How to define yourself

Tell me what you think about white bread and I’ll tell you who you are, what your aspirations are, and what your background probably is.  That’s how powerful an icon white bread is in the United States. Aaron Bobrow-Strain’s book, White Bread: a social history of the store-bought loaf,  follows white bread’s history from its emergence as an accessible and cheap food, through its industrial and social triumph to its present state, despised by food connoisseurs and perversely, campily, adored by post-post-modern hipsters and self-identified “white trash” cooks.

The white bread story is hundreds of years old. Millers have been refining wheat for centuries trying to get it pure, and the more “pure” it gets, the more expensive it gets. So for the longest time only the richest could eat white bread. Everyone else made do with whatever bread they could get, baked from whatever combination of grains were available. And not necessarily baked well. And often enough they couldn’t get any bread at all. (You’ll remember “let them eat cake,” supposedly Marie Antoinette’s out of touch comment when told the poor in France were rioting for bread.**)

The New World wasn’t exempt. Bread riots in New York 200 years ago prompted local elites to try the first large scale bakery in the country  – but they weren’t able to make cheap bread, they weren’t making white bread and they certainly weren’t making those formal bus-shaped sliced squeezable things we now associate with the store-bought loaf.

That leap of progress had to wait a hundred years until well-designed food systems emerged. And until mass-production techniques were refined enough to use in baking. It was yet another couple of generations before commercial bread slicers came into use. And then the magic of the capitalist system gave us all Wonder Bread, the best thing America ever had. It Builds Strong Bodies Twelve Ways. Trust them on that.

That’s the Good Parts version of the history, one we all sort of know. It’s the version that celebrates sameness, uniformity, cleanliness, simplicity, and, yes, whiteness in all its meanings. The not-so-good version is the one that wraps anti-immigrant fervor around and into dark bread. The simple logic went this way: Immigrants are poor, they eat dark bread so it must be bad because immigrants are bad; they’re unclean and spread disease. So does their bread. They must be made to eat white bread because it’s safe, pure, and truly American.

And that idea worked really well for a good slice of the twentieth century. But then the doubts about white bread that had never really gone away, the doubts about white bread’s nutritional benefits, the distaste for its boring modernist design, the sheer blandness of it, began to be articulated by another generation, one that seemingly questioned everything about food. Some people even started talking about organic food. Radical!

This is generally interesting stuff, but I must say that this book is too much of a jumble for me. The author really must be fun to talk to because he flies off on interesting tangents all the time. (The history of Catalan bakers in Mexico, anyone? The place of gluten-free thinking in American history?) But reading his ideas in book form is a struggle. You might not want to try it.

In part, that’s because this is quite an academic study, a sort of lazy person’s historical materialism, masquerading as pop culture reporting. It’s mostly engagingly written, but it’s not good incisive reporting as you’d get with a Mark Kurlansky, say, who wrote the wonderful Cod: the fish that changed the world. Bobrow-Strain visits the La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles, for example. It’s a bakery that makes what’s probably as close as you can get to genuinely artisanal mass-produced bread. (True-blue bread purists will say that you simply cannot have the words artisanal and mass-produced in the same sentence let alone the same bakery.) He visits the bakery, but he’s so deep into his discursive thinking that he doesn’t really manage any genuine reporting.  What happens while he’s there in the bakery? I have no clear idea.

Likewise, in his exploration of the post-modern rise of organic and wheat bread, he quotes the charmingly named Crescent Dragonwagon and her various baking manifestos from 40 years ago but he doesn’t take the time to find out what she thinks about white bread now. (Her latest book, The Cornbread Gospels, might give you a clue, but Bobrow-Strain doesn’t.)

Readers of this blog will already have an intuitive sense of white bread’s history and its place in our lives. Bobrow-Strain says that you can’t avoid having an attitude about white bread. He’s right, but to save you some time, here’s the basic bread sequence as he explains it:

Primitive / immigrant (dark, baked at home),

Modern (Wonder),

Post-modern (organic, hand-made), and finally

Post-post-modern (modern plus Pabst Blue Ribbon and attitude).

There are details that quick version misses, like the history of those Catalan bakers. The company they started, Grupo Bimbo, is now the largest baking company in the United States. They own almost every major bakery chain except Wonder Bread. Hostess, the Twinkie people, own Wonder Bread – and they just went bankrupt. Again. Another reason to bake and buy local?

If you’re bold, take some time with this book. Or just stick with your intuitions about white bread. Because you’re probably right.


**It was actually worse than out of touch: the attributed quote is more properly translated as “let them eat brioche.” Brioche is made of wheat, eggs, and milk – and if the poor couldn’t get wheat, how could they possibly get eggs or milk?

*** note #2: unless the editor spikes it, always a possibility, a version of this review will appear in the Fall edition of Edible Wasatch.

About Patrick de Freitas

Recovering bilbiopole interested in way too many things so I often have difficulty keeping up with myself. Or perhaps I'm more scattered than I imagine.
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