Who would’ve thought a book about white bread, of all things, would be a page-turner?
I read White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf by Aaron Bobrow-Strain, and I couldn’t put it down.
The author covers topics such as how factory-made bread became an effort to better society; how white bread was considered the first “super-food” and was marketed as patriotic; and how food reformers worked to show white bread was a symbol of all that was wrong with America.
It was fascinating to me to read research and history related to immigration, home economics, food supply, and baking.
In the early 1900s, as factory-made bread was becoming more mainstream and “acceptable”, a Pennsylvania journalist explained in 1914, that a woman’s “time and effort squandered on pointless home baking was responsible for most domestic misery. Women should concern themselves with things they could do relatively well–looking beautiful, raising healthy children, and efficiently administering a modern household.” What? Isn’t that crazy?
There was a campaign to pump up industrial production of bread and, in favor of women, a new vision of domesticity – that a “good housewife” was a professional manager working to maximize her family’s health. The U of Chicago home economics department chair predicted that women would be judged, not by their skill at baking good bread, but by their skill at buying it. Consumers making the decisions – and all driven by bread. (p. 63)
The book also paints a historical picture of early health crusaders who were trying to paint the picture of white bread not being good for health. For example, from a 1929 radio show: “The whiter your bread, the quicker you’re dead.” (p. 73) The doctor who said this (Dr. Hutchinson) also wasn’t doing any favors for whole wheat bread–he said he nutrients came “in an utterly indigestible for – bran and husks.” (p. 97)
I could go on and on, but I’ll leave you with this fun fact–in 1954, Americans were eating white bread at all three meals, totaling consumption of 8.6 billion loaves a year! Most people ate 3-7 slices of white bread a day – and 33% of the population ate more than 8 slices a day! (p. 122-123) This statistic cut across all income levels and ages but not gender–women ate the least as many diets at the time ‘forbid’ the consumption of bread.
Do you make homemade bread? Favorite bread? Did you learn something new today?
Reading this book did make me hungry for bread–I have a recipe for english muffin bread that I’ve been wanting to try–maybe that will be this weekend’s baking project.