Book Review: White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, Aaron Bobrow-Strain (2012)

June 7th, 2012 2:02 pm by Kelly Garbato

American Dreamz (of “Good” Food)

four out of five stars

Note: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.

When is bread just bread? After reading White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf by Aaron Bobrow-Strain (2012), you’ll realize that the answer to this deceptively simple question is likely “almost never.”

Tied as it is to issues of class, race, gender, and nativism, the history of bread – which types of bread are considered the healthiest, which are the most patriotic and “American,” what methods of preparation are considered safest, which loaves are most valued by the affluent, etc. – reflects changing social mores as much as (or perhaps even more so than) it does evolving culinary tastes. Focusing on recent American history – the past 150 years, give or take a few decades – Bobrow-Strain doesn’t so much trace the history of bread as he does examine how trends in bread consumption reflect deeper cultural ideas, fears, and ideals. Accordingly, the book is divided into six primary chapters, each dedicated to a different “bread dreams,” namely: purity and contagion; control and abundance; health and discipline; strength and defense; peace and security; and resistance and status.

The mass production of (the titular) white bread in factories, for example, was initially celebrated as a safe, scientific, and superior way of delivering bread to the masses, in a time when women were otherwise tied to the kitchen and many small, family-owned bakeries were run from unsanitary basement kitchens characterized by brutal working conditions. Now derided as “white trash” food – ironically, in part due to its success and ubiquity – industrial white bread was once considered a healthier, more sanitary, even elite alternative to home-baked, locally bought, and whole wheat breads. Oh, how the times have changed! Or not. What comes around goes around – America’s current love of freshly made artisan breads harkens back to the 1800s and earlier, before bread was made by robots and procured in giant grocery chains.

So too has the maxim of “knowing where your food comes from” changed with the times. Prior to the industrial revolution, this meant getting to know your local bread baker (and, more importantly, his kitchen) – or, preferably, having mom bake all the family’s bread from scratch. (No small feat when one considers that bread has long been a dietary staple: from the 1850s though the 1950s, Americans got an average of 25-30% of their calories from bread. While this figure began to dip in the 1960s, it tends to rise in times of war and recession, particularly among the poor.) Later on, “knowing where your food comes from” was presented as a benefit of buying industrial white bread produced by faceless bakery conglomerates – an idea that seems laughable to the modern consumer.

White Bread is an engaging look at a foodstuff that, until now, hadn’t received its proper due. Recent condemnations of industrial bread aside, historical and scholarly accounts of bread’s history have mostly been lacking; with this engaging, meticulously researched, and passionate tome, Bobrow-Strain fills in the void. Especially useful to food activists, the lessons found in White Bread are important ones:

Thanks to an explosion of politically charged food writing and reporting that began in the late 1990s, members of the alternative food movement have access to a great deal of information about why and how the food system needs to change. Much less is known about the successes and failures of such efforts in the past. Even less is known about the rich world of attachments, desires, aspirations, and anxieties that define America’s relation to the food system as it is.

The history of bread in America provides countless illuminating examples of how national crusades for “better” food (however you define it: safer, healthier, cheaper, etc.), while well-intentioned, often draw upon and feed into harmful stereotypes and work to perpetuate the very oppression and inequalities they seek to eradicate. Food must be taken in context: everything’s related. Food justice, feminism, worker’s rights, racial equality, immigration, environmentalism (not to mention, nonhuman animals and veganism) – intersectionality is the word of the day.

So why the 4-star rating? Exhausted by the bald speciesism found in so many books written by non-vegan environmentalists (culminating in the particularly awful Gas Drilling and the Fracking of a Marriage), I promised myself that I’d stop requesting such items from Library Thing, no matter how much they might interest me. While I expected that meat might make an appearance in White Bread – a status symbol, the consumption of animal flesh has long been linked with class, gender, and race – I didn’t anticipate that the author would be a former intern on a “kinder,” “gentler,” “sustainable” beef ranch. Bobrow-Strain peppers the book with anecdotes about his time as a purveyor of “happy meat,” grass-fed beef, and raw milk – all of which is presented as a “radical” new way of looking at food. Uh, yeah, not so much. Exploiting animals? That’s just business as usual. But rethinking who is on our plate, and why? Now that’s extreme. (Such bold proclamations bring to mind Red Lobster’s latest ad campaign: “We Sea Food Differently.” If by “differently” you mean “exactly the same.”)

And yet, the closest we get to any mention of veganism is Sylvester Graham, the 19th century Presbyterian minister and food reformer who advocated vegetarianism, temperance, and a return to “natural” foods as a means of achieving physical and moral superiority. Unfortunately, his vision of a simpler life was predicated on the genocide of indigenous peoples and the enforcement of rigid gender roles; and, in blaming the poor for their ills and ignoring larger social structures, his philosophy was classist as well. Not that I blame Bobrow-Strain for presenting this critique of “the father of American vegetarianism.” Quite the contrary: it’s essential for vegan activists to recognize, acknowledge, and overcome past wrongs – many of which are still in operation today. But in all his waxing sentimental about animal exploitation – on a book ostensibly written about bread – it’s especially irritating that an oblique discussion of Graham’s vegetarianism is the best – indeed, the only – counter to the oppression, violence, and waste that is animal agriculture. Slow, local, organic, and healthy foods – all receive their due. And veganism? Apparently that’s so radical a notion it’s not even worth mentioning. (But yeah, vegans are the ones always shoving their opinions down the throats of unsuspecting omnivores. Riiiight.)

While I think there’s a lot that vegans can take away from this book, the speciesism is at once asinine and infuriating. If you think you can handle it, by all means.

Read with: Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism by Melanie Joy (2010).

2012-05-08 - White Bread - 0002

A page from White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf
by Aaron Bobrow-Strain (2012)
Chapter 6: How White Bread Became White Trash; Dreams of Resistance and Status
“You’re scum, you’re fucking white bread.”
– David Mamet, Glengarry Glen Ross

——————————

(This review is also available on Library Thing, Amazon, and Goodreads. Please click on over and vote me helpful if you’re so inclined, mkay? I have a sneaking suspicion that this piece won’t prove especially popular on Amazon.)

Be Sociable, Share!

Filed under , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply