Aaron Bobrow-Strain, White Bread: A Social History


Aaron Bobrow-Strain, White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf

Aaron Bobrow-Strain, associate professor of politics at Whitman College, writes and teaches on the politics of the global food system. He is the author of Intimate Enemies: Landowners, Power, and Violence in Chiapas.


Caryn — Okay, we’re back, and I’m Caryn Hartglass and you’re listening to It’s All About Food. You know, it seems that every kind of food that we eat has its own story. It surprises me sometimes but, you know, we’ve learned about a number of different individual food items – about tomatoes. There have been all kinds of stories about how our farming practices of individual kinds of fruits and vegetables. Well today, it’s the Wheat Story. We’re going to be talking about wheat and white bread. And my guest is Aaron Bobrow-Strain who is the author of the new book, White Bread: A Social History of the Store Bought Loaf. He’s an associate professor of politics at Whitman College; right? And teaches on the politics of the global food system. He’s the author of Intimate Enemies: Landowners, Power, and Violence in Chiapas. Chiapas? I don’t think I pronounced that correctly, anyway, welcome Aaron Bobrow-Strain. How do you say that?

Aaron—Thanks for having me …it’s Chiapas (chop us)

Caryn— Chiapas, I knew—

Aarron— It’s the southern most state of Mexico.

Caryn— You know, I had I in my brain and it wasn’t coming out of my mouth. Okay, Chiapas, yes, I’ve heard it but I guess I’ve never really focused on how it’s spelled. There we go. So much for my Spanish. Welcome to, It’s All About Food; and—

Aaron— Yeah, Thanks—

Caryn— And I loved your book, and I’m really looking forward to talking about it in the next half-hour. It’s always fascinating to me to read about food, there’s so much intrigue and scandal and stories. Something like the staff of life that, that, we’ve been depending on for so long, wheat bread, has such an interesting story.

Aaron— It, it sure does, yeah, I mean, when I started this project I had no idea what an important role bread played in the American diet.

Caryn— Right.

Aaron— We got, we got on average, probably about 30% of daily calorie intake from some form of bread; mostly white bread, from the late 19th century all the way to the mid-1960s; even more during times of war and recession. And no food today comes anywhere close to providing that kind of—

Caryn— that was mind boggling when I read that, I couldn’t imagine people really living on that much bread!

Aaron— Right. Despite the biblical proverb, there have been many times in human history when people subsisted on pretty much bread alone. And that’s why it becomes so important and so interesting, right? Because, it’s so essential to so many people’s everyday survival, their commonality around the table, you know, how they eat together with people that, it becomes, I call it, one of the countries most fought-over foods.


Aaron— Pretty much every social reformer, diet guru, health expert, military war planner— you name it— wanted to change Americas’ bread, or its bread habits in some way so it becomes this really fun great way to explore our country’s long, turbulent, weird love affair with trying to save the world by getting people to eat differently.

Caryn— Well, I found it fascinating because a lot of what you talk about was during my lifetime. I’m 54 now and I lived through a lot of this stuff and was kind of like, my eyes were popping out and I was laughing and all kinds of different things, I had no clue while I was going through it what was really going on.

Aaron— Yeah, you lived through the cusp moment, I think. Your early formative years were the cusp moment where industrial white bread goes from being something that builds the body twelve ways, you know, a sign of responsible parenting— it’s a good thing to get your kids, it’s a patriotic thing, it’s a sign of national strength—to, by the time you were, I guess, graduating from college it started to become a symbol of poverty and poor choices and ill health.

Caryn— Uh huh, yep, and I remember my college years when the whole, whole wheat, whole grain thing was becoming hip, and, well, it was the food of the Hippies but it was also, becoming more popular and, that was where I was going, I was more into the whole foods, but I had no idea how the whole white bread scene came about so it was really fascinating to read about it.

Aaron— Well, what was really striking to me was that all that food counterculture movement that brought us lines like, “The whiter your bread, the quicker your dead,” in the 1960s, what I had, I was totally unprepared for what I went into researching the book was at all is simply reviving bread controversies that happened much earlier in US history. That line actually, “The whiter your bread the quicker your dead,” which a lot of people in the 60’s counterculture used, was actually taken from a radio health advisor named Dr. Clark, who, broadcast in Chicago during the 1920s another period when there was a lots of concern about whether bread was healthy, what kind of bread was healthy; those kinds of questions. So, this is a perennial thing that comes up over and over again in US history.

