Good Bread

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible.

Wonder Bread Ad:
“Eat Wonder Bread!”

Roman Mars:
I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
When I think about white bread, I usually think of Wonder Bread, and I can picture the loaves all lined up on the grocery store shelves in perfect uniform rows. The red, yellow and blue circles on the Wonder Bread label were supposed to conjure balloons floating away, taking us somewhere – somewhere wondrous, somewhere better.

Sam Greenspan:
The first print advertisement for Wonder Bread, which actually came out before the bread itself, stated only that a wonder was coming.

Roman Mars:
That’s Wonder Boy, Sam Greenspan.

Sam Greenspan:
And in a lot of ways in its time, Wonder Bread really was a wonder. It was the perfect loaf. But now white bread and not just Wonder Bread, but really any brand of industrially produced white bread, it’s thought of by food purists as part of a problem.

Roman Mars:
The problem being that we don’t know where our food comes from, and we might be consuming impure and unhealthy ingredients.

Sam Greenspan:
The funny thing is industrial white bread, that evenly sliced, squishy, moist, perfectly white and wondrous loaf was once the highly designed solution to that very same problem.

Wonder Bread Ad:
Man – “You want to grow bigger and stronger, don’t you?”
Girl – “Golly, sure!”
Man – “Okay. A sandwich daily and two slices of Wonder Bread every meal, gives you eight elements you need.”

Sam Greenspan:
For much of human history. Bread has been, and still is, one of the most important foods. Our human ancestors 30,000 years ago had a crude form of bread. Nearly every culture on Earth has some form of bread. And the importance of bread is shall we say, baked into language. Take, for instance, the word companion.

Aaron Bobrow-Strain:
If we take the word companion back to its Latin roots, we get com, which is with, and pan, which is bread. So a companion is someone that you sit down and you break bread with.

Sam Greenspan:
That’s our guide to all things bread, Aaron Bobrow-Strain. He’s the author of the book…

Aaron Bobrow-Strain:
“White Bread: A Social History of the Store Bought Loaf.”

Sam Greenspan:
In his book, Aaron also talks about the word Lord. It comes from a word in old English.

Aaron Bobrow-Strain:
I’m not sure how to pronounce it exactly, but on paper it looks like hlaford.

Sam Greenspan:
H-L-A-F-O-R-D.

Roman Mars:
Hlaford.

Aaron Bobrow-Strain:
And that meant the keeper of bread, or the person who gives bread. And that’s striking because it tells us the very act of political rule was wrapped up in the bread supply.

Sam Greenspan:
Plus, think of all the ways that bread comes up culturally. Catholics believe that the communion bread transsubstantiates into the body of Christ, there’s the Lord’s prayer, Matthew 6:11, “Give us today our daily bread,” the Jewish holiday of Passover centers around the preparation of bread, and on and on.

Roman Mars:
In the middle ages, most people got something like 80% of their calories from bread. Fast forward a millennium or so, in the late 19th century, people were still getting about 30% of their calories from bread. That’s so much bread, that’s bread at every meal, and some meals that were only bread.

Sam Greenspan:
For most of our long history with bread, the bread we ate was made in our homes. Eventually we had small bakeries that supplied bread for more people, but they weren’t exactly a picture of artisanal purity.

Roman Mars:
A hundred plus years ago bakeries were generally dirty and often underground, usually with terrible working conditions. And you never knew when the baker would cut costs by cutting the dough with sawdust, or some other horrible additives. During the time we’re talking about, the late 1800’s, early 1900’s, there was a lot of foodborne illness, cholera and typhus. A lot of Americans were starting to fear their food, and for good reason. Your food could kill you.

Aaron Bobrow-Strain:
Middle and upper class white, native-born Americans during that period go through this kind of freak out about the safety of their bread. And you see newspaper headlines during this time screaming…

News Headline:
“Dangerous bread threatens the city. Germs menace your loaf.”

Aaron Bobrow-Strain:
Things like that. And people were really freaked out. Every city was holding major hearings on the bread question. The neighborhood bakery that we romanticize today was this specter of fear and terror.

