The rise and fall of white bread

We learned to hate the processed loaves not just because of health -- but because of class, status and race

Topics: History, Food,

The rise and fall of white bread (Credit: George Eastman House / CC BY 3.0)
This article is an adapted excerpt from "White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf," in bookstores on March 6.

Somewhere between the Cheez Whiz hors d’oeuvres and the looped Jerry Springer clip, it hit me: the “white trash party” trend of the 2000s was a cultural phenomenon best forgotten, and quickly. Reporters, mostly caught up in the pleasure of dabbing the pages of staid venues like Metropolitan Home with lines like “Jes’ belly up to the trough and dig in,” or inflecting New York Times style with “sho- nuffs” and “hons,” depicted the trend as a unified phenomenon. In fact, it arose from two very different places. The props were the same for both—a hodgepodge of white bread, processed cheese, southern rock, cheap beer, and pregnant teen costumes. They both reveled in stylized poverty. They both cultivated vulgar ugliness. And both, at some level, attempted to subvert the pretensions of an imagined elite. But the politics and participants were different.

On one hand, urban hipsters chugging Pabst Blue Ribbon beer in upscale dives dreamt of working-class authenticity, rebelling against high-class consumerism with aestheticized poverty. On the other hand, segments of the white working class — fans of the comedian Jeff Foxworthy’s self-mocking “You might be a redneck if …” brand of humor — took tongue-in-cheek pride in the iconography of trailer parks, beer bellies, and kissing cousins meant to stereotype them.

Industrial bread played a key role in both versions of white trash fun. It was both a ubiquitous menu item and a visual stand-in for a whole range of assumptions about low-class consumption. Industrial white bread called up a lack of pretension — unfussy and authentically American — but also irresponsibility and shame. To eat white bread at a white trash party was to proclaim, “I never really eat white bread.” And of course, none of that symbolism would have been possible, even imaginable, for most of the twentieth century. For most of the twentieth century, industrial white bread stood as a marker of purity, progress, and responsible consumption.

So how did white bread become white trash? In very much the same way white trash parties work—through a complex play of cultural subversions, rebellious aesthetics, rituals of social status, and protests against mass consumption. The outcomes of this process have been just as ambiguous as any white trash party: in 2009, for the first time in U.S. history, whole wheat bread sales topped white— presumably a healthy development. And yet the same anti-elitist attacks on industrial eating that set that change into motion during the late 1960s had by the 1980s generated new alimentary elites, new forms of social distinction. Dreams of good bread as an antidote to an oppressive and unhealthy social structure became the stuff of ultra-high-end consumption.

In 1954, the legendary industrial designer Raymond Loewy, commissioned to study bread packaging, observed that there was pretty much only one color combination that moved loaves off shelves — red, white, and blue, and maybe golden yellow. Ten years later, a young Catholic nun named Sister Corita with a fast-growing reputation for making edgy pop art, hijacked the classic red, white, blue, and yellow Wonder bread package design for decidedly different purposes. In a series of prints drawing inspiration from the Wonder bread label, Sister Corita proclaimed that radical Christian commensality and social justice could be snatched even from the heart of mass-consumer society. In one of Sister Corita’s Wonder bread prints, text from the French existentialist Albert Camus followed the iconic words “Enriched Bread Wonder” like an ingredient list: “Great ideas,” it read, “come into the world as gently as doves. Perhaps if we listen attentively, we shall hear, amid the uproar of empires and nations, a first flutter of wings, the gentle stirrings of life and hope. Helps Build a Body Twelve Ways.”

In the years that followed, the country saw much uproar of empires and nations — race riots, mechanized slaughter in Vietnam, assassinations, and toxic spills — but also the birth of new social movements, civil rights, feminism, environmentalism, farm workers’ rights: the gentle, and not so gentle, stirrings of life and hope. Amidst all that roar and counter-roar, however, it was increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to associate industrial bread with anything living or hopeful — even as a subversive jest. Store-bought white bread combined the two most hated motifs of the era: industrial origins and whiteness. As food historian Warren Belasco wrote, “For Theodore Roszak, who popularized the word ‘counterculture’ in his 1969 bestseller, white bread was a perfect metaphor for the regime of experts and technocrats who, for the sake of efficiency and order, threatened to rob us of all effort, thought, and independence.” “Only in Amerika could people want their food bleached . . . all bleached to match the bleached-out mentality of white supremacy,” another counterculture writer proclaimed. Good food was rustic, unrefined, and brown, ideally with roots in peasant society. “Don’t eat white; eat right,” the saying went, and Dr. Clark’s 1920s-era ditty, “The whiter your bread, the quicker you’re dead,” experienced a dramatic revival.

