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

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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.

257 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2012

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About the author

Aaron Bobrow-Strain

4 books25 followers
Aaron Bobrow-Strain is a professor of politics at Whitman College, where he teaches courses dealing with food, immigration, and the U.S.-Mexico border. His writing has appeared in Believer, The Chronicle of Higher Education Review, Salon, and Gastronomica. Along with The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez: A Border Story, he is the author of White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf and Intimate Enemies: Landowners, Power, and Violence in Chiapas. In the 1990s, he worked on the U.S.-Mexico border as an activist and educator. He is a founding member of the Walla Walla Immigrant Rights Coalition in Washington State.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 141 reviews
Profile Image for Always Pouting.
575 reviews761 followers
January 10, 2020
A book about the history of white bread in America and the cultural connotations that inevitably followed it and the way those connotations change over time. From the late 1800's to the current day white bread has changed it's associations constantly with different scientific discoveries and cultural changes. I personally really enjoyed this book because grains are ubiquitous and in the West that means bread. All food has meaning attached to it because of the importance of food to survival and so bread is a really good choice when talking about cultural shifts and feelings in America. The author was very understanding of both sides of the argument and brought up the pros and cons of all the alternative movements he discussed. The book talks through out about the new organic and natural food movement as well which is topical and I think the author did a really good job explaining the problems inherent in it. A lot of the people upset about this book seem to be awfully defensive about the authors acknowledging of the subjugation of women and minorities through food politics but it's a literally book on social commentary and food has been used as a status symbol and women were subjugated to the house hold because of cooking and baking through out most of history so I'm not sure why they're so mad? No one said you're a terrible person for wanting local or organic food the point is we can't change the world through insisting that one way of eating is the best when it isn't affordable to all and just ends up turning into a status symbol that reinforces social problems. Also people upset that it's not a book more focused on bread the title is literally the social history of bread. I think it's a really clever thing the author did here using white bread as a lens for different political climates and cultural movements through out the twentieth century and I think he was more than fair when covering any argument by presenting both sides.

Profile Image for Robert Kinosian.
20 reviews4 followers
November 10, 2012
I'm not sure if this book is turning me into a social justice-loving Communist or a regulation-hating Libertarian. I guess that means it's presenting a balanced perspective. Definitely an interesting read.
Profile Image for Annie.
973 reviews317 followers
November 4, 2016
I’m not someone who usually cares about cover art but camannnn look at that clever fucking design.

When I mentioned to a friend of mine that I was reading a book called White Bread that, yes, was literally a book entirely about white bread, he chortled at me and said that if he went home for Thanksgiving and told them he was reading this book his mother would beat him for wasting time.

That’s why it’s soooo great. Who the hell can write a book- an entire, great, engaging, fascinating book- on white bread? On “bread politics”(???)?

Not even the history of bread since forever. Just white, industrial bread made in the past hundred or so years in America.

Organized by chapters based around different values that have obsessively driven American to swing back and forth in its perception of industrial bread, this book does a breathtaking job of examining America’s food anxieties from many angles. He ties it beautifully in with the multiple, contradictory modern food reform factions. He examines race, class, and gender politics, and how anxieties over the changing makeup of America constantly drove the country to certain changes in the bread they ate. He even brings in the imposed morality implicitly believed to surround body image and health. His ideas are beautifully nuanced and self-critical.

For a mere 200 page book, it’s a slow read- he is a succinct writer who packs a lot of information onto every page- but an engrossing one.
Profile Image for D.
121 reviews2 followers
April 13, 2014
From basement bakeries to industrial production, this book details the history of store-bought bread in America. The choice between dark bread and white bread is really only a choice for the affluent. Choosing "good bread" also assumes moral superiority. But when poor men are needed for the first peacetime draft in 1940, The Great Depression has left them less than fighting fit. So how do you get these malnourished men the vitamins they need? By enriching the poor man's main staple: white bread.
Profile Image for Ryan.
176 reviews2 followers
January 1, 2019
Lest you think white bread is nothing more than, well, white bread, this social and political examination of the fluffy stuff will come as quite a surprise. White bread is society, its hopes and dreams, its aspirations and ideals — and, yes, its fears and bigotries — writ small (and sliced). What we’ve thought about the seemingly-innocuous store-bought loaf over the past 140 years says a lot about who we are and what we want our society, and, to a large extent, the world to look like.

