White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf (Beacon, March 2012)
by Aaron Bobrow-Strain
Aaron Bobrow-Strain’s White Bread first drew our attention because—as we might have told you once or twice—we’ve got barbecue on the brain this year. In many barbecue restaurants across the South, white bread serves as a neutral sopper or a foil for sauce-drenched meat. But Bobrow-Strain’s new book explains that the fluffy stuff is anything but innocuous. Indeed, it’s framed a plethora of social debates in the United States for over a century. Recently, Gravy asked him some questions about his research.
GRAVY: What makes bread—specifically mass-produced loaves of white bread—such an appropriate case for study for a discussion of food history and politics in the United States?
Aaron Bobrow-Strain: When I started this project, I had no idea what an important role bread played in the modern American diet. The country got, on average, 30% of its daily caloric intake from some form of bread—mostly white—from the late nineteenth century until the mid-1960s.
Because it was so essential to so many people, bread became one of the country’s most fought-over foods. Nearly every social reformer, diet guru, health expert, domestic advisor, military war planner, public health official, and social movement of the past century wanted to change America’s bread or its bread habits in some way. So white bread is a great way to explore our nation’s long, turbulent love affair with trying to “save the world” by getting people to eat differently.
In the debate between white and whole-grain breads, where, if at all, does the iconic Southern cornbread fit in?
During the early twentieth century, most “experts,” and lots of ordinary consumers—even in the South—believed that cornbread was an inferior food. Progressive Era food reformers fanned out all over the South to teach the gospel of modern, “scientific” eating habits to the poor. Preferring cornbread to white-wheat was seen as a sign of backwardness, and many Southerners bought that logic.
There’s one interesting exception to this story. During WWI, in an effort to conserve wheat for soldiers and allies, the U.S. government launched a massive campaign promoting cornbread consumption. The government put Southern cooks on tour to teach northerners about the joys of cornbread, sponsored seminars on the nutritional virtues of corn, and ran patriotic ads extolling corn as America’s “original food.” For just a moment, cornbread wasn’t portrayed as a threat to the nation’s health, but as essential to it.
As you mention in the book, 2009 was the first year in which sales of wheat bread eclipsed sales of white bread in U.S. grocery stores. Where will white bread be in ten years?
Wonder Bread’s parent company is in bankruptcy proceedings right now—a judge is going to have to decide whether America’s most iconic industrial bread is “Too Fluffy to Fail.” There’s a lot going on in that case, but part of it has to do with a big cultural shift away from industrial white bread. I suspect that people will always want industrial white bread for certain uses (including soaking up barbecue sauce!), but it will continue to fade away over the next ten years. At the same time, thanks to massive and growing inequality in the United States, the larger social divides epitomized by industrial white bread’s lowly status today will continue unless we do something about it. We have a polarized food system that produces healthy, high-quality food mostly for the wealthy and garbage for the rest. The history of battles over white bread suggests that changing this mess will require more than just “voting with our forks” or “helping” the poor make better choices.
Aaron Bobrow-Strain teaches food politics at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.