 1900’s, but it was featured in many of the Dig for Victory and Victory Garden campaigns. However, because zucchini is not inherently sweet, zucchini bread would have to wait twenty more years to make its debut.  

The final resurgence of this class of baked goods occurred in the 1970’s when manufactures of the new polyunsaturated vegetable oils were eager to get as much of their product into the American population as possible. The focus, at this time, was to lower our collective triglyceride leves – an indicator of inflammation – I assume by lubricating us from within. These products had been available since the Second World War, at which time they really were relegated to the realm of an unsavory substitute for the real thing, just as much a sacrifice made for your country as the rest of the rationing system. It took a powerhouse of original and not so original advertisers to make the 1970’s the height of synthetic cooking oil, shortening, and margarine’s popularity. These products not only  claimed to be a substitute for butter, lard, and other fats, but they claimed to be better tasting, produced better results and, according to the manufacturers, were better for you.  

These days, of course, we’ve experienced another paradigm shift towards foods – like butter and lard – that human beings have been eating for hundreds if not thousands of years, and a resurgence of the idea of eating wholesome real foods in moderation. Butter is good for you again! I never doubted it. At all. 

History lessons aside, when I started looking for a new recipe for Zucchini Bread what I was looking for was something that wouldn’t’ leave an oil slick on my hands when I ate it. I cannot claim that I came up with the idea of squeezing the liquid out of the grated zucchini, that epiphany belongs to the folks at America’s Test Kitchen, but anytime I can sneak one of my required servings of vegetable into baked goods, I’m all for it.
Below is a picture of Zucchini Bread Number 1, next I'll be posting the recipe for Zucchini Bread Number 5.

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