A lot of ground is covered in just 200 pages. Bobrow-Strain is a professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, and though he does his best throughout “White Bread” to balance his natural inclination to write for academia with a desire to appeal to the masses, the book’s style would have benefited from a bit more of its subject’s airiness. To his credit, Bobrow-Strain did manage to make one of our most forgettable foods, if not as fascinating as I’d hoped, at least very interesting. I can easily imagine a multi-part documentary bringing this subject to life in a way the book couldn’t quite manage, but despite its shortcomings I am both glad and better off for having read it.
Profile Image for William Guerrant.
391 reviews17 followers
March 17, 2021
After almost 20 years in the food movement, I've gotten used to seeing people twist themselves into knots as they try to overlay their worldviews and political biases onto their concerns about the industrial food system and their preferences for more nutritious and ethically-sourced food. In this case the author's fascinating examination of the history and cultural significance of white bread is continually accompanied by a sort of tortured and at times nearly insufferable postmodern obsession with viewing it all through the lens of "Foucaultian biopolitics," significantly weakening (in my humble opinion) an otherwise excellent book. It seems that, along with telling the compelling story of the evolution of white bread, the author wants to convince readers that we (burdened as we are by privilege and guilt) ought not judge people based on the foods they eat. Rather, we should judge people based on whether or not they judge people based on the foods they eat. Or something like that. In the final chapter he tries to develop some sort of metaphor using fermentation, but the meaning of it is lost on me.

Having said all that, and despite it, readers will enjoy this fascinating history of how our ever-changing appreciation of white bread has reflected profound historical developments and changes in society itself.
Profile Image for Dan Seitz.
409 reviews3 followers
February 1, 2021
Bobrow-Strain looks at white bread in America through several different lenses and industries, from nationalism to health to counterculture. It's a fairly interesting set of chapters that offers a view of American history, albeit a narrow slice of one. Some chapters are better written than others; the sixth one promises to look at the conservative side of "white trash, white bread" but never really gets there. Yet all of them are fascinating.
Profile Image for James.
78 reviews1 follower
July 16, 2013
Bobrow-Strain details the history of white bread over the course of the twentieth century, and ends up covering a whole lot more. From "pure food" movements of the 1840s and 1970s to the effect of the Progressive Era on gendered food production, White Bread covers a lot. Framed around "dreams", or ideals of good eating which affected the perceptions of white and dark breads in America and around the world, the book explains how each dream benefited some and harmed others. If the book has a moral, it's that all social goals, particularly those around food, have winners and losers, and that "A technology [or foodstuff] is only as good as the power relations in which it is deployed." This book would be a great read for anyone interested in the history, anthropology, or politics of food, or anyone concerned about their own eating and how they think about it.
Profile Image for Riley.
111 reviews13 followers
April 19, 2017
When you think of social change bread is probably not in your top 1,000 things that come to mind. However the bread is really a case study all itself. We have a front row seat to the history of store bought bread and it's wild ride of purity, naturalness, scientific control, perfect health, national security, vitality, and social status.

While the preface of the author and the 20th century history started out a bit dry, like a loaf of warm bread, you soon come to the hearty body that leaves you satisfied.
Profile Image for Duygu Öksünlü.
183 reviews96 followers
March 23, 2021
This is one of the most amazing books that I have read. This book is an inquiry of white bread -baking, branding, eating, and perceiving white bread- in the USA. It is astonishingly well organized research example, also. For me, I am not just learn about the topic (although it is fantastic as I said), I also learn about writing in social sciences, how a material product has a web of significances and how a writer can construct a narration. If you are interested in the topic or you are social sciences students who wants to see a good example of writing, I highly recommend the book.
Profile Image for Moira.
41 reviews
April 29, 2022
This book has no right being this good, it's literally about white bread. The passages where the author ties the chapters to the present are a little weak/boring, but the vast majority about history are fascinating and incredibly well written. Did a good job tracing connections with various social movements and explaining the ways we've linked food and morality. Plus he referenced Corita Kent, so I'm a fan
Profile Image for Andrew.
633 reviews
July 4, 2013
Fantastic as both a work of history and of advocacy. I would love to teach this some day in a twentieth-century history course--few works narrate so engagingly and so expansively the ways that power, reform, and idealism intertwine continuously, making judgments of the intentions of the past (and assumptions about the wisdom of the present) both impossible and necessary.

