guest post by Aaron Bobrow-Strain, as part of his White Bread Blog tour!
“And which side does an object turn toward dreams?…It is the side worn through by habit and patched with cheap maxims.” —Walter Benjamin, “Dream Kitsch”
Walk through the fluorescent arcades of a Safeway or Kroger’s and pick out a loaf of sliced white bread. It is a fossil—the chemically preserved remnant of lost utopias and unrealized apocalypses. This is not to say that all the other breads—the six grains, the twelve grains, the Vienna hearths, the sprouted oats, and store-brand baguettes—reflect progress toward more enlightened eating. They don’t, necessarily. Nor is it to suggest that people don’t make new meanings out of industrial white bread. They do. What is lost is the shining aura that once surrounded this loaf.
If you look hard enough, though, you can still see material traces—in the loaf’s shape, structure, and contents—of a time when people in the United States got more calories from this one item than any other food; a time when the perfect, homogenous slice of spectacularly white bread embodied dreams of a stronger nation, vigorous health, and social status—alongside nightmares of “over-civilization” and moral decline.
I wrote a history of America’s most iconic industrial food because I wanted to understand how one food could inspire so much affection and so much animosity.
The result—White Bread—is a book about one commodity that has played an incredibly important, and largely unnoticed, role in American politics, diet, culture, and food reform movements. But it is not another story of how one food “saved the world.” Rather, it’s a history of the countless social reformers, food experts, industry executives, government officials, diet gurus, and ordinary eaters who have thought that getting Americans to eat right bread (or avoid the wrong bread) could save the world—or at least restore the country’s moral, physical, and social fabric. Sadly, this turned out to be the difficult story of how, time and time again, well-meaning efforts to change the country through its bread ended up reinforcing forms of race, class, and gender exclusion—even when they achieved much needed improvements in America’s food system.
Anyone paying attention to the rising cries for slow, local, organic, and healthy food today will find the trials and tribulations of one hundred-fifty years of battles over bread surprisingly contemporary. In them, you will see all the contradictory expressions of our own food concerns: uplifting visions of the connection between good food and healthy communities, insightful critiques of unsustainable status quos, great generosity of spirit, and earnest desires to make the world a better place—but also rampant elitism, smug paternalism, misdirected anxieties, sometimes neurotic obsessions with health, narrow visions of what counts as “good food,” and open discrimination against people who choose “bad food.”
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 and deep cultural significance 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.
Aaron Bobrow-Strain is the author of White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf (Beacon 2012) and Intimate Enemies: Landowners, Power, and Violence in Chiapas (Duke 2007). His writing on the cultural politics of food has also appeared in Gastronomica, The Believer, and The Chronicle of Higher Education Review.