Caryn— One of the things that is very clear to me is that we make a lot of decisions and we learn a lot from available media and so 100 years ago, whatever it was, people didn’t know much about calories and vitamins, you wrote about, and yet they started to learn a little bit from government information and from some propaganda material and whatever information was put in front of them and it really hasn’t changed today except that we’re inundated now with television and radio, Internet and people may know a little bit more about nutrition. I think they have some vocabulary words, I don’t think they know what they really mean, but it’s interesting how we’ve learned, and I don’t even want to use the word “learned” because we’re not really learning what’s good for us, we’re learning what society wants us to eat.

Aaron— Right, are we learning more about what makes us healthy or are we taking in tons more information, competing perspectives on that question. And also, it feels sometimes, this is a story that I traced through the book because it comes out really well in the bread story, is, we’ve kind of gone through a moment where health and our ideas of health have become detached from actual health. And are…have almost become more like a secular religion: where the pursuit of the perfect body; the perfect outward appearance, regardless of ones internal health, or what one has to do to get that perfect body— whether it’s bulimia or obsessive exercising or, or whatever. That has become a kind of – it’s almost become synonymous with moral virtue. And there’s a way in which I, and some other historians, call that the emergence of healthism, this kind of pursuit of health as a secular religion. And there’s a lot of questions about whether or not makes us healthier.

Caryn— Exactly. I know that I’ve been accused of sounding rather religious when I’ve been proselytizing my beliefs about food, but, I’m really promoting my point of view of how I feel about healthy food because I just want people to feel good; I want to eliminate pain and suffer and I want people to not only look good on the outside but on the inside.

Aaron— Right, there’s an important lesson there about reconnecting our notions, reconnecting our ideas about health to actually, what makes us healthier as opposed to what helps us conform to a particular moralized idea about of what we should be eating, a particular moralized idea of how we should look.

Caryn— So there are a couple…there a few main points that you’d brought up in the book, I wanted to touch on some of them. One of them is this idea about the food availability for the wealthy versus the poor, and how white bread played into that and we see that continually, even today when I’m talking to people about eating healthy food, many of us are accused of just talking to the privileged because a lot of people who are…have compromised financial situations don’t have the opportunity to choose.

Aaron— Yeah, that’s right, and I think that’s going to be the big…I wrote this book in many ways, even though it’s a history, I’m very much part of what you could call the alternative food movement, right, I’m a, you know, a backyard chicken raising, farmers market shopping, cheese making; I like to pickle things, I worked on a humane sustainable cattle ranch that I’m now part owner of, so I’m really part of this movement and have been for 20 years, but at the same time I’ve really started to grow skeptical about, a lot of the attitudes and orientations of the movement particularly the way in which the movement has generally kind of adopted a perspective of, you know, If you only knew what I knew, what I know about how bad your food is, you would change. Kind of idea that, I have the truth, the truth about your food and why are you so dumb that you haven’t figured this out— or — how can I help you, the less privileged person figure this out— or —get access to good food. And I think that there’s some good things that have come out of that, but it doesn’t, for me, do justice to the kind of complex anxieties and aspiration and habits and economic pressures that really determine what we eat. So that’s really where this book came from. I was looking around at what’s available out there, in terms of information about food and I was actually quite surprised. You know, I started thinking, well, we don’t have enough information about how broken our food system is. But it turns out there are tons of books and articles and documentaries— all kinds of great stuff, about how broken our food system is, the high environmental, health, social costs of our food system. And they often kind of give a very simplistic, consumer-based solution to that, like, you know, vote with your fork, buy local, and it didn’t really feel satisfying to me. I wanted to something a little bit more, I wanted to know how people have tried to change the food system in the past. What they’ve succeeded at, what they’ve failed at, what kind of traps they’ve fallen into. White bread turns out to be a great way to look at that because, as I’ve said before, it’s this incredibly fought over food so we can see all these different movements and food gurus. In the end the book seems to be not so much about bread, it’s very much about bread, but it’s also really the story about all of these food gurus and diet experts who felt that if we could just get Americans to eat the right bread.

Caryn— That’s right, the world would be a peaceful, beautiful place.

