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White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf [Hardcover]

Aaron Bobrow-Strain
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

March 6 2012
How did white bread, once an icon of American progress, become “white trash”? In this lively history of bakers, dietary crusaders, and social reformers, Aaron Bobrow-Strain shows us that what we think about the humble, puffy loaf says a lot about who we are and what we want our society to look like.
 
White Bread teaches us that when Americans debate what one should eat, they are also wrestling with larger questions of race, class, immigration, and gender. As Bobrow-Strain traces the story of bread, from the first factory loaf to the latest gourmet pain au levain, he shows how efforts to champion “good food” reflect dreams of a better society—even as they reinforce stark social hierarchies.
 
In the early twentieth century, the factory-baked loaf heralded a bright new future, a world away from the hot, dusty, “dirty” bakeries run by immigrants. Fortified with vitamins, this bread was considered the original “superfood” and even marketed as patriotic—while food reformers painted white bread as a symbol of all that was wrong with America.
 
The history of America’s one-hundred-year-long love-hate relationship with white bread reveals a lot about contemporary efforts to change the way we eat. Today, the alternative food movement favors foods deemed ethical and environmentally correct to eat, and fluffy industrial loaves are about as far from slow, local, and organic as you can get. Still, the beliefs of early twentieth-century food experts and diet gurus, that getting people to eat a certain food could restore the nation’s decaying physical, moral, and social fabric, will sound surprisingly familiar. Given that open disdain for “unhealthy” eaters and discrimination on the basis of eating habits grow increasingly acceptable, White Bread is a timely and important examination of what we talk about when we talk about food.

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White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf + Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat
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Review

“This terrific book does for the humble loaf what Mark Kurlansky does for cod.” —Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved
 
“This is entertaining history and an example of food studies in action.” —Marion Nestle, Food Politics blog
 
“As Aaron Bobrow-Strain shows ... the lowly loaf is so much more than the sum of its simple parts.” —Jesse Rhodes, Smithsonian’s Food and Think blog


“I was hooked a few pages in, and devoured White Bread cover to cover.”—Whole Grains Council

“Whatever you think of white bread, its history is full of surprises. And Bobrow-Strain shares this history with wit, style, and imagination. This is a richly researched and cleverly told story.”—PopMatters.com

"This book provides an enlightening take on bread's social and cultural value. Bobrow-Strain blends academic rigor with a friendly, insightful tone, making White Bread the best thing since...well, never mind."—Serious Eats

"Written by a seasoned baker, White Bread is both an epic, often funny history of the industrial loaf and a wise commentary on today's polarized food politics. Tear into it."—Susanne Freidberg, author of Fresh: A Perishable History
 
“In clear prose that is both muscular and nuanced, Aaron Bobrow-Strain bravely leads us into the belly of the corporate beast to confront the consummate processed food, archetype of everything not whole, crunchy, or virtuous. We emerge with a much better understanding of the staff of life, along with startling insights into our political, economic, military, and environmental crises.”—Warren Belasco, Author of Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took on the Food Industry

“Aaron Bobbrow-Strain has accomplished a difficult task: White Bread is imaginative, scholarly, yet totally accessible. Any reader who cherishes bread and all the issues it touches as a powerful social and aspirational metaphor will love this book.”—Peter Reinhart, baker and author of Artisan Breads Everyday

"A really good read"–Mother Earth News

"
Highly recommended. General and undergraduate collections and up."—Choice Magazine

About the Author

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


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Most helpful customer reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
By fastreader TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
As the author explains, he had a major task just finding documentation about a food item that we all mostly take for granted and has been around for what seems like forever. He didn't find other books about white bread, there are not extensive newspaper coverage or scholarly papers, but there is definitely an interesting story here.

As with many items bread was just sitting in the background of our consciousness as it was in plain site but other than the odd hiccup it was a benign object.

As with many other products industrialization of the production process pushed this to the forefront. The Ward family created a demand for bread produced "Untouched by Human Hands". This was in the 1920's and 30's and just like today we didn't know we wanted it until the advertising told us we did.

With an ever increasing spread of their bread factories the Wards just about created a USA monopoly but were stopped at the final stages when they tried to merge their three companies into one controlling company. Kudos to the government officials who figured out what could have happened if the merger had occurred. We dodged that potential problem.

The next major step was sliced bread. What was a menial task of cutting loafs of bread now became a mechanical operation and again the public demanded something they didn't even know they wanted. Bakers had to make changes to their processes so that the loaves baked could be sliced by the new machines.

And the final process covered in the book is enriched bread which was an attempt to get the general public to eat better through the introduction of vitamins in bread.
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Amazon.com: 3.7 out of 5 stars  16 reviews
27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating story of White Bread - Innovations - Benefits March 11 2012
By fastreader - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
As the author explains, he had a major task just finding documentation about a food item that we all mostly take for granted and has been around for what seems like forever. He didn't find other books about white bread, there are not extensive newspaper coverage or scholarly papers, but there is definitely an interesting story here.

