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Book Review: White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf

8/24/2012 12:02:46 PM

Tags: white bread, Sue Van Slooten, Aaron Bobrow Strain, bread history, Green revolutiion, Cold War, Sue Van Slooten

This blog will be a little twist on what I usually write about. Don’t worry, we’ll get back to recipes soon, I’m thinking of panzanella, the Italian bread salad. Right now I want to talk about “White Bread:  A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf” by Aaron Bobrow-Strain. This book presents a positively riveting account of the history of white bread, as in, industrial white bread. He presents what is at times a truly frightening and disturbing history, mostly throughout the 20th century.  It’s not so much because of the bread itself, although that certainly enters into the equation. It’s what was done with the bread, and all the concepts, control, money, ideas, fears, likes, dislikes, politics, and economics of industrial white bread.   

He studies the ruthlessness with which the early bread company giants pursued their wealth through bread (think robber baron or big oilman), with consolidation of power and money nationwide. He moves effortlessly, but chillingly, through the decades to today detailing the nefarious paths our governments have taken to control people’s diet, their thoughts, their politics, even how they go to war. Who would have thought that Wonder Bread was a political and economic weapon during the Cold War? They did. Did you know that before it was known as the Green Revolution, wheat was grown under and called, the Mexican Agricultural Program, or MAP, for short? At first it was so hugely successful, they then transplanted it from Mexico to India. This hybrid wheat they were growing was going to save the world from hunger, or so they espoused. Early on, however, it became apparent that there were serious flaws in the Green Revolution, but they stuck to their guns (it was just too profitable, requiring all those inputs of fertilizer and pesticides), forcing it on the world. It aggravated poverty, deepened the have and have-nots abyss, and destroyed the Earth in the bargain.   

As this book makes this incredible journey up to today, it is never about taste. Mr. Bobrow-Strain documents the “French food craze” of the 50s which (let’s be honest, American food needed to break out of its mold) brought the baguette to the U.S. Great consternation over bread that tasted good (it must be unholy or wicked, couldn’t possibly be as nutritious as white industrial). Probably an echo from Puritan times.

In fact, throughout the entire book, one theme keeps coming up:  White bread has very little or no taste. It never was about taste. It was a vehicle for enrichment, the first of the enriched foods we eat today. Taste didn’t matter, as long as you made big healthy men to fight wars and farm the fields. Enrichment did help put the vitamins and minerals into bodies depleted by years of the Great Depression, and in this sense, it was a good thing. Enrichment just didn’t end with bread. It was a tool used to “civilize” the Japanese after WWII. It was used to demonstrate the superiority of U.S. industry as contrasted against the poverty (they railed) of Soviet dark breads.   

So here we are today, about 100 years after the founding of industrial bread, with Wonder Bread itself in deep financial trouble, and white bread being held up as a form of junk food. Now having said all this, I eat white bread, I love sandwiches made with it (like the ooey gooey favorite, grilled cheese), and I know it’s not real bread, but for some inexplicable reason, I like it! This was the other conundrum that came out of Mr. Bobrow-Strain’s book:  Everyone knows it’s not great, but they all like it and don’t know why. What do we make of this?  Is it the convenience?  The fact that it stays fresh for almost forever?  (Like Twinkies, I think most of it could survive a nuclear bomb.) It’s certainly not the taste.

 If you want a really good read, check out “White Bread:  A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf by Aaron Bobrow-Strain, Beacon Press, Boston, Ma.  2012. Oh, and MOTHER is mentioned as well, but you should read the book to find it.   



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