Roman Mars:
And so people started getting really interested in where their food came from, kind of like people are doing right now.

Sam Greenspan:
Only to them, knowing where their food came from meant actively avoiding locally baked bread.

Roman Mars:
Factory bread, the thinking went, was born not of unclean hands and an underground furnace, but in a modern light-filled palace of industry.

Sam Greenspan:
These palaces of industry would supply bread to the masses, and this bread would be white.

Wonder Bread Ad:
“Bread is a delicious food. Its flavor blends perfectly with other foods, adding zest and enjoyment to any meal.”

Roman Mars:
White flour and white bread aren’t recent technological innovations in and of themselves, they’ve been around for millennia. Technically speaking, white flour is whole wheat flour with the brand and the germ from the wheat kernel sifted out.

Sam Greenspan:
Industrial bakers chose white bread as their flagship bread because for them, white was a marker of purity and cleanliness, and modernity.

Roman Mars:
And if this sentiment sounds vaguely racist to you…

Sam Greenspan:
Well, the racism was more than vague.

Aaron Bobrow-Strain:
Dr. Woods Hutchinson, who was a noted health columnist, a news syndicated columnist in newspapers, argued that only white bread would fortify the white race to do the things it had to do and go out and conquer other peoples.

Sam Greenspan:
And if that’s not revolting enough…

Aaron Bobrow-Strain:
Food reformers of the day referring to the white loaf as a chaste loaf, and the dark leaf as a defiled loaf.

Roman Mars:
And bread was actually never a real vector for a contagion. That was mostly the meat and dairy supply, which is why Aaron Bobrow-Strain argues that this fear over the safety of bread wasn’t actually about bread.

Aaron Bobrow-Strain:
What I started to realize was that it had become impossible in native born middle and upper class whites’ minds, to separate fears about bread safety from their fears about immigration, particularly the new Southern and Eastern European immigrants who’s supposedly dirty and diseased hands were touching bread in neighborhood bakeries.

Sam Greenspan:
Basically, Aaron believes that our attraction to white bread came from real fears about food contagion that got mixed up unfairly with fears about immigrants.

Aaron Bobrow-Strain:
It was a shining white, clean, modern marvel, untouched by human hands, that was the antithesis of that scary, supposedly dirty and diseased product of immigration.

Sam Greenspan:
And because white bread was white, the thinking went, you knew it was free of dirt and other contaminants, which you might fear from your local bakery. Its whiteness was thus it’s proof of purity.

Aaron Bobrow-Strain:
Now that logic is kind of flawed because lots of the adulterants that bakers used were white, chalk, alum…

Roman Mars:
The bleach white loaf just needed one more thing before it could fully embody our need for uniformity. It needed to be sliced.

Sam Greenspan:
Which brings us to a summer day in 1928.

Aaron Bobrow-Strain:
Let’s say July 7th, 1928.

Sam Greenspan:
On that day, it was July 7th, I checked, in the town of Chillicothe, Missouri people had gathered at First and Elm streets, and they were lined up around the block.

Aaron Bobrow-Strain:
I don’t know if there were lines down the block, those weren’t described, but people were certainly eager to see this.

Sam Greenspan:
However they were gathered, people were there to witness the advent of packaged pre-sliced bread.

Aaron Bobrow-Strain:
One reporter in Chillicothe, Missouri spoke of housewives who are visiting this bakery to see this sliced bread, how they had this thrill of enthusiasm, and were just awestruck by this perfectly sliced bread. It was a small edible vision of progress and the future.

Roman Mars:
People liked sliced bread so much. I can’t overstate how much they loved it and how quickly it caught on. It was the best thing since… I can’t even think of another thing that was quite as good. Industrial bakers had the hype, they had the sense of moral mission, and they had the design parameters. White bread in streamlined loaves, with uniform slices.

Sam Greenspan:
But the science of industrializing and mass producing bread was still a little wacky. Bread after all, is the product of microorganisms going through biological processes. Bread is a function of time and temperature, and a lot of other variables. In fact, bread was one of the last major foods to get industrialized, precisely because of how complex it is to make uniformly. The assembly process was really different than say, making a car.

