White Bread

Title: White Bread

Author: Aaron Bobrow-Strain

Overview: A far more interesting look at America’s history with bread than I expected. I came to appreciate Wonder Bread and the like, how they changed this country, the forces that created them, and almost made me by a loaf of the white fluffy stuff.


  • Despite the appeal of meat-centered “caveman diets” among denizens of the twenty-first century, even our late Paleolithic ancestors made something like bread. Since then, the lives of large swathes of the world’s population have depended on it. The world’s first class structures formed around bread distribution. Armies marched with it and formal religious ritual revolved around it.
  • Under Louis XIV, Parisian workers subsisted on three and a half pounds of bread a day, and not much else. Speaking very broadly, we can say that from the 1600s to as late as the 1950s, Europeans received between 40 to 60 percent of their daily calories in the form of bread.
  • Lord derives from the Old English title “hláford”— “keeper of the bread”—a privileged status, but also a perpetually anxious one. Ruling has always meant a tense dance between the power of bread keepers and the demands of bread eaters.
  • Scientific housekeeping, domestic hygiene, research-based meal planning, and efficient child rearing were supposed to liberate women from drudgery, but home economics aspired to even greater goals: by eliminating contagion, moral weakness, and inefficient energy use that sapped the stamina of the population, scientific household management would improve the very fabric of society from the hearth up.
  • the face of looming danger, social reformers’ visions of food purity cross-pollinated easily with nativist politics and ideologies of racial purity. Indeed, as Howard Markel and Alexandra Minna Stern argue in their history of germ scares, it often became difficult to distinguish between descriptions of food-borne contagion and the terrifying prospects of racial contamination.
  • When the Wards built their New York bakeries, the memory of Jewish bread riots in 1903 and 1905 had not yet faded, and the experience of a widespread 1910 bakery strike was fresh in the minds of many. So, while Ward increased his workers’ hours and lowered their pay despite record profits, he also endowed a home for the city’s elderly poor and a workers’ retreat in the Hudson Valley—a bucolic wonderland where Ward bakery workers could rent subsidized summer cabins and their children could escape the corrupting influence of tenement life for a time.
  • It’s easy, from our vantage, to discount the wondrous appeal of industrial purity and hygiene, but this attitude does disservice to a time when food-borne illnesses were the leading causes of death, when disruptions in the provision of a single staple could unleash fears of famine and rebellion. We should think twice before dismissing consumers who flocked to sanitary factory bread as mere dupes of corporate propaganda. Nostalgia for Great-grandma’s bread and neighborhood bakeries omits a few details.
  • Perhaps what is needed in the face of this is a new model of food safety—one that doesn’t just flip the old model around, privileging the dream of small-scale producers over large-scale, raw over pasteurized, while retaining the same underlying architecture of purity and contagion. We need a vision of food safety aware of its own social collusions and attentive, first and foremost, to the complex power relations flowing through our food system.
  • an independent assembly line continually produced vats of liquid ferment—a broth of yeast, water, and yeast nutrients not unlike a French artisan bakers’ preferment, or poolish. The broth required four hours of fermentation time, but some was always on hand, ready to be injected into an ultra-high speed mixer, where it combined with a steady stream of flour and other dry ingredients. The result was a nonstop stream of “fermented” dough ready for panning and proofing. The Do-Maker Process cut three hours of waiting time off every loaf. More importantly, because transferring batches of dough required more hand labor than any other aspect of industrial baking, it reduced personnel costs by as much as 75 percent.
  • But while defenders of industrial food production can make easy sport of rich locavores, they conveniently ignore the far greater elitism of oligopoly agribusiness, the myriad ways in which the dream of industrial plenty often made life worse, not better.
  • in truth, while the more “natural” focus on health may not always have logic or legitimate double-blind studies on its side, it is very good at identifying blind spots in the vision of mainstream science. In their idiosyncratic way, fringe health movements help expose the unspoken cultural assumptions, political interests, and subjective decisions woven into science.
  • Right-wing talk radio personalities might rail against liberal locavores and out-of-touch Whole Foods shoppers but, as Dreher notes, conservatives who look carefully find that the alternative food movement expresses many of their values.1 Participants on the left and right both sense something authentically “American” in the romance of Jeffersonian agrarianism—the idea that small communities of independent private-property-owning farmers form the backbone of democracy.
