The "staff of life," bread, has been central to human history. Ever so often, riots over bread shortages topple governments. But of late, the bread question seems to be: Is it artisanal or not? Our status, sophistication and, indeed, awareness might ride on the answer.
A professor of politics, Aaron Bobrow-Strain has written White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, American bread from 1900 to the present day, with some side trips to Mexico and Japan. He has a scholar's amazing grasp of seemingly everything (Industrial designer Raymond Loewy came up with Wonder Bread's red-white-blue-golden yellow color scheme?) and writes in an entertaining style. Plus Bobrow-Strain has the authority of one who is a serious avocational baker.
He outlines a love-hate relationship. White bread associations are now uniformly negative. Yet in the early 20th Century, white bread fulfilled many of American's best aspirations, values, and nutritional needs. Bobrow-Strain notes that in 1890, 90% of bread consumed in America was baked in the family kitchen. Put another way, a woman's place was by that hot oven baking bread.
If she wanted to be elsewhere, buying bread from a local bakery carried no guarantees for purity or safety. Or so many thought as contagions would sweep urban areas. In that era of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, local bakers, many recent immigrants from Europe, became easy targets of suspicion for causing food-borne disease.
In 1897, to meet the need for pure and safe bread, Ward's Bakery in Pittsburgh pioneered automatic baking of bread "untouched by human hands." Moreover, when a bread factory produced thousands upon thousands of loaves on conveyor belts, large picture windows let sidewalk passersby verify the cleanliness of the whole operation!
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