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

2012 nonfiction book by Aaron Bobrow-Strain

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You may never think of bread in quite the same way again.

  • Apr 6, 2012
"Modern industrialism has ruined American bread...It's so soft and spongy you can contract it with your hands, mold it any shape you have a mind to....The soft fluffy center is like a mouthful of powder puff. The more you eat it the hungrier you get. This is what America's staff of life has come to."

Such were the observations of Christian Science Monitor critic Horace Reynolds in the 1950's about the bland industrial white bread that most Americans were consuming in those days. Did you ever wonder how the American people came to be hooked on mass-produced white bread? Likewise, would it ever occur to you that the story of white bread might actually be a subject worthy of a serious book? Aaron Bobrow-Strain, an associate professor of politics at Whitman College in Washington and an avid baker himself studied the matter and decided that indeed there was a book here and that he was the guy to write it. "White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf" is the fascinating tale of the spectacular rise and steady decline of mass-produced white bread in America. It turns out to be a much more complicated story than I ever imagined. "White Bread" is about the American people's dreams of purity, naturalness, scientific control, perfect health and even national security. This is a story that evolved over the entire 20th century and frankly is still evolving today. Much to my surprise and delight I could not put this book down.

The dawn of the 20th century found a large segment of the American people becoming increasingly concerned about the safety and purity of the food supply. There had been a dramatic influx of immigrants from Europe and in order to eke out a living many of these folks operated tiny bakeries in the basement of their homes. For the most part these crude bakeries were hot, dusty and dirty. As a result, many middle and upper class Americans began to question the sanitary conditions of these businesses and clamored for the government to take appropriate action to protect the health and well-being of its citizens. The prevailing political climate of the period would ultimately result in the passage by Congress of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. In theory this was legislation designed to reassure the American public that the food and medicines they were consuming had been thoroughly tested and were safe to use. In such a suspicious environment people were searching for products that were literally untouched by human hands. According to the author "the appeal of modern bread lay in the way it resonated with a growing cultural embrace of science and industrial expertise as a buttress of rapidly escalating fears of impurity and contagion." Ward Baking Company was the first to figure out a way to mass produce inexpensive "white" bread. Just a few short years after setting up shop in New York Ward Baking produced roughly one of every five loaves of bread sold in the city. It was an amazing success story. The popularity of industrial white bread would continue to grow with the introduction of automatically sliced bread in 1928. This was a godsend to the beleaguered housewives of that era. Then during World War II "enriched" white bread injected with synthetic vitamins would be introduced allegedly to help the country "withstand the stresses and strains of war". According to the U.S. Public Health Service: "The time has come when it is the patriotic duty of every American to eat enriched bread. Don't buy plain white bread." The popularity of industrial white bread would continue through the 1950's when the average American would consume between 6-8 slices per day.

They say that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Although opposition to bland industrial white bread had been bubbling under in pockets of this country for decades it finally came to the surface in a big way during the 1960's. To the emerging "counterculture" white bread came to symbolize just about everything that was wrong with the establishment. Industrial white bread was viewed as "bland, homogeneous and suburban." Now I do not agree with many of the counterculture's lifestyle choices but I will be the first to admit that it was these folks who were largely responsible for changing the way American viewed their bread. All of a sudden baking bread at home was "cool" again and the darker and more robust the recipe the better. These days we Americans are much more likely to prefer bread that is locally baked, organic and loaded with dietary fiber. In the past few decades thousands of locally-owned bread bakeries have sprung up around the country offering a wide array of tasty and healthy products. It has been a remarkable turnaround in attitude and few can dispute that whole wheat and whole grain products are much more nutritious than mass-produced white bread. Still, as Aaron Bobrow-Strain points out a number of times in the book the kind of bread you eat says a lot about your economic and social status. Whole grain and artisan breads are much more expensive than white bread and thus are simply out of the reach of millions of low income people.

As I indicated earlier there is a whole lot more to "White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf" than merely the history of industrial white bread. Time and space will not permit me to detail all of the fascinating issues that Aaron Bobrow-Strain explores in this book. You will discover why crucial sociological issues such as race, class, immigration and gender have played and continue to play a pivotal role in this narrative. Meanwhile, you will also learn the critical role that bread played in helping American military strategists ward off the threat of communism in countries like France, Greece and Mexico. I apologize for the pun but there really is an awful lot to chew on in this book. "White Bread" turns out to be a very well-written and exceptionally well-researched book about a very offbeat subject. I learned an awful lot and I appreciate that. Very highly recommended!

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January 24, 2013
Thanks for the very informative narrative that you provided. Even without reading this book, I have learned a lot.
April 08, 2012
We eat too much bread. Diabetics and pre-diabetics are allowed a slice about the size of a CD. I see people loading up on foot-long sandwiches filled with cold cuts. This is essentially non-food nutritionally which contributes to the reason we need the level of health care that we do. When I grew up, childhood diabetes was unheard of. To get back to affordable health care, we need to address food first. The Asian societies are having problems after importing junk food by the carload. They are seeing all the maladies we have become accustomed to like heart disease, diabetes etc. The other bad thing is the lack of exercise in all sectors of the society at large.
April 08, 2012
I'm willing to try:

Fry until crispy 10 or 12 slices of bacon.
While bacon is frying make a dip of mayonaise, catsup and Pickapeppa sauce.
While bacon is still warm, consume using the dip.
Eat all the bacon. Do not be wasteful.

April 09, 2012
Bacon is a high cholesterol food which should be consumed sparingly.
April 08, 2012
Another fine review of an interesting topic. Next a review of bread with the taste and texture of concrete or, perhaps, concrete with the texture of bread? Still, white bread has its uses:

Take two slices of white bread and spread, not too thickly, mayonaise on each.
Then on one slice spread a little catsup and Pickapeppa.
Take two or three slices of crisp bacon and place on, snapping off ends to insure the bacon doesn't hang over the side and covers the bread.
Repeat four times, cut in half and you will have ten sandwich pieces of rich but light (thanks to all that fluffy white bread) pig heaven.
About the reviewer
Paul Tognetti ()
Ranked #2
I guess I would qualify as a frustrated writer. My work requires very little writing and so since 1999 I have been writing reviews on non-fiction books and anthology CD's on amazon.com. I never could … more
About this topic


How did white bread, once an icon of American progress, become “white trash”? In this lively history of bakers, dietary crusaders, and social reformers, Aaron Bobrow-Strain shows us that what we think about the humble, puffy loaf says a lot about who we are and what we want our society to look like.

White Bread teaches us that when Americans debate what one should eat, they are also wrestling with larger questions of race, class, immigration, and gender. As Bobrow-Strain traces the story of bread, from the first factory loaf to the latest gourmet pain au levain, he shows how efforts to champion “good food” reflect dreams of a better society—even as they reinforce stark social hierarchies.

In the early twentieth century, the factory-baked loaf heralded a bright new future, a world away from the hot, dusty, “dirty” bakeries run by immigrants. Fortified with vitamins, this bread was considered the original “superfood” and even marketed as patriotic—while food reformers painted white bread as a symbol of all that was wrong with America.
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