This political allegory had deep roots in American culture, and 1960s counterculture drew heavily on earlier food reform movements. Rumblings of the countercultural revolt against white bread could even be felt during the 1950s golden age of industrial eating. Most consumers happily ate six slices of industrial white bread a day during the 1950s, but sporadic and short-lived waves of anxiety about chemicals in bread were not uncommon.

Nevertheless, 1950s-era concerns about bread were different from those that would emerge later. In the 1950s, consumers and officials expressed their dismay at the state of bread in a language of public health, corrupt baking trusts, and adulteration that would have been immediately familiar to any food reformer of the Progressive Era.

In the 1960s and 1970s counterculture, food reformers clearly drew on these Progressive Era roots, but they also created a new language for talking about the problems of diet. Rejecting the dream of public health expertise and government regulation, the counterculture imagined individual eating itself as a form of activism.

Food choices had already begun to factor into civil rights and early antiwar activism. Lunch counter sit-ins, political fasts, and the UFW grape boycott all linked sustenance and social change. The act of eating (or not eating) could draw attention to demands for rights and recognition. But none of those late-1950s and early-1960s movements believed that social change could be achieved solely by eating the right food. Bread’s role in these movements was indicative: to the extent that it factored into their struggles, bread served generically as a symbol of Christian commensality posed against worldly injustice, as in the Wonder Bread seriographs of Sister Corita, Daniel Berrigan’s antiwar poetry (“And the Risen Bread”), or Thomas Merton’s socially engaged spiritual teachings (“Bread in the Wilderness and The Living Bread”). For these purposes, any bread would do, and social movements saw little reason to focus their attentions specifically on the evils of processed food. When Martin Luther King Jr. called for a boycott of Wonder bread in Memphis, for example, it was unfair hiring practices, not chemical additives, that concerned him.

With the emergence of the “hippie” counterculture, however, food wasn’t just a tactic in the theater of social change. Changing diets had become an arena of politics in its own right — perhaps the arena. As Crescent Dragonwagon, author of the popular Commune Cookbook, declared, the ecology of human diet united all struggles against oppression, from black and women’s liberation to antiwar movements. Again, bread was indicative. As influential whole foods guru Beatrice Trum Hunter proclaimed, bread baking constituted “a revolt against plastic food in a plastic culture. The free-form loaf is but another aspect of the revolt against the mechanization of life.”

Mostly middle-class, white, and buoyed by an upbeat economy, flower children and whole foods advocates exuded an optimistic sense that changing one’s lifestyle could change the world. Utopian dreams of leisure, freedom from oppressive experts, the pursuit of pleasure, and self-actualization flourished. Although segments of the counterculture would harden considerably after the upheavals of 1968 and into the grim recessions of the 1970s, much of it was as joyous and raucous as earlier generations of civil rights activists had been earnest and disciplined.

During the summer and fall of 1969, arguments about Vietnam, long hair, and tofu might have turned many kitchen tables into war zones. But not bread. Countercultural dream of good bread challenged authority and expertise, stood against capitalist agribusiness, and sought to remake relations among people and between nature and society. Yet the counterculture’s ideas about bread also rested on rather orthodox myths of America. “Homemade bread,” Dragonwagon observed wryly, “is a symbolic thing. It’s American — it goes with pioneers and beginnings and family.” At a time when Abby Hoffman purportedly urged kids to kill their parents, homemade, whole wheat, and multi-grain breads were an easy piece of the counterculture for outsiders to swallow.

A few social conservatives and hardliners within the baking industry rallied against dark loaves peddled by “food faddists,” “scaremongers,” and “anti-Americans,” but mostly people embraced countercultural bread. In a stirring 1968 editorial, even E. J. Pyler, the elder statesman of baking science and publisher of the industry’s leading trade magazine, urged his fellow bakers to “fight conformity.” By the late 1970s, whole wheat bread consumption had soared, industrial white bread sales had plummeted, and the country was experiencing an unprecedented revival of home baking. For the first time in decades, overall bread consumption inched upwards, and “health breads” with roots in the counterculture led the way.

Healthy eating had, of course, been one important component of the counterculture since the mid-1960s, but by the mid-1970s it had been elevated to a supreme position in American life. Stripped of its political and social critiques, the counterculture’s fixation on wellness easily morphed into an individual-centered, consumer-driven bodily project. Health food stores, yoga studios, and exercise fads flourished across the country, permanently changing the way Americans thought about wellness.

By the early 1980s, a study revealed that six out of ten young singles thought that white bread was unhealthy and White Bread to be avoided. But it was also becoming clear that this consciousness wouldn’t necessarily set in motion the larger structural and political changes counterculture food activists had hoped for. In fact, the industrial food system could almost effortlessly assimilate health consciousness. The fixation on wellness emerging across large swathes of the U.S. population in the late 1970s could serve as a much-needed new engine for profit in the industrial food system.

