White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, Aaron Bobrow-Stain writes, "few foods have embodied so many dreams as industrial white bread, particularly during times of recession, war, and social upheaval," as white bread (ix). Few foods indeed are as controversial and culturally relevant. The term "white bread" has become a largely derogatory one, referring to something neutered, sterile, and painfully mainstream. Yet the symbolism white bread is even deeper than that relatively innocuous meaning. White bread evokes racism, classism, and xenophobia, as Bobrow-Stain points out. The "whiteness" of the bread parallels the dominant culture and its presumed purity. White bread is presumed to be the stuff of the masses, and remains closely linked to "trailer trash." No self-respecting urbanite eats white bread, except perhaps for the ironic Instagram shot. A deep-rooted mistrust of white bread, specifically its pre-sliced plastic wrapped incarnation, has embedded itself as deeply in the American psyche as the substance itself. White bread represents everything that is evil about agro-business and corrupt Food and Drug Administration officials giving stamps of approval to Wonder Bread in spite of its containing fire retardants. As Adler refers to it, white bread is a "pale, starchy ghost."
White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf is a tome and a treatise to bread itself. Bread as symbol of spiritual nourishment is a concept that stems back to the Bible, when bread was manna from heaven. In the New Testament, several of Jesus's miracles were bread-related, such as the loaves and fishes. As Bobrow-Stain points out, the word companion comes directly from the Latin words con and pan, meaning "with bread." Bread connotes community, through the act of "breaking bread" with family and friends.
Then where did we go wrong? Bobrow-Stain attempts to answer that question with his historical and social commentary on the evolution of bread from physical and spiritual nourishment to its ghastly presence as white bread. Bobrow-Stain's commentary is rich and layered, and yet, As Adler points out, the author misses a huge opportunity to delve deeper into the politics of bread. Bobrow-Stain's political emphasis is on the symbolism of white bread as the dominant culture. White bread could not sum up life in the 1950s any more, with its promises of a fast and fancy-free lifestyle. Housewives could purchase their Wonder Bread loaves knowing that they were never before touched by human hands. Their children could be pure, unstained by "colored" or "brown" breads.
Purity is also an important component of Bobrow-Stain's argument about white bread. Copeland notes that in the early twentieth century, "Americans transitioned almost completely from homemade bread to store bought bread -- and specifically to bread made in large factories. Hygiene fears were a major reason." Hygiene was perhaps the single biggest reason for the transition away from home-baked bread or small scale bakeries toward the pasty stuff in the plastic bags. White bread was born out of paranoia, and that paranoia was itself symbolic. On the most concrete level, the paranoia was linked to germs. Suddenly everyone feared the microscopic organisms that permeated the environment, including foodstuffs. Fear of germs led to a revolution in food production in America. This is the primary area of research that Adler finds lacking in Bobrow-Stain's work, as the homogenization and mass production of foodstuffs in America has a sinister dimension that does deserve further exploration. Yet Bobrow-Stain does indeed address some of these problems such as "he nefarious paths our governments have taken to control people's diet, their thoughts, their politics, even how they go to war," (Van Slooten).
Even without delving deeper into the broader issues of agro-business that Adler points out, White Bread: A Social History of the Store Bought Loaf sheds light on a subject that most readers might have taken very much for granted. As Van Slooten describes it, Bobrow-Stain's book is "a positively riveting account of the history of white bread, as in, industrial white bread." After all, there are other types of white bread that are not neutered and sinister. Fresh Italian bread from a local bakery is one example of how taking the germ off the wheat is not the central problem that Bobrow-Stain is talking about in White Bread: A Social History of the Store Bought Loaf.
However, nutrition concerns are important, and central to the author's argument. Bobrow-Stain starts the book by referring specifically to the sinister nature of the bread that chemists, not bakers, make. "Today, not only does our bread not sustain us, it can barely feed us safely. Animals and humans fed exclusively on white bread quickly sicken. Studies repeatedly advise against its consumption," (Adler). Ample evidence shows that white bread is problematic from a dietary and nutritional standpoint, and this is years -- generations -- prior to the Atkins diet or the gluten free craze. Americans have known about the poor nutritional content of white bread for years. In fact, "Recovering from the Depression and getting more calories from industrial white bread than from any other food, Americans suffered vitamin deficiencies and malnutrition," (Adler). White bread lacks the nutritional components that make it sustenance. Early manufacturers might have been as well meaning as Bobrow-Stain states, but there was certainly a darker side to the production.
Race and sterility were key themes during the heyday of white bread in America. When the original Ward bakery was churning out its white gummy goo, paranoia and fear also gripped American society. Race relations in the United States were grim, and thus, the symbolism of white bread becomes problematic in this light. White bread as the myth of the horn of plenty was also the myth of white supremacy. In Chapter 5 of White Bread: A Social History of the Store Bought Loaf, the author underscores the essentially imperialistic nature of white bread production and distribution. White bread was white hegemony, plain and simple. As social values and norms changed, so too did the status of white bread. During the 1960s, the counterculture movement helped to enlighten the public about the horrors of white bread. The hippie culture promoted everything that white bread was not: healthy living, wholesome eating, and diverse, colorful diets. Counterculture also symbolized an embrace of a multicultural, diverse, and colorful society that could handle a few germs -- whether that germ was from the husk of wheat or not.
White bread, according to Bobrow-Stain, also symbolizes economic imperialism. As van Slooten puts it "early white bread manufacturers like Ward ensured the "consolidation of power and money nationwide." Bread once symbolized spiritual sustenance and community togetherness. After the advent of sliced bread, the product took on a new meaning. White bread represented government lying about nutrition, and duping the public into buying everything that went along with Wonder Bread from Twinkies to Coca-Cola. More than most of those products, though, white bread reveals the intersections between race, class, and power in America.
Marketing white bread as a panacea was a genius plan, because it got America hooked -- perhaps not on white powder but on white bread. "White bread has very little or no taste. It never was about taste," (Van Slooten). It was all about duping the public through propaganda. As Bobrow-Stain points out in White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, bread had always been central to the American diet. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, before the advent of factory-made bread, Americans received up to 30% of their daily calories from bread (Bobrow-Stain). This percentage would rise during tough economic times, such as the Great Depression. Bread was the way to get Americans to notice; bread was where it counted. "There's something about bread," claims Bobrow-Stain, "it's so basic," (6).
White bread is not as basic bread, though. It is a chemical slurry. Adler states,…