Aaron— Everything would be fixed and I take a really sympathetic approach to this. I have a lot of affection for these food reformers and what they’ve done considering myself part of that but at the same time I’m very critical of that “ if you only knew” and so what I try to do is paint more complex, I try to encourage the alternative food movement to take into account the complex anxieties and aspirations that drive our food system because as you say we have a very polarized food system that produces really high quality food mostly for the wealthy and consuming that helps them feel superior to the rest of the world and then the food system provides garbage for the rest of us.

Caryn— Yep.

Aaron— In the history of battles over white bread I think suggests that changing this mess is going to require more than just voting with our forks or a kind of charity approach that helps the “less privileged” gain access to better food. It’s going to require focusing on the structures of power, really, that make the food system what it is, basically incredible concentration in big food. Big industrial food is a highly concentrated, highly powerful sector of our economy and second wages and inequality. I think the food desert thing that’s been coming up a bunch lately is really telling.

Caryn— Yeah, absolutely.

Aaron— A lot of focus on, oh, how can we get grocery stores into these poor neighborhoods. And it seems kind of a red herring to me. Because when you look at it, and all the studies show that if people in those neighborhoods had the income, grocery stores would locate there.

Caryn— Yeah.

Aaron— So it’s really, at fundamental base, it’s a question of wages and inequality. Not about city planning.

Caryn— Yeah we never really look at the underlying cause of problems.

Aaron— Yeah, and this is something that we shouldn’t feel alone in. Because really, the history of white bread, and battles over white bread, show that this is a trap that food reformers have fallen in over an over again.

Caryn— Well, I think it’s so important that you’ve presented the history because I’m one of those people who have read the books and seen the documentaries and I’m a part of this movement and conversation, but the history really gave me some good perspective. And I thought it was amusing because I was reading your book, this past week, when I was in Costa Rica and I was mixing a lot with Gringos who have left the United States to live a different kind of life in Costa Rica and many of them were talking about all kinds of conspiracy theories that were formed by the government and how we have to really be wary and the whole system is going to fall apart, etc. All of a sudden, reading this history, I understood, to a certain degree, how we got to this place and, I understand that we’re all a part of how it got here.

Aaron— Mm hmm.

Caryn— You know it’s not some crazy conspiracy theory, it’s history and there are lots of reasons why white bread came to where it, to its prevalence, because you mentioned in the early 1900’s; the late 1800’s, there were all of these hygienic issues and people started mass-producing food and there weren’t regulations and there were all kinds of problems related to using poor quality materials and, dirty conditions and we needed regulation for that, and, as a result white bread appeared.

Aaron— Yeah, it’s a…and that story really gets at the kind of…that’s one thing that I’m trying to…in this, that sympathetic yet critical look at food reformers, I’m trying to show that there’s always this ambiguity and unintended outcomes when we try to change the food system. Something that we need to be more aware of and the story, the early story of industrial white bread is perfect for that because you’re right, industrial white bread, the factory produced super fluffy loaves, come into our world in the 1910’s, during a moment of great concern over food safety. You know, is our food safe? Very much like today in fact the line, I want to know where my food comes from, the classic local-vore question was actually asked by many, many consumer in the 1900s/1910’s, and what was really interesting is that I found that, those anxieties about food cleanliness and bread cleanliness, in particular, got wrapped-up in fears about race and the direction society was heading and fears about new immigration. It’s really interesting, from about the 1880’s to the 1920’s, roughly, America goes through this, you could call it, a moral panic over bread safety. There were newspaper headlines that were reading, “Germs Lurk In Your Bread!” “Dangerous Bakeries Threaten The City!” Even mother’s bread, bread made at home by mothers, was condemned by many dietary experts by as a potential biohazard. (16:48.22) And there’s this fear of contaminated bread and it’s really bizarre to read about it because I’m looking through all the documents and the testimonies and I can’t really find any evidence that bread was actually making anyone sick.

Caryn— Mm hmm.

Aaron— So, what’s going on here, right? And, when you look closely at the testimonies and hearings and reports on the bread problem you realize that it had become impossible to separate food fears about unsafe bread from racial fears about the supposedly dirty, scary, immigrants sweating away in small bakeries, as well as gender and class anxieties about poor immigrant mothers who were baking bread at home yet wouldn’t follow scientific experts advice about proper modern diet and proper modern child rearing. And the amidst this, gleaming white loaves produced in shining white factories full of stainless steel and beautiful surfaces that was advertised as this bread that was untouched by human hands, this offered consumers a reassuring sense of safety.

