Skip Navigation
Regional News

Book review: "White Bread: A Social History of the Store-bought Loaf"

What item fills up an aisle at most North Country grocery stores, a food so common we don't even see it? White bread, the All-American food. Betsy Kepes has this review of Aaron Bobrow-Strain's book, "White Bread: A Social History of the Store-bought Loaf."

Share this


Explore this

Reported by

Betsy Kepes
Book Reviewer

Tags

Bobrow-Strain's book could be titled "The Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall of White Bread." In 1910 the Ward Bakery in Brooklyn built a massive factory that churned out thousands of loaves of white bread a day. This bread was clean, pure and untouched by human hands, in contrast to the small basement bakeries where, supposedly, filth could come in the windows and on the hands of the immigrants who worked there. Bobrow-Strain writes, "In early twentieth-century America it would have been impossible to escape the message, conveyed by food advertising, scientific studies, political cartoons, foreign correspondents, and even church sermons, that only savage peoples and unwashed immigrants ate dense, dark bread." In fact, my father told me that his grandmother, an Hungarian immigrant, loved white bread and refused to eat any brown bread at all, a food symbol of the life she'd deliberately left behind.

But by the late 1920s white bread was suffering from a bad reputation. Fitness gurus warned that a diet of just white bread lacked nutrients, could kill sailors and weaken all Americans. "The whiter your bread the quicker you're dead" quipped a radio personality in 1927.

White was back though as America geared up for World War Two and bakers added vitamins and minerals to their white bread. It became a patriotic duty to eat fortified bread and stay strong and healthy. By the 1950's the majority of American households ate store-bought white bread at every meal. Bumper crops of American wheat sent abroad helped Europe and Japan recover from the war, and, it was said, kept communism at bay.

But the counterculture of the sixties and seventies rejected the store-bought loaf and made their own heavy, dark loaves. The bread industry fought back in the 1980s, making "health loaves" and in-store bakeries for consumers who were willing to spend a bit more on their bread. Standard packaged white bread became the choice for people who didn't have the money to buy anything else.

In 2009, for the first time ever in American history, sales of whole wheat breads exceeded those of white bread. And, in the ultimate rejection of white bread, many Americans are now gluten-free and eat no bread at all. Bobrow-Strain writes that Americans have "an irrepressible confidence in the power of the proper diet to cure almost all physical and social ills." But he warns, "Food dreamers must be ready to modify their vision if it does more to reinforce social stratification than to build a better world."

There's nothing soft and squishy about Bobrow-Strain's thoughts about the history of American white bread, and our white bread imperialism. This book made me think, not just about my eating habits, but about the complicated story of industrial food. Inside this White Bread book is a nutritious mix of careful research, personal stories and a gentle warning: is it really true that we are what we eat?

Visitor comments

on:

NCPR is supported by:

This is a Visitor-Supported website.