Moreover, I think the subject matter of the book is vital, instructive, and captivating. I would highly recommend this book.
Profile Image for Rachel.
230 reviews
November 4, 2012
This book was really hard for me to get through - obviously considering how long it took me to finish! However, the very last chapter was incredibly moving and powerful and really tied up all of the anecdotes, discourses and history. It is very interesting to think of the impact that a food item, such as bread, has had throughout history and on social movements/change and politics. It was fun to read a book by an author from my hometown (Walla Walla) as well.
2,146 reviews
December 14, 2012
mar 4 2012 Npr this date get transcript weekend
There are now 3 cys in the local library system.
29 march still getting this book out of the library and working on the details


Is it ironic that last week Wonderbread and Hostess went into bankruptcy and was sold off. Dec 2012 All those hoarding twinkies will probably eventually put them up for sale on Ebay!

TOC from the library computer:
Preface ix
Introduction Bread and Power 1 (16)
1 Untouched by Human Hands: Dreams of Purity and Contagion
p39/40 dialogue that conflates dark skinned 'dirty' southern Europeans with unclean bakeries and polluted bread.

2 The Invention of Sliced Bread: Dreams of Control and Abundance
51 (22)
3 The Staff of Death: Dreams of Health and Discipline
73 (32)
4 Vitamin Bread Boot Camp: Dreams of Strength and Defense
105 (28)
5 White Bread Imperialism: Dreams of Peace and Security
133 (30)
6 How White Bread Became White Trash: Dreams of Resistance and Status
163 (26)
Conclusion Beyond Good Bread 189 (8)
Acknowledgments 197 (4)
Notes 201 (38)
Index 239

talks about the "white panic" that people were afraid of buyint bread from dark skin immigrants who made bread in the little bakeries

Aaron Bobrow-Strain is an associate professor of politics at Whitman College. He specializes in the politics of the global food system.

Excerpt: White Bread


And which side does an object turn toward dreams? . . . It is the side worn through by habit and patched with cheap maxims. —Walter Benjamin

Is This Stuff Even Food?

Supermarket white bread can pick up difficult bits of broken glass, clean typewriter keys, and absorb motor oil spills. Squeezed into a ball, it bounces on the counter. Pressed into my palate and revealed in a big gummy grin, it gets giggles from my kids, who can also use it to sculpt animal shapes. But should they eat it? Among its two dozen ingredients, the loaf on my desk contains diammonium phosphate, a yeast nutrient and flame retardant produced when ammonia and phosphoric acid react. Is this stuff even food?

Be careful how you answer that question. Perhaps more than any other food in the United States, what you think of sliced white bread says a lot about who you are. Over the past hundred years, it has served as a touchstone for the fears and aspirations of racial eugenicists, military strategists, social reformers, food gurus, and gourmet tastemakers. The 1960s counterculture made white bread an icon of all that was wrong with Amerika, and 1970s style arbiter Diana Vreeland famously proclaimed, "People who eat white bread have no dreams" — by which she meant that they don't dream the right dreams, the up-to-date, hip dreams. Because, through its long history, few foods have embodied so many dreams as industrial white bread, particularly during times of recession, war, and social upheaval.

In writing this book, I set out to uncover the social dreams (and nightmares) played out in battles over industrial white bread. I wanted to understand how one food could inspire so much affection and so much animosity; how something so ordinary could come to symbolize both the apex of modern progress and the specter of physical decay, the promise of a better future to come and America's fall from small-town agrarian virtue. And I wanted to know how those battles over bread shaped America and its fraught relationship with food.

This turned out to be quite difficult. As important as it has been — both as sustenance and symbol — bread is not something that typically gets written about in diaries, described in letters, or remembered in oral histories. As social reformer Eleanor Bang reflected in 1951: "Bread? Of course. There it is for breakfast, for lunch, for dinner in a rhythm as regular as the ticking of our electric clocks — so regular we'd notice it only if it stopped." Unlike other bewitching icons of industrial eating that mark the past century and a half — unlike Twinkies, TV dinners, Jell-O, and Jet-Puffed anything — bread was, and is, just bread. Of course. Industrial white bread may have been as much a marvel of modern industry and space age food chemistry as any other product, but it was also the ultimate background food, rarely discussed — except when it went wrong.