As with many items bread was just sitting in the background of our consciousness as it was in plain site but other than the odd hiccup it was a benign object.

As with many other products industrialization of the production process pushed this to the forefront. The Ward family created a demand for bread produced "Untouched by Human Hands". This was in the 1920's and 30's and just like today we didn't know we wanted it until the advertising told us we did.

With an ever increasing spread of their bread factories the Wards just about created a USA monopoly but were stopped at the final stages when they tried to merge their three companies into one controlling company. Kudos to the government officials who figured out what could have happened if the merger had occurred. We dodged that potential problem.

The next major step was sliced bread. What was a menial task of cutting loafs of bread now became a mechanical operation and again the public demanded something they didn't even know they wanted. Bakers had to make changes to their processes so that the loaves baked could be sliced by the new machines.

And the final process covered in the book is enriched bread which was an attempt to get the general public to eat better through the introduction of vitamins in bread.

While the public demanded that white bread be super white this presented a problem to producers as flour becomes whiter as it ages however you can't have warehouses full of flour sitting around whitening at their leisure so the chemical whitening process was introduced.

Today we have the ongoing discussion of white bread versus whole grain bread; bespoke bakeries versus multinational producers. Bread has been around for millennia and will continue into the future. Who knows what will rise as a future public demand of bread.

A highly entertaining book with a good representation of the issues and the players involved in white bread.
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars You may never think of bread in quite the same way again. March 22 2012
By Paul Tognetti - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
"Modern industrialism has ruined American bread...It's so soft and spongy you can contract it with your hands, mold it any shape you have a mind to....The soft fluffy center is like a mouthful of powder puff. The more you eat it the hungrier you get. This is what America's staff of life has come to."

Such were the observations of Christian Science Monitor critic Horace Reynolds in the 1950's about the bland industrial white bread that most Americans were consuming in those days. Did you ever wonder how the American people came to be hooked on mass-produced white bread? Likewise, would it ever occur to you that the story of white bread might actually be a subject worthy of a serious book? Aaron Bobrow-Strain, an associate professor of politics at Whitman College in Washington and an avid baker himself studied the matter and decided that indeed there was a book here and that he was the guy to write it. "White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf" is the fascinating tale of the spectacular rise and steady decline of mass-produced white bread in America. It turns out to be a much more complicated story than I ever imagined. "White Bread" is about the American people's dreams of purity, naturalness, scientific control, perfect health and even national security. This is a story that evolved over the entire 20th century and frankly is still evolving today. Much to my surprise and delight I could not put this book down.

The dawn of the 20th century found a large segment of the American people becoming increasingly concerned about the safety and purity of the food supply. There had been a dramatic influx of immigrants from Europe and in order to eke out a living many of these folks operated tiny bakeries in the basement of their homes. For the most part these crude bakeries were hot, dusty and dirty. As a result, many middle and upper class Americans began to question the sanitary conditions of these businesses and clamored for the government to take appropriate action to protect the health and well-being of its citizens. The prevailing political climate of the period would ultimately result in the passage by Congress of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. In theory this was legislation designed to reassure the American public that the food and medicines they were consuming had been thoroughly tested and were safe to use. In such a suspicious environment people were searching for products that were literally untouched by human hands. According to the author "the appeal of modern bread lay in the way it resonated with a growing cultural embrace of science and industrial expertise as a buttress of rapidly escalating fears of impurity and contagion." Ward Baking Company was the first to figure out a way to mass produce inexpensive "white" bread. Just a few short years after setting up shop in New York Ward Baking produced roughly one of every five loaves of bread sold in the city. It was an amazing success story. The popularity of industrial white bread would continue to grow with the introduction of automatically sliced bread in 1928. This was a godsend to the beleaguered housewives of that era. Then during World War II "enriched" white bread injected with synthetic vitamins would be introduced allegedly to help the country "withstand the stresses and strains of war". According to the U.S. Public Health Service: "The time has come when it is the patriotic duty of every American to eat enriched bread. Don't buy plain white bread." The popularity of industrial white bread would continue through the 1950's when the average American would consume between 6-8 slices per day.

They say that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Although opposition to bland industrial white bread had been bubbling under in pockets of this country for decades it finally came to the surface in a big way during the 1960's. To the emerging "counterculture" white bread came to symbolize just about everything that was wrong with the establishment. Industrial white bread was viewed as "bland, homogeneous and suburban." Now I do not agree with many of the counterculture's lifestyle choices but I will be the first to admit that it was these folks who were largely responsible for changing the way American viewed their bread. All of a sudden baking bread at home was "cool" again and the darker and more robust the recipe the better. These days we Americans are much more likely to prefer bread that is locally baked, organic and loaded with dietary fiber. In the past few decades thousands of locally-owned bread bakeries have sprung up around the country offering a wide array of tasty and healthy products. It has been a remarkable turnaround in attitude and few can dispute that whole wheat and whole grain products are much more nutritious than mass-produced white bread. Still, as Aaron Bobrow-Strain points out a number of times in the book the kind of bread you eat says a lot about your economic and social status. Whole grain and artisan breads are much more expensive than white bread and thus are simply out of the reach of millions of low income people.

