One of the perks of baking bread at home — maybe half the point of baking bread at home — is the privilege of hacking off the crust while it’s still hot, slathering it with butter, and eating it messily over the sink. Cookbooks will tell you that bread only develops its full flavor after it cools, which may be true. They will also tell you that if you slice bread while it’s hot, you’ll crush it, which is definitely true. But I do it anyway. Damn the torpedoes and all that.
Thank God I didn’t live in the nineteenth century, though, because then, it would probably have killed me.
Back then, it was commonly believed that eating hot bread was unhealthful — dangerously unhealthful. The famous health reformer Sylvester Graham said bread shouldn’t be eaten until at least twelve hours old. Magazine articles about what ladies should eat for breakfast (of which I’m afraid there were lots) recommended day-old bread and warned sternly that hot buttered toast was “hostile to health and female delicacy.”
Tea, coffee, and milk, are the most wholesome beverages for the morning meal; which should be accompanied, if possible, by home-made bread, at least one day old. This seldom disagrees with any one; if it should, it may be toasted, and buttered cold and slightly; but warm buttered toast is by no means advisable: indeed, it is far preferable to use only hard biscuits, which require no butter, and are of easy digestion. 1
Even the high mortality rate of Indians living on reservations was blamed (by white observers, anyway) on severe indigestion caused by their diet of hot biscuits — not that white flour and cheap fat, which was all they had access to at that point, had no nutritional value, but specifically that the biscuits were eaten hot.
This idea wasn’t new to the Victorians. An English visitor to Virginia in the 1720s criticized the locals for “eating too much hot and new Bread, which cannot be wholsom, tho’ it be pleasanter than what has been baked a Day or two.” And some English doctors offered this advice in a 1746 guide to better health: “All Bread made of Grain is never good till it be fully cold. Hot Bread is exceeding dangerous, swimming in the Stomach, procuring Thirst, most hardly digesting, and filling the Body full of Wind.”
Wind. I presume I don’t have to spell that out for you. The doctors noted that old bread, by contrast, is “drying” — so this has something to do with the medieval concept that health was governed by the four humours (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile), each of which was either cool or warm, moist or dry, and that foods had similar properties that caused the body to produce more or less of particular humors and thus, potentially, to become imbalanced. If new bread was too moist, then, it could cause you to produce (for example) too much phlegm, which would give you a head cold or the flu.
The four humors were out of vogue by 1800, but the idea that hot bread was indigestible lived on; people just explained it differently. There was, for example, a notion that bread didn’t develop its full nutritive properties until it had aged somewhat. The Female’s Encyclopedia (London, 1830) insisted that bread ought to be two to three days old:
One of the most essential rules in the economy of bread, which it would be well to practice at all times, is, not to eat new bread. New bread may be agreeable to some persons, but it is most unwholesome, and does not afford by any means so much nourishment as bread two or three days old. In the scarcity of 1799 [in the North of England], bakers were wisely prevented selling bread that was not twenty-four hours old.
She was very clearly talking about white bread, so it’s not clear what nourishment the bread was supposed to be attaining by sitting around on the counter, or by what means. Calorie fairies, maybe.
Sylvester Graham thought only a twelve-hour wait was necessary to let the bread cool thoroughly. Hot food of all kinds, he believed, caused tooth decay and debilitated the stomach. Graham’s advice came from a complicated theory in which all disease stemmed from some kind of debility, which in turn was caused by overstimulation of various organs. (This was before germ theory.) Worse, physical stimulation could lead to spiritual stimulation and debility. In other words, licentiousness. Promiscuity. Debauchery. So even toast should be eaten at room temperature, lest it derange the stomach lining and threaten “female delicacy.”
Others were more worried about the butter. Hot butter was not only unhealthy but could spoil your looks, as a women’s magazine warned: “The heated grease, which is their principal ingredient, deranges the stomach; and, by creating or increasing bilious disorders, gradually overspreads the fair skin with a wan or yellow hue.” You want that rosy glow, don’t you?
Then there was the danger of mixing fat and flour. By the 1830s the idea was developing that this combination was particularly unhealthful, partly because of a bit of early research into human digestion. A doctor experimenting on a patient with a gastric fistula — a hole in his stomach that extended out to his abdominal wall — fed his patient various foods, took samples from his stomach at various times afterward, and compiled tables showing how long common foods required to be digested. “Bread, buttered, for breakfast, with coffee,” for example, took a whopping four hours fifteen minutes and led to a “morbid appearance of the stomach.” This was one data point taken from a medical freak in a bizarre setting, but reformers who wanted to improve Americans’ diet cited the research as gospel, and after a couple of decades it became common sense that heavily buttered bread was indigestible, especially if it was hot. A lot of late nineteenth-century cookbooks warned against eating too much pastry, for the same reason.
The only really sensible explanation I’ve found comes from an 1897 book called The Relation Of Food To Health And Premature Death, which tried to debunk some of the myths about hot bread:
The wholesomeness of bread does not depend upon whether it is hot or cold. The objection to hot bread is that as a rule it contains more moisture, and is therefore much more doughy. Its particles do not separate so readily when put in the mouth. For this reason there is a tendency, almost universal, to swallow such bread in sticky lumps, and of course the particles do not separate easily when they reach the stomach. This causes them to be retained in the stomach so long that fermentation is set up.
That seems reasonable enough. The authors added:
If bread not made with yeast is sufficiently well baked, there can be no objection to it merely because it is hot; but in yeast bread, unless very thoroughly baked, the ferment does not leave the loaf until six or eight hours after baking.
Apparently, for certain people, the smell of yeast can trigger a migraine, and so they need to avoid freshly baked bread. And since more women than men suffer from migraines, that fact could perhaps explain why Victorian women’s magazines harped on this issue.
So it appears that there are one or two grains of sense buried in all of these dire warnings, but that they were wrapped in so much pseudoscience through the ages that they were blown all out of proportion. Superstition is a highly adaptable beast. Just to be on the safe side, though, if you want to keep your youthful vim and vigor without descending into wanton sin, let alone gross flatulence, eat only day-old bread, toast it lightly and let it cool thoroughly. And if you must butter it, do so only lightly.