As a result, uncovering bread's place in American society required wide-ranging and creative detective work. My sources range from the letters of early twentieth-century food reformers to the records of Allied occupation forces in postwar Japan (detailing how teaching Japanese schoolchildren to eat white bread would improve their "democratic spirit"). Finding this material took me to far-flung libraries and archives where I read the personal papers of social reformers, advertising executives, food scientists, and industrial designers as well as the records of numerous government agencies. I traced the early history of industrial baking at the Brooklyn and New York historical societies, and spent a week in Manhattan (Kansas) immersed in the archives of the country's oldest baking science school. I visited Chillicothe, Missouri (the "Home of Sliced Bread"), and Mexico City (the home of Grupo Bimbo, one of the world's most powerful industrial baking conglomerates). Then I pored over more than a hundred years of bread advertisements and women's magazine advice columns. Perhaps most importantly, small-town newspapers, consumer marketing studies, oral histories, and community cookbooks provided invaluable insight into the silent space between expert advice and daily diet. And, through all this, I began to understand that dreams of good bread and fears of bad bread are not innocent. They channel much bigger social concerns.

This is a book about one commodity — industrial white bread — that has played an incredibly important, and largely unnoticed, role in American politics, diet, culture, and food reform movements, but it is not another story of how one food "saved the world." Rather, it's a history of the countless social reformers, food experts, industry executives, government officials, diet gurus, and ordinary eaters who have thought that getting Americans to eat the right bread (or avoid the wrong bread) could save the world — or at least restore the country's moral, physical, and social fabric. Sadly, this turned out to be the difficult story of how, time and time again, well-meaning efforts to change the country through its bread ended up reinforcing forms of race, class, and gender exclusion — even when they also achieved much-needed improvements in America's food system.

Anyone paying attention to the rising cries for slow, local, organic, and healthy food today — the growing demands for food justice and restored community that mark our own exciting moment — will find the trials and tribulations of 150 years of battles over bread surprisingly contemporary. In them, you will see all the contradictory expressions of our own food concerns: uplifting visions of the connection between good food and healthy communities, insightful critiques of unsustainable status quos, great generosity of spirit, and earnest desires to make the world a better place — but also rampant elitism, smug paternalism, misdirected anxieties, sometimes neurotic obsessions with health, narrow visions of what counts as "good food," and open discrimination against people who choose "bad food." Fluffy white industrial bread may be about as far from the ideals of slow, local, organic, and health food reformers as you can get today. But, in many ways, we owe its very existence to a string of just as well-meaning efforts to improve the way America ate. Perhaps learning this history can help us avoid the pitfalls of the past.

From White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf by Aaron Bobrow-Strain. Copyright 2012 by Aaron Bobrow-Strain. Excerpted by permission of Beacon Press.

White bread, like vanilla, is one of those foods that's become a metaphor for blandness. But it wasn't always that way.

Aaron Bobrow-Strain, professor of food politics at Whitman College, tells Weekend Edition's Rachel Martin that white bread was a deeply contentious food — ever since the early 1900s' ideas of "racial purity" up to the counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s. He documents that cultural legacy in his new book, White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf.

White bread first became a social lightening rod with the Pure Foods movement of the late 1800s. Bobrow-Strain says well-meaning reformers were concerned about a host of legitimate food safety issues, and their activism led directly to many of today's food safety laws.

White Bread

A Social History Of The Store-Bought Loaf

by Aaron Bobrow-Strain

Hardcover, 257 pages | purchase

History & Society
Food & Wine

More on this book:
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Read an excerpt

But food purity ideals bled into the social realm in the form of what Bobrow-Strain calls "healthism" – the idea that "perfect bodily health was an outward manifestation of inward genetic fitness."

One proponent of healthism was Bernarr Macfadden, whom Bobrow-Strain calls "the original strong man food guru in a leopard-skin tunic." Macfadden believed that "white bread was sapping the vitality of the white race, threatening white racial superiority," Bobrow-Strain says.

In the 1920s, white bread became a symbol of industrialization and modernity, as companies like Tip Top and Wonder Bread brought factory automation to bread-making. The invention of sliced bread, allegedly in Chillicothe, Mo., in 1928, was "really the culmination of a long process in which bread was engineered and designed to look like a streamlined wonder, like an edible piece of modern art," Bobrow-Strain says.