Caryn— Mm hmm.

Aaron— These were sleek edible versions of an industrial utopia.

Caryn— Well, when I’m around a clean kitchen versus a dirty kitchen I know which one I would prefer to make my food in.

Aaron— Right, although I think we go a little far on the hygiene, those questions sometimes, but the main thing here is the way in which our legitimate fears about food safety/food hygiene overflow into more social questionable anxieties about people and class and race, and that’s something that I think we still, we still very much see today. I try not to do this very much but, sometimes when I write a new magazine article or do a radio interview like this I’ll look at the comments afterwards, it’s amazing…(Caryn laughs) yeah, not a good idea…

Caryn— Mm hmm… definitely not a good idea.

Aaron—But it’s amazing to see the level of acceptable discrimination and vitriol that people are willing to level at people who eat industrial white bread. The scorn, the intensity of feeling that it brings up, makes me realize that we are talking about way more than taste or health.

Caryn— Yeah, that’s very unfortunate. But back on the sanitary hygienic theme.

Aaron— Mm hmm.

Caryn— We have a lot of issues today where we’re talking about E-coli and Salmonella and listeria and all these things and we definitely need regulation in food manufacturing and certain standards because things happen when we start to mass produce anything. And ship things.

Aaron— Oh, absolutely. Yes, and I think that’s a big lesson of that history regarding bread is that we have to be very careful about how we stru—, we clearly need those food safety legislation.

Caryn— Mm hmm.

Aaron— In fact, the pure food movements of the 1900’s, a tremendous social movement, sparked by, among other things, the book, The Jungle, and other kind of muck raking reporting about food safety really accomplished a lot in terms of, the national, the federal food safety laws that are still very the heart of our food safety law today. As well as lots of state and local, food safety laws and those are really important. But we also have to be careful because they can sometimes end up reinforcing the power of big concentrated food industry giants. If, when they are applied evenly across the board, and one thing that a lot of the legislation about bread safety ended up favoring – the big industrial bread factory and putting the small ones out of business.

Caryn— Right.

Aaron— So it’s important to think carefully about how we scale our food safety legislation.

Caryn— Yeah, well it’s interesting, I know that you’ve brought a lot of this information to current day. And I was reading, I think it was last week in the New Yorker a story about unpasteurized milk with this group in California called “Rawesome.” I’m a vegan. I personally don’t promote any kind of milk consumption, raw, pasteurized or otherwise, but it’s interesting because there seems to be a lot of similarities in the story: people are producing this unpasteurized milk illegally because the rules don’t support what they want.

Aaron— Right.

Caryn— And it really brings up some interesting questions, can we really…do we have the freedom to eat what we want? And where does that go with protecting and getting food that isn’t going to hurt us because it has some…it’s an interesting question that I don’t have the answer for.

Aaron— Yeah, I mean I think that the history of the battle over bread shows over and over again that, that if you focus on, okay which food should I be eating? Should I be eating the pasteurized milk or the unpasteurized milk, we miss the point.

Caryn— Mm hmm.

Aaron— And the point is, we think about, what are the economic pressures on consumers? And the power relations in the larger industry that allow our food, basically allow a few companies to set the terms of how we eat, and that is what I think we need to focus on rather than necessarily the specifics of any particular food choice. There’s a great, actually, cause since we’re so interested in the way the past is very much present in today, there’s a great story, which is about Sylvester Graham.

Caryn— Mm hmm.

Aaron- Who was a, he was a major food guru of the 1830’s and the 1840’s— I guess we really only think of him today because his followers named the Graham Cracker after him?

Caryn— Yes. Yes.

Aaron— Right? But he was actually a quite interesting figure, he was a probably the father of Vegetarianism in the United States.

Caryn— Mm hmm.

Aaron— Also he had some really interesting, he was one of the very first food reformers to grow concerned about the fact that urban folks were losing connection to the production of their food.

Caryn— Mm hmm.

Aaron— And wanting to talk about the importance of local agriculture, he has some really interesting ideas. But what really strikes me in history is how he became a famous food guru. And it dates to 1831, and he’s pretty much an unknown food guru; he goes to New York in the middle of a massive cholera epidemic that’s sweeping up and down the east coast.

