Sure, it’s fun to eat pumpernickel, but it’s even more fun to say it: pumpernickel. It sounds almost crass. And in fact it is. The word “pumpernickel”, most linguists agree, is derived from the Westphalian word for the state of flatulence, “pumpen”, and a pseudonymous term for the Devil: “Old Nick” or “Nickel”. Put the two together and the result is a word that pretty much describes the aftereffects of a bread made from poorly milled, whole grain rye: devil’s farts. What causes that? Well rye is chockablock with sugars that are indigestible to us, however not to the flora that live in our guts. As these microbes consume the bran and other seed parts when they hit our digestive systems, the result is gas.
So if that’s the case then why do people willingly eat these sorts of breads? Well as I’ve insinuated these past many days, coarse darks breads aren’t something people ate for pleasure, they ate them out of necessity. Rye flour was usually mixed in with better quality wheat flours as a sort of filler material. If you were a peasant and times were good, the amount of rye in your bread tended to fall. When times were bad, the proportion of rye tended to rise.
Pumpernickel arose in the aftermath of a devastating conflict called the Thirty Years’ War, which englulfed all of Europe (though primarily the region we now know as Germany) from 1618 to 1648. By the time it was over, some 20% of the German population had been killed, and most homes and crops had been burned. If you can gauge the depletion of a society by the proportion of rye that people put in their bread, then pumpernickel represents a rather sad testament to the state that Westphalia was left in after thirty straight years of fighting.