At the same time, the '20s and '30s saw a backlash against white bread, reviving Macfadden's idea that whole wheat bread was imbued with moral as well as dietary fiber. And another wave of criticism came in the 1960s.

The counterculture movement "took up white bread as an emblem of everything that was wrong with America. It was plastic, corporate, stale," Bobrow-Strain says. Eating hand-made, whole wheat bread became "an edible act of rebellion, a way of challenging The Man."

These days, of course, artisanal breads are a common sight at grocery stores. "We see bread going from a kind of manifestation of grass-roots food activism to being a high-end niche product," Bobrow-Strain says.

Food reformers could learn a thing or two from these decades-long bread battles. Bobrow-Strain says focusing on individual food choices creates divisive in-groups and out-groups, defined by who makes the supposedly "right" food choices. And activists often overlook the root causes of problems in the food system.

Like, for instance, the economy. It's hard to pay twice as much for artisan bread when you're strapped for cash.

Read an excerpt of White Bread

And some foods are just better with white bread, he says, whether it's a simple grilled cheese or something fancier.

"I made a sandwich that had garlicky braised kale with Manchego cheese, a fried egg, and I did it on grilled Wonderbread," Bobrow-Strain says. "It was fabulous."
Profile Image for Jonathan.
458 reviews27 followers
August 13, 2017
As far as food goes, bread has some of the most baked-in symbolism (no pun intended). Bread, as a basic staple in many diets, is pregnant with (sometimes contested) cultural, social, mythological, religious, economic, and political meanings. Aaron Bobrow-Strain zeroes in on one type of bread (the loaf of store-bought, slicked, packaged white bread that has a special place in Americana) and the many meanings that have been attributed to it and battles fought over it.

He organizes the book by looking at various "seductive dreams" about bread: (1) dreams of purity, (2) dreams of control and abundance, (3) dreams of health and discipline, (4) dreams of strength and defense, (5) dreams of peace and security, and (6) dreams of resistance and status.

The first few look at the emergence of the store-bought loaf and its connection to debates about nutrition, national health, eugenics, fitness, and assimilation in the Progressive Era. (4) looks at the role of white bread during World War II, and (5) during the Cold War (as the US sought to remake other countries' diets and agricultural systems in favor of the American staple). And (6) looks at the backlash against white bread since the 1960s from both foodies and counterculturalists.

Borrow-Strain himself is a part of various foodie subcultures (fermentation is one of his big things, per the conclusion), and he is attuned to the ways in which many of these "dreams" about food are imposed by white, upper middle class populations on the rest. That does not mean that there isn't anything valuable about the dreams themselves (the goals are often mostly good), but they suffer major blindspots that can lead them to xenophobic and racist scapegoating and erasure of the ways that class defines diets. The story of food will always be inextricably linked to the story of power.

As the author himself is a breadmaker, he weaves a number of personal anecdotes into the book--some better fitting than others. At a most basic level, the book would have benefited from a photo section. There's a reason that food dominates Instagram--it's a very visual part of our culture. Our understanding of food history will be limited if we can't observe the shapes, sizes, colors, labels, magazine ads, commercials, product placements, etc., involved.

But all in all, "White Bread" was an intellectually stimulating and accessible read. Perhaps one to break bread with others while discussing.
Profile Image for mad mags.
1,155 reviews87 followers
October 14, 2013
American Dreamz (of "Good" Food)

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 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.

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

593 reviews7 followers
December 31, 2018
This would have been a four star book, but I felt that it was not organized in a reader-friendly manner. This micro-history tells the story of bread in the United States and how this food has taken on much more meaning than just something to eat or as a holder for peanut butter and jelly. In the 1800's dark or whole wheat bread was seen as the food of immigrants and the poor. White bread was the preferred food of the wealthier white population. Factory-made white bread was seen as a way to free women from the weekly drudgery of bread-making and give them more time to take care of their husbands and children. Even the federal government entered into this discussion after realizing how many draftees were not healthy enough to fight in WWII. The claim was made that white bread, fortified with vitamins, was the key to national security. Mothers were told it was their patriotic duty to feed their sons this enriched white bread so that they would be ready to fight for their country. Bread was a weapon of national defense. Bread was not judged by its taste, but rather by its vitamin content. Large bakeries could not efficiently make whole wheat bread, so they began a massive campaign to disparage any type of small bakery dark bread. Since most of the small bakeries were owned by immigrants, the advertising had a definite racial and ethnic bias. The advertising convinced housewives to fear small bakeries and immigrant laborers who were by their very nature, "dirty and unhygienic." White bread, devoid of taste, became synonymous with pure, American, hygienic, and moral. Industrial white bread was advertised as "never touched by human hands."
There were those who opposed this movement to tasteless white bread, but they were often considered religious radicals. They thought it was defying God's will when the bran was separated from the germ, thus white bread was "unholy."
The author also discusses the more recent trend toward healthier whole grain bread. This was an interesting book, but probably not for everyone.
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
215 reviews5 followers
April 1, 2023
This book is one of the most popular publications on Goodreads written by a professor from my liberal arts college, and I can totally see why. I wanted to read this because I thought it was kind of funny an entire academic book was written on this topic—in other words, I was captivated by the title—but in reality, this book is totally up my alley regardless of who wrote it.

