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The rise and fall of white bread

A new book on the history of America’s ‘most fought-over food’

Aaron Bobrow-Strain

Aaron Bobrow-Strain

White bread. The neutral base for countless lunch-bag sandwiches, it is undeniably cheap and convenient, but not particularly nutritious. Store-bought, mass-produced, it is the antithesis of the delicious, crunchy homemade loaf. We use it as an adjective to convey blandness.

But in its early days, industrial white bread was seen as just the opposite, an icon of purity, modernity, and good homemaking. The reasons behind this--and why public opinion reversed so sharply--tell us a lot about the ways American culture changed over the 20th century. In a new book, “White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf,” author and Whitman College associate professor of politics Aaron Bobrow-Strain explores the connections.

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In the 1890s, 90 percent of bread was baked at home, by women. The rest was purchased, usually from small bakeries. By the 1930s, the numbers had flipped: 90 percent of bread was store-bought, shipped from big, far-away factories. And it was sliced! On July 6, 1928, inventor Otto Rohwedder and baker Frank Bench ran the world’s first automatic factory bread slicer, in Chillicothe, Mo. Why was this so great that it became the standard for innovation--“the best thing since sliced bread”?

“It’s about the dream of industrial perfection,” Bobrow-Strain says. “Creating perfectly uniform, perfectly symmetrical slices is the final triumph. Americans really took it as that. They were wowed by it.” Sales of bread increased 2,000 percent in the first weeks, and within a year sliced bread had spread throughout the country.

But there was more to it than aesthetics. Women’s roles were changing, and they didn’t have time for all that baking. More people were bringing sandwiches to work. And industrialized bread was downright hard to slice. Engineers kept making it softer and softer, as consumers took its pliability as a sign of freshness. Even today, with crusty, small-batch loaves back in favor, Wonder and its ilk remain grocery store staples.

Ideas spoke with Bobrow-Strain about white bread--which, he says, is “the most fought-over food ever in our country”--and what it reveals about us.

IDEAS: How did we get from home-baked to store-bought bread?

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BOBROW-STRAIN: Bread was one of the later staple foods in the US to industrialize. The unruly, living biological nature of dough was hard to tame to the assembly line. It took tremendous amounts of chemistry and biology and engineering. But the harder part was: How do we convince people to change their habits around the most important food in the American daily diet?

Two things really tipped the balance in favor of industrial bread in the 1910s and 1920s. The first is anxiety. There’s this early 20th-century moral panic about contagious, dirty, contaminated bread, in cities in particular. People began to really freak out about whether the bread they were buying was safe and whether mothers at home could make safe bread. Home-economics experts were warning that mothers weren’t careful enough and home ovens can’t kill germs. Fears about bread safety were wrapped up in fears about immigration--dirty immigrant hands touching bread. There were also fears about women’s changing roles in society. What does it mean to be a responsible mother? The shining white loaves were seen as an antidote to that dirty, scary world.

There’s an allure, also. An early 20th-century loaf of bread was engineered to look like a work of modern art. It was engineered like a Zephyr train, with an Art Deco, sleek look. It was homogenized and made uniform and perfect. You held one of those loaves, it was the promise of technology and industry, the conquest of scarcity. A future free from want.

IDEAS: How long has society been debating what constitutes “good” bread?

BOBROW-STRAIN: You can take it all the way back to Plato. Plato in “The Republic” sets up an argument about whether the ideal society will be built on whole grain or white. He goes for the hearty, rural, natural, authentic whole grain over citified, weak white bread.

IDEAS: When did our perceptions of white bread shift from positive to negative?

BOBROW-STRAIN: The pendulum swings back and forth in the US. As industrial white bread grew more popular, critics emerged. It happened perennially. There were big waves of anti-white bread sentiment in the 1840s and late 1920s. People like [diet guru Bernarr] MacFadden and others blamed industrial white bread for everything from cancer and tuberculosis to criminal insanity and delinquency.

The tide turned in the 1960s when the food counterculture, and ’60s counterculture in general, took up white bread as its emblem of everything that it opposed. It was corporate, plastic, bland, unnatural. That had a tremendous effect on the consumption of bread in the US. You see by the 1970s a growing consciousness of the healthiness of whole wheat....By the Reagan years, instead of being about social change, counterculture ideas about whole wheat bread get folded into the individualistic self-actualization movement.

IDEAS: And now we pay large sums for “artisanal” loaves, the exact bread that was freaking people out in the early 20th century--dark bread made by hand in small bakeries.

BOBROW-STRAIN: This is really the larger story of the US economy, the increasing growth of inequality since the 1970s....We have super-nice, handmade, artisanal bread for the elite and industrial white bread for people who are cost-conscious.

IDEAS: What do you think is behind the gluten-free movement?

BOBROW-STRAIN: The debate divides between the mainstream medical establishment, which says really only 1 percent of the population needs to worry about this...and people who feel that subtle, insidious forms of gluten intolerance affect a larger percentage of the population--perhaps all of us. As a food historian, what’s really interesting is not so much who’s right and who’s wrong, but what does it tell us about society today?

I think it comes down to control. There are lots of things right now that affect our health that feel out of our control. Job pressures, economic stress, a crazy health care system, aging itself. But we feel we can control our diets. It’s one thing in our grasp. We are living in a moment when dietary discipline is held up as a sign of individual worth, almost synonymous with moral virtue.

IDEAS: Bread has a fascinating history. But that’s not what really drew you to the subject, is it?

BOBROW-STRAIN: I’m a total bread-baking geek. I fell in love with the technology and science of industrial bread. But the real origins of the book came because I’m interested in thinking about how we change the food system....There are some simplistic, consumer-based solutions--buy local, or whatever. It felt unsatisfying to me, and the historian in me realized an opportunity to think about how people have tried to change the food system in the past. What did they do right? What traps did they fall into? How can we do better?

The history of white bread is a fun way to get at those questions....It’s been the target of every health guru, dietary adviser, and consumer movement of the past. As much as this is a book about bread, it’s about all those different reformers. If we could get people making the right choices, it would change everything.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.

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