The History of Bread as a Social Marker

White bread was once a marker for high social status. Now, crumbly brown artisan loaves distinguish the wealthy, and mass-produced, pre-sliced white bread distinguishes the working poor.

| April 25, 2012

There is no food more universal or more essential than bread, and the kind of bread you eat can reveal who you are. Bread: A Global History, (Reaktion Books, 2011) by William Rubel explores different breads for different times, places and people in history, all over the world. This excerpt examines how white bread goes full circle as a social marker. Discover why peasants made bread using pea flower and rye, the French court baked only pure white bread, and today cheap, “sliced white” bread is available to buy in every supermarket. The story of people and bread is as complex as it is delicious. The following excerpt is from Chapter 2, “Bread as a Social Marker.” 

White bread! So light! So pure! So attractive! But also, up to the industrialization of milling in the nineteenth century, so expensive. For most of Europe’s history, even if farmers grew grain, few had the reliable supply of excess wheat that white flour implied. In fact, comparatively few had either the farmland capable of producing healthy stands of pure wheat or the money to buy white wheat breads if they didn’t have the land. As a rule, in human cultures if something is desirable yet out of bounds, then possessing that thing suggests a high social status.

There are two large-scale arcs that move breads over time, both of which relate to bread as a social marker. The first of these arcs, and the most powerful, is the near universal rejection of the breads of poverty by virtually everyone who could afford the alternative.

This chapter focuses on breads of poverty from a period when white-as-snow loaves were largely the purview of those who lived lives of conspicuous consumption. As an example, only a white loaf made with the finest flour will open in the oven like a flower, like the bread in Lubin Baugin’s Still-life with Chessboard (1630), a painting that depicts, among other things, the vanities of life.

One of the first signs of the industrial revolution in eighteenth-century England was that increasing numbers of small farmers and farm workers lost ‘their rye teeth’, as a farm hand explained when describing his preference for wheat breads to a British government agricultural commission in 1795.

It is through culture that we pass on world-views into the distant future. The love of fine wheat breads is one of the preferences that seems to be universal: it is no accident that in terms of acreage wheat is the single biggest agricultural crop in the world, nor that most of it is ground into white flour. In times less rich in material culture, moving out of the breads of poverty into the more refined wheat-centered breads of the social elites was often the first use of increasing personal wealth.

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