The writing is excellent; written for a nerdy, but not necessarily academic audience. The pacing is also excellent, with a mix of personal anecdote, very well synthesized research, and critique on the geopolitical and social implications. I learned a lot, I shared more anecdotes with Sarah than either of us wanted (I read this mostly in the (stationary, turned off, lit by a headlamp) car during our camping trip to protect from the cold and wait for it to get late enough to go to sleep), and I really wanted to eat bread on the one week where the closest we got was tortillas and couscous.

I totally am that white environmentalist that bakes her own sourdough as the main bread product she consumes. I am proud of it and talk about it probably too much. Also, it has been extremely popular with every person who has sampled it. Yet, I do this as a hobby and am under no illusion that this will be the way I choose to spend my time and feed myself forever; it emerged as a practice during the pandemic, and as it and my grad school stint end, so might my sourdough self-sufficiency. And I am under no illusion that the world would be better if everyone did like me. (I do think it is a useful life skill to know how to make bread, but it doesn’t need to be implemented often—say, once a decade.) The privilege of making your own sourdough bread is profound. I say I am a foodie in my own kitchen—as opposed to the cliche foodie Angeleno who will drive two hours for a pop up gourmet food truck—and this is exhibit A. So of course this was a great book and I’m so glad I finally got around to reading it.
Profile Image for Jenny.
63 reviews3 followers
July 29, 2021
I'm fascinated by food history. Growing up I would watch the history channel because they had history of food episodes.
When I saw this book at the used book store I couldn't pass it up.
It covers varies moments of the history of bread. Back when bread was starting to be made in factory type places the big bread companies wanted to get rid of mom and pop factories so they would put out adds that eating bread from there was unclean and dangerous to your health. Once they put many mom and pops out of business they went after wives/mothers who were making bread at home by trying to tell the public either they can't make good bread or they shouldn't be making bread. It made women feel bad so they stopped making bread all together.
The fda did studies that showed most Americans are lacking vitamins so the fda asked the big bread companies hey want to put synthetic vitamins in the bread and all the big bread companies could think was about how they could make sooo much money off of enriched breads.
I found it interesting how now most people are trying to make their own breads and trying to avoid the store bought loaf.
The whole book kind of painted the big corporate bread companies as evil.
Reading sooo much about bread made me want to eat some while I read.
Profile Image for Ruth.
101 reviews
February 20, 2022
Having just finished reading a truly terrible cultural history it was wonderful to read such a fascinating one that was so well written and researched. The Great White Loaf might seem an odd subject, but Bobrow-StrIn shows how throughout the the twentieth century and the twenty-first it has been freighted with contradictory meanings and cultural capital.

This is an academic study, but a highly readable one that simultaneously looks at food history, industrial history, advertising and marketing, race relations, colonialism and military history, plus others I'm probably forgetting. I can't say enough.
144 reviews
September 4, 2018
Gets a little bogged down. I wasn't expecting to read about India in a book about white bread in America. At times I found myself glossing over the philosophy and economics. I was also expecting more about health. He didn't mention the connection (or lack thereof) between white bread and diabetes. Overall, it was fair.