  • the vast majority of households in the United States ate store-bought white bread at all three meals—totaling some 8.6 billion loaves a year in 1954 (not including home-baked bread, and store-bought whole wheat, raisin bread, and “ethnic” breads). Most people consumed three to seven slices a day, but an astounding 33 percent of the population finished off more than eight slices a day.
  • In the long run, by redeeming sliced white bread in the face of scientific criticism, the association of food and defense brought the country another step closer to the wholesale triumph of chemically infused, Styrofoam-textured white bread. Indeed, without the wartime campaign for enrichment and the government-backed dismissal of nonsynthetically enriched “health breads” that accompanied it, we might not have witnessed the postwar golden age of Wonder bread. Industrial bakers’ ability to associate their product with vigorous defense and spirited competition saved sliced white bread from declining consumption. Ultimately it helped lay a foundation for the postwar triumph of processed foods.
  • As the Cold War wore on, U.S. reliance on “food power”—the strategy of using the United States’ undisputed dominance in the arenas of industrial agriculture and industrial food processing as a carrot and a stick on the global stage—deepened. Shipments of U.S. grain as food aid continued, becoming a permanent cornerstone of both domestic farm support and foreign policy. At the same time, direct grain shipments were supplemented and eventually superseded by efforts to remake world agriculture in the American image.
  • Their efforts—particularly the targeting of Japanese schoolchildren’s palates through school lunch programs—are frequently held up as the ultimate example of U.S-backed agribusiness forcing its industrial foods on defenseless populations, of the premeditated destruction of healthy, “holistic” eating.26 But the story is quite a bit more complicated than that, not least because the Japanese taste for white bread long predates the end of WWII.
  • school lunch program had much loftier goals than mere calorie distribution. Its larger mission was to “correct” the Japanese diet while fostering “the scientification of the Japanese kitchen; [and the] permeating of democratic thought.” “Democratic spirit,” SCAP headquarters insisted, could be nurtured in school cafeterias through the “substitution of reason and scientific practices in place of local customs and superstitions regarding cooking practices.”
  • What this perspective ignored, however, was the crucial question of food access. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen demonstrated powerfully, it wasn’t just the amount of food produced that matters, but whether people could access the bounty. More efficient food production didn’t always result in greater food access—particularly when it increased inequality and undercut small farmers’ ability to earn a living. All too frequently, hunger and plenty went hand in hand.
  • Father and the kids might have grumbled about brown bread’s “sawdust” texture, but the loaves were also esteemed as symbols of old-fashioned feminine care and rural fortitude. So, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when barefoot girls in peasant skirts made home baking cool, hippie brown bread would have seemed less of a threat to “American” tastes and values than other counterculture staples.
  • recapturing the aroma of fresh-baked bread could return families to the days when Grandma “cared about what her family ate and spent hours in the kitchen” to provide it.27 With a few deft words and drawings, the recipe book repositioned the origins of 1970s interest in whole grain goodness—away from unwashed, rebellious youth and into the sanitized territory of “how things used to be.”
  • Uncertain how to parse competing ideas about which new grain was the purest and most salubrious, 1970s home bakers crammed every grain they could get into their bread. The age of the whole-wheat-spelt-oat-amaranth-brown rice-millet-buckwheat-barley loaf was born. For good measure, 1970s bakers also threw in zucchini, olives, carrots, bananas, sunflower seeds, soya, whey, carob, and dates. Meanwhile, large doses of honey and molasses eased the unfamiliar taste and texture of whole grains onto the American palate.
  • if the story of white bread’s journey from modern marvel to low-class symbol teaches anything, it is that food dreamers must be ready to modify their vision if it does more to reinforce social stratification than to build a better world.
  • There is so much fog around the moral high ground. —Peter Carey
  • I like fermentation. Unruly to its core, fermentation defies boundary making and combat mentality. It blurs lines between nature and society and suggests that true security may lie in conscientious impurity, not coerced purity. And it does this from a moral low ground: dreams of purity, naturalness, control, perfect health, and security evoke precise borders and confident certainties, but fermentation can’t. It requires acceptance of constant flux and perpetual reconsidering.
  • Although contemporary bioscience hotly debates the origins and ecology of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, baking yeasts have not been “wild” or “natural” in any meaningful way for as long as humans have made food. Contrary to popular belief, Saccharomyces cerevisiae exists in relatively low levels in the so-called natural environment—even if we include orchards and vineyards in this category. The “natural” habitat of this creature culture is not fields or forests, but rather the artisanal-industrial environment of wineries, breweries, and bakeries.