Aaron Bobrow-Strain:
Imagine if Henry Ford, every time he wanted to make a car, had to worry about the fact that his parts might grow or shrink depending on the temperature and humidity that day, that a gust of air coming through the factory might cause his car to deflate. These were the kinds of biological questions that early industrial bakers had to figure out.

Sam Greenspan:
And so from the 1920’s and thirties onward, industrial bakers were constantly tinkering with the design of white bread. They cut the time it took for the bread to rise by adding sugars and cranking up the temperature. They added emulsifiers to allow the dough’s water and fat to mix together, better giving white bread its height and more even grain. That also got rid of the holes.

Wonder Bread Ad:
“Because Wonder Soft Whipped bread is made from batter, not dough, it has no holes. Get Wonder Soft Whipped.”

Roman Mars:
Eventually vitamins were added and sold to the public as a means of making hardy young men who would be fit to fight in the war.

Wonder Bread Ad:
“Two slices of Wonder Bread every meal gives you as much phosphorous for cell metabolism as this egg, as much iron for red blood as three lamp chops, as much niacin for mental health as six sardines, as much energy as two glasses of milk.”

Sam Greenspan:
Little by little, various factories created their own recipes and innovations for industrial white bread. And all of that came to a head in 1952 in Rockford, Illinois.

Aaron Bobrow-Strain:
The USDA in cooperation with key figures of the industrial baking world, put together a multi-year project that I kind of jokingly referred to as the “Manhattan Project of Bread.”

Roman Mars:
A multi-year panoramic investigation of bread and bread eating habits.

Aaron Bobrow-Strain:
And the ultimate goal of the project was to design the perfect loaf of white bread. It involved focus groups, market research, double blind taste tests…

Sam Greenspan:
The end product of the so called “Manhattan Project of Bread” was a white bread two and a half times as sweet as the average loaf available at the time, and 40% fluffier too.

Roman Mars:
The fluffier the manufacturers made the bread, the more people wanted to buy it. Even though the Rockford research also showed that they didn’t really like it. They just couldn’t resist the fluff.

Sam Greenspan:
Consumers are choosing the fluffier bread but not particularly liking its texture. But yet they were eating it in large quantities, about a pound and a half per person per week.

Roman Mars:
Not too long after the Rockford study closes shop, white bread goes through an identity crisis.

Sam Greenspan:
Where it was once a feel good symbol of progress, white bread began to get used as an epithet, meaning you know, stuffy, conservative, square, white suburban.

Aaron Bobrow-Strain:
In 1970, when Richard Pryor in a fit storms off the stage of his popular show at the Aladdin Theater in Las Vegas saying that he is absolutely done with this white bread humor.

Sam Greenspan:
From around that point forward, counter-cultural movements used white bread as an emblem of the establishment, of the silent majority, of Richard Nixon’s America. But then…

Aaron Bobrow-Strain:
By the 1980’s, 1990’s the meaning starts to bifurcate. It also starts to take on the significance of white trash. So white bread starts to stand in for a poor white person who is making supposedly irresponsible decisions about diet and about their life. So I was fascinated by the way that white bread could mean essentially the opposite of itself.

Roman Mars:
Both affluent and suburban, and port and rural.

Sam Greenspan:
If there’s one lesson from Aaron Bobrow-Strain’s research, it’s that this debate over which kind of bread to eat, white or wheat, it’s not new. In fact, it goes back thousands of years.

Aaron Bobrow-Strain:
In Plato’s Republic, Plato sets up this kind of debate about whether the ideal polis, the ideal society or city state should function on a diet of whole grain gruel associated with rural life, or kind of citified white bread cakes.

Sam Greenspan:
But what’s most interesting about these debates in history, says Aaron, is that they are often about everything except bread. So in Plato’s case…

Aaron Bobrow-Strain:
Even back then, it was really not about the healthiness of bread so much as it was about anxieties about whether Athens was losing moral virtue because it was becoming less connected to the land. We see that debates about white bread and brown bread get tied up into large questions about what do people think about progress? What do people think about industrialization, class and hierarchy?