Its strongest point was that corporations have just about zero interest in health.
Profile Image for Paniz K.
43 reviews
May 5, 2020
I thought this would be a fun indulgent book. It is fun, but it also Marxist and very informative.
I really enjoy “social history” in general (and I put that in quotation marks because I hate that “real” history is the history of men and war and empire and then the “soft” stuff is pigeonholed as “social history”). This book is essentially American history as seen through the white bread loaf (as opposed to the president in power).
Profile Image for Don LaFountaine.
467 reviews9 followers
July 16, 2016
I had been very interested in reading this book for a while, and was not disappointed. It was interesting and thought provoking, and helped me see the topic of social change through food through a different "lens".

The author discusses how white bread evolved in America to become an icon in the early 20th century of all that was right in the world to "white trash". The book has 6 major chapters, specifically "dreams" of society to bring about change in food. They are:
- Dreams of purity: The idea that anything that was handled by human hands, especially immigrant hands, was causing people to be sick drove/inspired the idea for industrial bread. With an often racist undertones, people were divided about their concerns for healthy and "good" food. Trying to control societal ideas about what people should be eaten and why, industrial white bread symbolized purity, unlike the small bakers with their darker bread that was not uniform in it's appearance.
- Dreams of control & abundance: The idea that industrial bread makers could provide an abundance of bread while providing people freedom to do other things is explored in this chapter. On the opposite side of the spectrum was the question of whether America becoming a soft country because of the soft chemically infused bread Americans were eating. An additional addendum to this fight over which bread to eat was that white bread was looked upon as a "moral color".
- Dreams of health and discipline: This chapter focuses on various food movements and the people who were the leaders that lead the attack white bread. Not only did many of these people, (past and present) feel that white bread is an inferior option for people, they also feel that only those people who have a character weakness would eat industrial bread. (An interesting class and racial implication when you think about who in society buys white bread and the reasons why.) The quote that starts the chapter explains this attitude quite well. "The whiter your bread, the quicker your dead." (Dr. P.L. Clark).
- Dreams of strength and defense: This chapter explores the idea that industrial white bread, fortified with vitamins and iron, would help America win World War II, would keep children and adults strong in the event we had to go to war again, and was the patriotic duty of every American to eat white bread. Even ads during this time tout the idea that eating enriched bread will shorten the war.
- Dreams of peace and security: This chapter explores America sending industrial bread to the countries that were destroyed during the war. The thought was that by doing so, it would be a humanitarian effort of the US to provide food to hungry people, and a way to project "food power" as a way to expand our influence throughout the world. As with other areas of discussion in this book, the distribution was influenced by race.
- Dreams of resistance and Status: This chapter reviews how white bread used to be a status of the wealthy and affluent, but now it is viewed by the wealthy and affluent as white trash food. Resisting industrial bread has been going on for a long time, and this chapter gives voice to the attitude that "I know what's good for you" idea that many people have.

I really enjoyed this book. In full disclosure, this was written by an author who, as a self-admitted bread snob, is happy eating "good" artisan bread that costs $8.00 in a coffee shop. With that said, I feel he did a pretty good job at offering a balanced viewpoint on the discussion of the social history of white bread. He covers a lot of ground and questions some of the viewpoints in the food movement he supports. For instance, he explores how the food movement members believed that industrial bread could not compare to homemade bread baked by women. Feminists agreed with the idea that a woman should be making bread in the kitchen because many felt that only a woman could make bread with love. They felt men are less likely to be able to do so, and certainly no industrial bread maker could. Yet this viewpoint does not take into consideration the people who could not afford this option, nor does it seem to bother them that they are espousing the idea that it's a woman's place to be in the kitchen. An additional points he makes, a very strong point and I feel is not understood or made by others, is that the discussion of "good food" is not necessarily inclusive. One person's idea of "good food" is based on their beliefs, their background, their social status, and various influences throughout their lives. So a person from Napa Valley will have a vastly different idea of what "good food" than someone who is from Nepal. This is a bridge taht needs to somehow be crossed in order to have any meaningful interactions with others of the human race. To quote from the book: "In a time when open disdain for "unhealthy" eaters and discrimination on the basis of dietary habits grow increasingly acceptable, we might do well to spend more time thinking about how we relate to others through food and less about what exactly to eat." The current attitude of the healthy/alternative food movement is that it is acceptable to discriminate and look down on "unhealthy eaters" and those whose food is different than theirs. The sad commentary to this is that it's not a new attitude at all.
323 reviews5 followers
June 6, 2015
The author might consider writing a sequel called White Guilt. It can include the sixth dream underlying the five white bread dreams in the book--dreams of apology and redemption. "As more young white people came to rediscover the flavor and soul of whole-grain artisan breads, they felt a deep sense of shame for having the money, education, and leisure to try to enjoy their own lives and share the news with others." -Potential quote from White Guilt.

