American History Baked Into The Loaves Of White Bread

Mar 2, 2012
Originally published on March 9, 2012 1:49 pm

White bread, like vanilla, is one of those foods that have become a metaphor for blandness. But it wasn't always that way.

Aaron Bobrow-Strain, professor of food politics at Whitman College, tells Weekend Edition's Rachel Martin that white bread was a deeply contentious food — from the early 1900s ideas of "racial purity" up to the countercultural revolution of the 1960s. He documents that cultural legacy in his new book, White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf.

White bread first became a social lightning rod with the Pure Foods movement of the late 1800s. Bobrow-Strain says well-meaning reformers were concerned about a host of legitimate food safety issues, and their activism led directly to many of today's food safety laws.

But food purity ideals bled into the social realm in the form of what Bobrow-Strain calls "healthism" — the idea that "perfect bodily health was an outward manifestation of inward genetic fitness."

One proponent of healthism was Bernarr Macfadden, whom Bobrow-Strain calls "the original strong man food guru in a leopard-skin tunic." Macfadden believed that "white bread was sapping the vitality of the white race, threatening white racial superiority," Bobrow-Strain says.

In the 1920s, white bread became a symbol of industrialization and modernity, as companies like Tip Top and Wonder Bread brought factory automation to bread-making. The invention of sliced bread, allegedly in Chillicothe, Mo., in 1928, was "really the culmination of a long process in which bread was engineered and designed to look like a streamlined wonder, like an edible piece of modern art," Bobrow-Strain says.

At the same time, the '20s and '30s saw a backlash against white bread, reviving Macfadden's idea that whole wheat bread was imbued with moral as well as dietary fiber. And another wave of criticism came in the 1960s.

The counterculture movement "took up white bread as an emblem of everything that was wrong with America. It was plastic, corporate, stale," Bobrow-Strain says. Eating handmade, whole wheat bread became "an edible act of rebellion, a way of challenging The Man."

These days, of course, artisanal breads are a common sight at supermarkets. "We see bread going from a kind of manifestation of grass-roots food activism to being a high-end niche product," Bobrow-Strain says.

Food reformers could learn a thing or two from these decades-long bread battles. Bobrow-Strain says focusing on individual food choices creates divisive in-groups and out-groups, defined by who makes the supposedly "right" food choices. And activists often overlook the root causes of problems in the food system.

Like, for instance, the economy. It's hard to pay twice as much for artisanal bread when you're strapped for cash.

And some foods are just better with white bread, he says, whether it's a simple grilled cheese or something fancier.

"I made a sandwich that had garlicky braised kale with Manchego cheese, a fried egg, and I did it on grilled Wonder Bread," Bobrow-Strain says. "It was fabulous."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

From wheat in gene bank, we move now to the bread aisle in your local grocery store. A big part of America's story is baked right into the loaves you see on the shelves, or so says our next guest, Aaron Barbrow-Strain.

PROFESSOR AARON BARBROW-STRAIN: I'm just an enormous bread geek. I'll admit it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: He's also written a new book all about white bread. Yes, we know what you're probably thinking.

JEFF GROSSBECK: Bleached white.

CARINTHIA GERALD: Fattening.

CAROL LEGARD: Doesn't taste like anything.

GROSSBECK: It's kind of fake-ish.

SARAH TAYLOR: Wonder Bread, the bread that my grandfather likes. I love him but he has terrible taste in bread.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That was Jeff Grossbeck, Carinthia Gerald, Carol Legard and Sarah Taylor, shoppers at a Washington, D.C. supermarket, on white bread's current reputation.

But Aaron Barbrow-Strain, who teaches food politics at Whitman College in Washington state, says...

BARBROW-STRAIN: The invention of sliced bread was really the culmination of a long process in which bread was engineered and designed to look like a streamlined modern wonder, like an edible piece of modern art. And a lot of the impetus behind it comes out of well-meaning social reformers and food reformers, who were concerned about the state of America's bread at that point.

MARTIN: Before the 1920s, it was women in the home and immigrants and small corner bakeries who made the majority of America's bread. It was a time when food production was unregulated and there were a lot of food-borne diseases. The era gave rise to something called the Pure Foods Movement and factory-made bread.

BARBROW-STRAIN: There was a good 20-year period at the beginning of the 20th century of moral panic, real fear about the fact that the country's staple bread was being touched by the hands of these presumably diseased and scary new immigrants. And so choosing a bread from a shining white, gleaming, sparkling modern factory was in many ways a choice that people made to try to protect themselves from what was perceived as a threat, a danger. And a lot of this is wrapped up in anxieties about America's changing racial makeup with the arrival of darker-skinned Eastern and Southern European immigrants.

MARTIN: One of your last chapters is titled "How White Bread Became White Trash." And you site the countercultural revolution beginning in the 1960s as really the turning point for white bread status in American culture.

AARON BOBROW-STRAIN: The 1960s counterculture took up white bread as an emblem of everything that was wrong with America. It was plastic, corporate, stale. It wasn't a particularly new idea in that sense. They were reviving ideas that food gurus had been talking about in the United States since the 1840s. But there is this idea that eating whole wheat bread was both healthy and morally virtuous, kind of an edible act of rebellion. But by the 1970s, we see that big industrial bakeries figure out ways to capitalize on this and make money off that rebellious spirit. And so by the 1990s with what I would call the artisanal bread baking boom, we see bread going from being a manifestation of a kind of a grassroots food activism to being a high-end niche product.

MARTIN: So, what did you learn? You spent an awful lot of time thinking about white bread in particular and how our perception of it and bread in general has changed over the years. What has stuck with you out of this project?

BOBROW-STRAIN: I think my message, what I learned in the end, is that those of us who want to change the food system, we need to let go of our obsession with individual food choices, right, the idea that what we need to do is to make sure we're eating the right thing and then educate and empower other people to do that as well. A lot of people talk about our food system today as being broken because we're eating the wrong things. And I think there's some...

MARTIN: Including white bread, you would say.

BOBROW-STRAIN: Including white bread. And there's obviously a lot to be said for that approach. But I'm trying to, with this book, trying to make the conversation to be about a little bit more than just what we eat. But also the architectures of power that underlie our industrial food system and maintain our industrial food system.

MARTIN: Can we also talk about price too? Because when you're in the supermarket and you're making a decision about what loaf of bread to buy, the artisanal seven-grain bread is going to be a lot more than the package of white bread sitting on the shelf. And if you're strapped for cash, especially these days, maybe you go with the white bread.

BOBROW-STRAIN: That's right, and I think a lot of white bread manufacturers are hoping for that because their business has been hard hit in recent years. And I, you know, it's sad to say, but as I see our country becoming more and more unequal in many ways, I suspect that the bread market will continue to segment and become unequal and divided in just the same way.

MARTIN: Although I got to say - if you're having a grilled cheese sandwich, you have to have it on white bread. That's just me.

BOBROW-STRAIN: Absolutely. I'll tell you, about a month ago, I made a sandwich that had kind of garlicky braised kale with monchego cheese, a fried egg, and I did it on grilled Wonder bread. It was fabulous.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Sounds delicious. Aaron Bobrow-Strain teaches food politics at Whitman College in Washington state. His new book is called "White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf." He joined us from our studios in New York. Aaron, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.