Roman Mars:
The point is is that when we’re worrying about whether or not we should eat white bread or brown bread, it’s usually about much larger questions.

Aaron Bobrow-Strain:
We can learn something about our own society, our own anxieties and aspirations by looking at those debates about what counts as good bread.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Sam Greenspan.

Wonder Bread Ad:
“And here’s Sammy really going to town on Wonder Bread.”

Roman Mars:
With Katie Mingle, Avery Trufelman and me, Roman Mars. It is based on an interview we heard on Benjamen Walker’s ‘Theory of Everything’, a fine Radiotopia program that you should already love. On Benjamen’s most recent episode, we tell the story of how Benjamen and I first met 14 years ago, and started immediately conspiring to make something like we’ve made in Radiotopia today. A place where the most creative radio makers produce directly for the most curious and engaged listeners. You should check it out.

Credits

Production

99% Invisible wonder boy Sam Greenspan spoke with Aaron Bobrow-Strain, author of White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf. This story was adapted and expanded from an interview that Radiotopia compatriot Benjamen Walker conducted with Bobrow-Strain in a 2012 episode of his old WFMU show, Too Much Information.

Music

“Metronomic Underground”— Stereolab

  1. mike

    Good Epidsode. For those that want to make healthy bread themselves, I do and its the best bread I have ever ate, right out of my oven. There are two books I recommend. Bread in 5 minutes a Day (no knead bread), and Jim Lahey and his no knead bread book.

  2. Bryan

    This episode was so good. Felt like a Back story segment. Speaking of which, any chance of another collaboration in the new storytelling revolution?

  3. Ann Kristin

    Can anyone please tell me which artist/song that is used in the beginning of this episode (around 2:15)? It is also used in ToE’s “Man without a country” (and maybe other places too..?) – and i really, really, really love it, and would be very grateful if anyone could help me figure this out, as i have been wondering about it for weeks now. (It is not Stereolabs Metronomic Underground)

  4. As soon as I saw the subject of this episode, I wondered if it would feature Aaron! Cool to see a professor from my alma mater on 99PI.

    1. Ann Kristin

      T h a n k y o u, S a m !

      On my way of searching for this I discovered three other artists that i thought it might be, and i was on my way of listening through their (up to) ten albums to find this song. Discovering them was a bonus for trying to find it, but i am also very happy now that i know which song it really was.

      You made my day – and thank you for the great work you all are doing on 99PI!

  5. Deb

    During my childhood Wonderbread was magic. We carried it around in little smashed up balls in our pockets. During any crisis in our make believe play all we had to do was get a ball of wonderbread into our mouth and magically we came alive, were healed, escaped prison and other great miracles.

  6. Chris

    Hey all, totally off topic, I love the Oakland Ray Cats shirt but I must have missed that episode. Can someone point me in the direction of what it is a referencing? Thanks!

  7. Jullian

    Man! All this talk about bread makes me want to eat some sandwiches even more. Maybe he should make a topic about sandwiches… :3

  8. Colin

    The idea that bread was frequently adulterated has been roundly discredited. It may have happened occasionally, but never really caught on. The simple fact being that bread made with significant quantities of any of the proposed adulterants (chalk, sawdust, alum) would basically be inedible. It wouldn’t rise, and it would taste horrible. It was possible that unsanitary conditions in bakeries would lead to animal faeces and pests being incorporated into the final product.

    Far more common would be bakers overstating the weight of their loaves, so much so that bakers in England could be severely punished if they were caught cheating.

    1. Naom

      Do you have any sources to the contrary? I would love to read more into the factors leading up to industrial bread-making

  9. Yoann

    The episode pointed out that people projected their racist beliefs onto the white bread and so, asked us to question our current outlook on bread, maybe particularly the obsession about whole wheat and multigrain being better. However, today’s obsession with whole-wheat is more based on the fact the blanching process of white bread removes the nutrients from it which makes whole wheat healthier. I don’t believe there’s a racial reason behind modern preferences.

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