As I indicated earlier there is a whole lot more to "White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf" than merely the history of industrial white bread. Time and space will not permit me to detail all of the fascinating issues that Aaron Bobrow-Strain explores in this book. You will discover why crucial sociological issues such as race, class, immigration and gender have played and continue to play a pivotal role in this narrative. Meanwhile, you will also learn the critical role that bread played in helping American military strategists ward off the threat of communism in countries like France, Greece and Mexico. I apologize for the pun but there really is an awful lot to chew on in this book. "White Bread" turns out to be a very well-written and exceptionally well-researched book about a very offbeat subject. I learned an awful lot and I appreciate that. Very highly recommended!
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A little beat around the bush Feb. 4 2013
By Stephanie Crocker - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I was really engaged during the first part of the book, but towards the middle, I felt like the author rambled a bit so it was difficult to keep my interest. Some of the chapters seemed to begin with one topic and end with another. The book was more focused on the social history (which makes sense since it's the subtitle), than any of the health aspects of white bread. I thought it was interesting that the author didn't mention the impact of steel milling on the processing of bread as having a huge impact on the nutrition. Also, I thought it was interesting that the author didn't cover new strains of "white wheat" (wheat with a lighter bran layer) which have been around for the last several years. Being in the industry, I felt I had to power through the book; but I found I lost interest at the end. I thought it was strange that he ended the book with a chapter on fermentation, which, although it does apply to yeast, was a little far off left field since most of the book had been focusing on the social history. I thought a more appropriate ending would be to postulize the potential fate of the white loaf. It seems the author really only was able to differentiate between a white or wheat loaf, and really, there's a lot more to the story of white bread.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing July 22 2013
By Hudson Joe - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
Disappointing

Not a particularly pleasant read. More of a position paper and thesis. Worthwhile for those who want such insight. Light on the anecdotal history that I often enjoy in the genera.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars White Bread: A Social History May 10 2013
By M. Reynard - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This was an informative book in many ways. For instance, I never had heard of "white trash parties" before this book. White Bread is something I used to feed to the geese when I was little, not something I ever ate myself. And in fact, it was always considered to be a "poorer" type of food; we ate wheat bread at home (and the brand was probably no nutritionally better than the white bread out there). So to have this book bring the social history of the bread into light was a different way of looking at things.

Bobrow-Strain takes the white loaf and leads you through time showing its sociological impacts in America. He also explores its use on the world market and how different innovations were used when making the bread and turning it into a machine driven process. There is some description of additives used to make the bread fluffy and light, the enrichments added to the bread, and the general feeling of its health benefits as well.

The general topic of this book was how white bread shaped the United States and also shaped the world. I have to say, I realize this was a social history, but I think the author was stretching a little bit when he tied in breads importance to some foreign policies and other matters. I don't doubt it was a contributing factor, but I don't think it held the kind of importance he claimed it to have. He also didn't really explore the people using the bread except to say that it's shifted several times from being a poor persons food to a rich persons food. I wish he had maybe included some interviews with real people and their thoughts on the food now to provide the contrast with the advertisements he quotes for the past decades.

The book has a lot of interesting facts. Like the Bimbo Bread company that is Mexican based yet owns a great deal of the large bakery factories in the United States. I hadn't heard of them either, but I also don't buy a lot of bread as I prefer to make my own. But the way the information was presented was not very cohesive. The author jumps all around in this book and doesn't ever complete a chapter with a single thought. It just sort of meanders here and there without purpose sometimes. And I actually found the book a bit boring in places. Especially the latter half of the book. The first part of the book was filled with enough interesting facts about Graham (yes the one who invented the Graham cracker) and other parts of history and of the making of brad itself that it was more of a pleasure to read. But when he started getting into wheat production after the wars and the foreign policy, it just kind of lost my interest. Don't get me wrong, talk about ingredients was there, but it was so interspersed with other things that you could almost blink and miss it while reading.

I'm not really sure how to classify this book. Maybe social history is a good name for it, but someone who enjoys more foodie types of books might get discouraged with the lack of actual talking about ingredients and strains and overwhelmed with all the political statistics. But a person who enjoys more general history might get more out of this book. Myself, well I fall into the first type of people, this is a solid three stars from me.

White Bread: A Social History
Copyright 2012
257 pages

Review by M. Reynard 2013
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