Though the book is interesting, the author's insights don't feel like insights--they feel like prejudices, and they're prejudices against himself. I suppose that's one way to make sure you're not being self-indulgent, but it's also a way to sound like an apologetic weinerboy. Every chapter oozes guilt over the alternative foods movement (which deserves so much credit for making food that actually tastes good in America.) It's mostly available to white, well-off people, he says, and doesn't address the sufferings of the disadvantaged. We're invited to explore what good industrial bread and agriculture has done and question the assumptions underpinning this artisan, small-community, farmers-market-centric counterculture food movement of the 2000s.

However, the author does not have insights in either direction that I can appreciate. For example, the author cites those people in the anti-industrial foods movement that ask us to "avoid anything that your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food." The author dully notes that his great-grandmother was alive in the 1920s, would have recognized white bread as food, and on the other hand would not recognize Ethiopian doro wot, a traditional food. Ergo, this dream of "good food" is racial and elitist.

Though his point is that perfect food politics can't be summed up in neat maxims, he's being intentionally obtuse. Clearly the maxim means to only eat foods with ingredients and processing that any average cook or baker could recognize. Grandma could well understand foreign stews made with exotic vegetables on weirdly-shaped skillets. She probably would need a bit of education to understand what guar gum, carrageenan, and calcium propionate are and why they're ingredients in baked goods.

The author's refrain throughout the book is that, essentially, our view to what comprises "good food" is just another facet of our class and racial prejudices. The locavores are, pretty much, classist, because they think everyone should eat locally and can't appreciate the systemic barriers to affluence that keep poor people eating white bread. In the past, eating white bread was almost a racist act, because white bread versus brown bread was one of the telling distinctions between well-bred white Americans and recent, dirty immigrants.

It's an interesting perspective, but it's a long, guilty road to nowhere. Locavores are not demanding that every person be required to consume French batards from artisan bakeries for their sustenance. They're asking that those people with the means and inclination to do so vote against industrial agriculture and food production by not spending their dollars on it, especially when so many other delicious options exist. And they're suggesting that with more public awareness, more local options, and some regulatory reform, the prices for high-quality, environmentally-sustainable produce could be delivered by local producers at competitive prices. I'm not sure if the dream is naive, but it's not the way that the author characterizes it--as a kind of elitist affair, where everyone scoffs at those stupid poor who won't even spend $8 on a good loaf of bread to feed their families.

The author also conveniently passes up the opportunity to comment meaningful on his pet subject of class and racial inequality, instead accusing the reader of preferring to take on the easy subject of advocating good food instead of tackling the hairy (but presumably more important) problem of racial and class inequality.

The author is just as guilty of cowardice on this front as the reader, presenting no meaningful recommendations of how to alleviate the burdens of poverty and racism, only admonitions that our plans usually don't take them into account. The author even mentions that education efforts (the usual suspect on "how to solve poverty") from the well-meaning affluent to the "ignorant" poor have been naive and largely unsuccessful. So, then, any ideas of a solution? The concluding chapter offers a solution, maybe, torturing a tenuous analogy between fermentation and broad-based social change.

The fact that locavores don't aim to address the issue of poverty and racism directly is the more honest approach, I think (next to advocating for widespread population control measures, which is the only real solution to most of the big issues of our day.) They have ideas about the food side--they're not trying to solve all ills in one fell swoop. After all, white bread began as a luxury item only for the elites as well, just like heirloom vegetables are today. Over time, the fashion for it brought innovations that put white bread within the reach of all people (for better or worse). May we not hope the same for local slow food movements?
194 reviews2 followers
April 5, 2018
I have to confess, I am a lover of bread. I also have a soft spot for the white bread that this book is about. This book covers the fact that bread has become a status and class symbol. I enjoyed this, even though it did make me feel hungry in some parts.
Profile Image for Hayley.
133 reviews
July 15, 2018
Very thoroughly written with a lot of view points well summarized and well-intended but harmfully executed policies are laid out not in a manner that casts judgement but more of a slightly-resigned but diligently truthful recorder.

it could have used a little humor, it was pretty dry.
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