This was clearly the case in the baking industry. The perceived moral and bodily goodness of whole wheat bread had helped lead the country toward health food, and the baking industry was ready to share in the bounty. In fact, the 1970s health craze couldn’t have come at a better time for the industry. Through the late 1960s and early 1970s, industrial bakers labored under low profits and a tattered image. After the great chemistry- and engineering-driven advances of the 1950s and early 1960s, even industry insiders conceded that their business had fallen into a state of torpor. Market studies revealed that bread itself had become so homogeneous that consumers had trouble distinguishing one brand from another. What little profits could be squeezed out of cheap white bread came mostly from mergers and oligopoly power, rather than innovation.

In the 1900s bakers undercut home baking with fears of impurity and contagion, buttressed by a charismatic sheen of scientific authority. By the 1970s, however, counterculture gurus had effectively associated charismatic food science with hubris and destruction. A new strategy was needed. So, in the 1980s, the baking industry took back terrain from home baking with niche marketing and appeals to upscale chic.

This approach reflected larger shifts in the U.S. economy. Rocked by recessions, oil crises, and de-industrialization, the U.S. economy began to take on a new form in the 1970s. Manufacturing no longer served as the country’s driving engine. Financial services — making money from money — had begun to take their place at the center of the economy.

After steadily rising through the postwar period, real wages for most Americans began to decline. Even forty years later, average wages adjusted for cost of living still wouldn’t have returned to their pre-1970s level, but the financialization of the U.S. economy did produce enormous wealth for urban professionals. Wealth distribution in the country became, and remained, more polarized than at any other period since the Roaring Twenties. Affluent singles and childless couples reveled in unprecedented disposable incomes, giving rise to a world of “yuppie” consumption. And yet, across the country, households that could afford to maintain counterculture food guru Carol Flinders’s dream of a dedicated homemaker caring for her family with homemade bread were growing increasingly rare.

These trends would have a marked effect on the very nature of consumption. During the postwar era of rising wages and decreasing inequality, consumption largely took the form of standardized, one-size-fits-all, mass-market commodities. As with enriched white breads on supermarket shelves, differences among competing commodities were relatively small. During the 1980s, however, fueled by the rapid segmentation of American society, consumer life diversified into ever-more precise niche markets. Massive department stores lost ground to boutique chains catering to narrow bands of consumers, who increasingly began to tie their identities to specific niche markets.

Along with advances in transportation and packaging, this had a profound effect on the American diet. No longer would everyone eat the same iceberg lettuce. Increasingly, shoppers could choose the style of lettuce—shipped in from Mexico, if needed — that fit their status aspirations exactly. To survive, bakers would have to embrace real product diversification. And in this area, upstarts outpaced industry leaders. Small bakeries sprouted up across the country in record numbers during the 1980s. By the 1990s, some of them had grown into chains, “vying to become the ‘Starbucks’ of bread.” Au Bon Pain, La Vie de France, Great Harvest, the St. Louis Bread Company, and Breadsmith clones spread through suburban malls and city streets.

Meanwhile, urban elites could select from a growing array of high-end bread bakeries — often with roots in the counterculture. On the West Coast, young urban professionals — yuppies — discovered the pleasures of European-style artisan loaves at Nancy Silverton’s La Brea Bakery or Steve Sullivan’s Acme Bread. In New York, the late 1980s and early 1990s saw the opening of soon-to-be-institutions like Amy’s Bakery, Tom Cat Bakery, and the Sullivan Street Bakery.

A Washington Post article commemorating the moment in 2009 when whole wheat bread sales surpassed white for the first time in U.S. history explained this reversal. Growing awareness of the importance of the fiber and nutrients found in whole grains played a role, but so did status aspirations. Today, the article observed, whole wheat bread “signifies the sophistication of your palate, your appreciation for texture and variety…. The grainier you like it, the more refined your sensibilities. The darker it is, the greater your chance for enlightenment.” Industrial white bread has completed its two-hundred-year trajectory from modern marvel to low-class item. As the spokeswoman for a food industry–affiliated nonprofit nutrition policy organization concluded, “It used to be, ‘Oh, you poor thing, you have that nasty brown bread.’ … Now it’s, ‘Oh, you poor thing. You have that nasty white bread.’ ”

Excerpted from “White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf,” by Aaron Bobrow-Strain (Beacon Press, 2012). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

Aaron Bobrow-Strain is associate professor of politics at Whitman College in Washington. He writes and teaches on the politics of the global food system. He is the author of "Intimate Enemies: Landowners, Power and Violence in Chiapas."

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