[15 May 2012]
“Is this stuff even food?” is the opening line of White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf. And it, apparently, is a question that must be answered cautiously. Author Aaron Bobrow-Strain warns, “Be careful how you answer that question. Perhaps more than any other food in the United States, what you think of sliced white bread says a lot about who you are. Over the past hundred years, it has served as a touchstone for the fears and aspirations of racial eugenicists, military strategists, social reformers, food gurus, and gourmet tastemakers.”
Yes, simple and often cheap, sliced white bread—the same bread that gets smeared with peanut butter, packed into children’s lunches, and stuffed into turkeys—actually says a lot about America and Americans. According to Bobrow-Strain, “the story of bread is the story of how social structures shape what we eat, and how what we eat shapes social structures.”
Bobrow-Strain navigates bread’s social history from the flat breads created as early as 28,000 BCE to the white trash associations of the ‘90s. He takes us from the late 19th century, when “good” homemakers baked their own bread because most bakeries were neither clean nor sanitary and “‘Mother’s bread’ [was] a symbol of all that was good and pure” to a few decades later when industrialized bread was the norm and reporters contended that the “time and effort squandered on pointless home baking was ‘responsible for most domestic misery.’”
Sanitary concerns may have been one of the first controversies white bread faced; they were certainly not the last. And many of the early concerns still plague white bread today, particularly the question: is mass-produced white bread something people should be eating?
Or, perhaps more important to those living in ‘30s, could wars be won eating white bread? After all, as one of Bobrow-Strain’s sources claimed: “The secret of Germany’s ‘husky soldiers’ was its ‘excellent dark loaf’; the great resilience of Russia was its stubborn rye bread. France, on the other hand, a nation of puffy white bread eaters, had folded. What would become of the United States, where people simply would not eat whole wheat?” War was looming, and as one reporter quoted in the book noted, “Eating refined white bread… did Hitler’s work for him.”
Enter the next stage of industrialized white bread: synthetic enrichment coupled with a massive advertising campaign designed to get the American people to accept enriched bread. Bobrow-Strain cites Good Housekeeping, which told its readers: “The Army and Navy are using enriched flour and bread because of the extra health values… You’re in the Army, too! It’s your patriotic duty to give your family these health values by using enriched bread and flour.”
After World War II ended, white bread, according to Bobrow-Strain, moved on to become a symbol of imperialism. In the mid-‘40s, bad weather devastated Europe’s grain production, and it “looked even more dire in Asia. China faced a massive rice crisis, famine gripped Korea, and millions of conquered Japanese survived on 520 calories per day.” These problems were further compounded by communism, and one columnist quoted in the book maintained “If France starved, it would go Communist…If France goes to the Communists…the great struggle for Europe between the Soviet and western political systems will almost certainly be ended in Russia’s favor”. Bobrow-Strain concludes “The fate of Europe seemed to hang on French bread rations”.
White bread may have been a hero in the ‘40s, but when the book moves to the ‘60s, we learn that white bread was no longer just a noun—it was also an adjective:
“an adjective with two related but different meanings that still compete with each other today. In the early years of the 1960s counterculture, ‘white bread’ came to signify all that was bland, homogeneous, and suburban… By the early 1980s, however, another usage had emerged. In this case, ‘white bread’ signified almost the opposite: not bland, affluent suburbia, but white trash.”
Considering these associations, it’s probably not surprising that most Americans never thought industrialized white bread tasted that good. Bobrow-Strain shares that in the ‘50s, people described white bread as “fake”, “a fugitive from a test tube”, and “inedible”. But they didn’t stop eating it. Why? According to, Bobrow-Strain, “Part of the reason Americans stuck to gummy white bread lay in the way wartime enrichment campaigns had cemented a sense that industrial white bread built strength for individual and national defense”.
Then again, perhaps white bread shouldn’t taste that great. In the opening pages, we learn that today’s white bread can include “diammonium phosphate, a yeast nutrient and flame retardant produced when ammonia and phosphoric acid react”. Bobrow-Strain also notes that white bread actually bounces if it is “squeezed into a ball”. Not exactly appetizing.
Still, the point of the book isn’t really about whether or not people should eat white bread. It’s about what we can learn from white bread:
“Fluffy white industrial bread may be about as far from the ideals of slow, local, organic, and health food reformers as you can get today. But, in many ways, we owe its very existence to a string of just as well-meaning efforts to improve the way America ate. Perhaps learning this history can help us avoid the pitfalls of the past.”
In a time when many celebrate the artisan loaf (in the US, even big grocery chains and fast food restaurants seem to offer something artisan), sliced white bread may be considered bland and boring or even worse. Bobrow-Strain notes that “1970s style arbiter Diana Vreeland famously proclaimed, ‘People who eat white bread have no dreams’”.
Whatever you think of white bread, its history is full of surprises. And Bobrow-Strain shares this history with wit, style, and imagination. This is a richly researched and cleverly told story. White bread might not be good for us, but discovering its history certainly should be.