Caryn— Mm hmm.

Aaron— Primarily affecting poor communities: Irish, African American communities, in New York. But then it’s starting to spill over and affect wealthier people as well, and so the wealthier people are, you know, “What’s going on here!” And so Sylvester Graham gives a series of speeches about why the poor are getting cholera. And these speeches are wildly enthusiastically received by east coast elites. And basically his speech boils down to: the poor lack the moral backbone to make the right choices about food; they’re eating too much white bread; they’re eating too much meat; drinking too much alcohol and therefore, because of their moral depravity, and they’re getting cholera as a result and then that’s putting the rest of us into danger. So what we need to do is give the poor more moral fiber by giving the poor more dietary fiber.

Caryn— Ha, ha, ha, ha, if only that were true.

Aaron— Yeah, exactly.

Aaron- The important kind of proponent of a whole wheat diet, pure water, and fresh local vegetables. And there’s like, that’s a nice, you know, I’m alright with that, right?

Caryn— Yeah.

Aaron— What’s wrong with that? But the problem is that he was so wrapped up in his idea that food choice, individual food choice was the cause of larger social problems and also the way to cure larger social problems that he misses the root causes of why people in New York were getting cholera. They were, the poor were getting cholera because of grueling conditions in sweatshops, and low wages, over crowding in tenements, the corrupt governments inability to provide sanitation, and also profiteering by vendors of clean water. So basically he took some questions about how we organize the government, how we think about regulation, how we think about the market, and he turned them into questions about individual food choice. And this kind of quick and easy, “We need to help those people eat differently.” And when I read that I was just, I was dumbstruck because I realized if you substitute obesity for cholera—

Caryn— Mm hmm

Aaron— We’re having the same exact conversation today.

Caryn— It is all very interesting. I wanted to touch on, we just have a few more minutes left. I wanted to mention a few more things I thought were pretty interesting in the book. Thiamine, enriching flour with thiamine…that was really interesting to me, and where are we today with that?

Aaron— That’s a huge piece of the industrial white bread story because, by the end of the 1930’s, white bread was still very much the shining icon of industrial progress, and good citizenship, responsible choices. But, there was starting to be all of these critics lining up to attack white bread as being too modern, bereft of nutrients, you know, too pure, too clean. There’s a famous saying about how white bread, playing off the old idea that industrial white bread was a pure safe food, they said that white bread is so clean now that, even a bug can’t live off of it.

Caryn— Haha! There’s nothing in it.

Aaron— Right, and there’s nothing in it. So all these critics are lining up in thirties and with the war looming in the horizon, US military planners were starting to get very concerned about America’s ability to fight, because the depression had inflicted a terrible toll on the nutritional status of the country. People were dying of malnutrition, suffering extreme vitamin deficiency all over the country. As much as we’d like to romanticize the way depression era cooks thriftily used real ingredients…

Caryn— Mm hmm.

Aaron—…it was a bad time nutritionally for the United States. And the military planners were really concerned because they knew Americans were eating this industrial fluffy white bread three times a day, getting thirty percent of their daily calories from it, if not more, at that moment, and how are we going to be fit to fight, basically. There’s even this moment where war planners are surveying the field of the upcoming and they’re looking, “Well, look at the Russians, they eat a hearty rye bread.”

Caryn— Mm hmm.

Aaron— “And the Germans eat dark bread. And the French eat fluffy white bread and look what happened to them.”

Caryn— Okay, so we need to come to the ending of the story because we only have a minute or two.

Aaron— Oh, sure. So anyway adding all these synthetic vitamins to white bread saved white bread from itself. And restored it to a position of a seeming like a patriotic strong food that can build a body twelve ways.

Caryn— It’s just an amazing story. And that now we’re coming back to the importance of whole, minimally-process food, so it will be interesting what the next hundred years brings us.

Aaron— Back and forth, yeah.

Caryn— Well, thank you very much for joining me on It’s All About Food. I recommend this book highly. I really enjoyed it. And anyone that’s interested in where we are with food today, this is an important book to read.

Aaron— Ah, thank you! Thanks for having me on the show.

Caryn— I’m Caryn Hartglass, you’ve been listening to, It’s All About Food. Please go to my website, ResponsibleEatingAndLiving.com for more helpful information and have a very delicious week.

Transcribed 1/18/2013 by Gary De Mattei

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