Serious Reads: White Bread, by Aaron Bobrow-Strain

Serious Reads

Reviews of food-themed memoirs, beach reads, and histories.

When I was in middle school, I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich every day for about four years. Four years of a simple sandwich in my lunch box, usually with an accompanying note from mom (thanks, mom!). I never tired of this classic combination, and I've heard a similar story from many friends. My brother continues on the tradition of a sandwich a day, keeping our cupboard stocked with at least two loaves each week. Our family has a strong allegiance to sliced bread.

Even in the gluten-free era, bread remains a dietary staple for most American homes. According to the USDA, we each eat about 130 pounds annually of wheat flour products. Bread is important, though it often lives in the shadow of its condiments (hello, Nutella) and accompaniments. But Aaron Bobrow-Strain, a professor of food politics at Whitmore College, pushes bread into the limelight with his new book White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf.

Bobrow-Strain takes a particular interest in the "dreams" that have shaped the evolution and perception of bread throughout American history. The dreams he highlights are purity, naturalness, scientific control, perfect health, and national security. But what do all these concepts have to do with humble bread?

Bobrow-Strain emphasizes that throughout history, the "social order" of bread has built a hierarchy of loaves, with whiter, lighter loaves at the top and darker, heavier loaves at the bottom. It's not a stretch to see how whiter bread would please consumers during the industrial era, when mechanized food production embodied cleanliness and progress. And during the World Wars, white bread became emblematic of patriotism, adding a more complex layer to the stereotype of Americans eating bland Wonderbread.

These days, white bread is associated more strongly with unhealthiness and over-processed food than high status. Bobrow-Strain puts this change in context by discussing how nutrition and fitness icons have advocated for darker whole wheat bread since the early twentieth century. What we may conceptualize of now as a new debate—gluten or no gluten, whole wheat or artisan—has been an ongoing conversation. Bobrow-Strain does delve briefly into the gluten-free fad, but leaves the question open as one more permutation of the perpetual debate on bread's nutritional value.

When I first opened this colorful book, I expected a rather airy history of Wonder Bread and its kin. But instead 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.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work has also been featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.