In the conclusion to Aaron Bobrow-Strain’s White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, he describes how he, a home bread baker, captures the microbes for his homemade sourdough. It’s not what we’d call hygienic, but it also apparently makes a delicious bread. Bobrow-Strain’s own behavior is really what tells you his conclusion: where bread is concerned, everything you’ve been told is wrong. Within limits.
Notwithstanding that its very title is a synonym for blandness, White Bread tells a compelling story in an accessible way. Over and over, we see how industry, government, science and the media gang up on their nemeses—home bakers and small-scale bakeries. Muckrakers warned of “disease-breeding bread” and a newspaper claimed, “Dough kneaded with the hands always runs the risk of contagion.” The result was the rise of industrially-baked bread, nearly all white bread.
Bobrow-Strain also tells the story of food evangelists like Sylvester Graham (namesake but probably not the inventor of the eponymous cracker) and how fortifying bread with vitamins was a factor in winning World War II. He reveals that much of America’s current industrial bread is actually owned by Grupo Bimbo, the Mexican baking conglomerate, which owns such iconic brands as Sara Lee, Arnold, Orowheat and Roman-Meal. He describes the counterculture’s push for whole wheat bread and how it has, with help from large-scale bakeries, overtaken white bread in the past few years for the first time.
The food liability takeaway here is nothing new, but a good reminder in a nice package: there is always a way to question conclusions from government or academia for their potential bias. If you are challenging a government mandate, find the bias and attack it. If you are on the side of the mandate, be ready for a challenge from the other side. The kind of research Bobrow-Strain has undertaken here is available on almost any government food mandate. Ignore it at your peril.
What I really enjoyed, though, were his explanations for two longstanding clichés. First, one that has become a punch line by now but was taken seriously when I was a kid, “Eat your vegetables, children are starving in Europe.” Bobrow-Strain describes the drought in the summer of 1946 in Europe, which did in fact starve Western Europe just as it was recovering from the ravages of war. The next year’s harvest was no better. Britain had less wheat flour available for civilians than it did during the war. France was basically starving. And a war-weary America responded by limiting its own bread consumption (perhaps by adding garden vegetables to the plate instead) and exporting flour to make billions of loaves of bread to Europe. This may have had a meaningful impact on how Western Europe thwarted Communism.
The other one really describes the one story in the book where government had nothing to do with it: the advent of sliced bread. July 6, 1928 (a couple days after my dad turned two and three weeks before my mom was born) was the date the Chillicothe Baking Company in Missouri produced the world’s first pre-sliced bread, invented by Otto Rohwedder. And, amazingly, it was indeed the best thing, the thing that legitimately can be compared favorably to any invention—television, the Walkman®, the VCR, the personal computer, the cell phone. Within weeks, sales of sliced bread soared 2000%. By 1929, it had pretty much swept the country. A bakery in Florida was struggling because it bucked the trend; when it gave in, its sales increased 600% immediately. By 1936, 90% of commercially bought bread in the United States was sliced.
Bobrow-Strain asks a legitimate question: why did this innovation so completely sweep the country? Though I bake my own bread and slice it by hand, I think I have the answer. In those days, households often had far more people in them than they do today. Families had more children, and several generations of a family could live in one house (my great-grandparents and a great-uncle and great-aunt lived under the same roof as my grandparents when my mother was born). And people didn’t buy lunch at school or at work; they made it, and it was nearly always sandwiches. So imagine a family of six kids and four adults, all the kids school-age and three of the adults working out of the house. Two slices of toast at breakfast and two sandwiches apiece, that’s about sixty slices of bread a day to prepare in time for people to leave the house in the morning. Sliced bread would be a pretty legitimate labor-savings, and at essentially no cost. Best thing indeed.