White Bread or Brown Bread: A Matter of Taste or of a Great Social Divide?

What can be more mindless than fixing toast for breakfast?  Just pop the bread in the toaster and voila!  But actually, the simple fact is that the Della Fattoria pumpkin seed bread baked in a brick oven with organic grains and Brittany sea salt says a lot about who I am and how I choose to project myself as a member of the larger community of toast eaters, not to mention how I’ve progressed since my growing up days when I ate squishy white bread.  Whoa, this talk of bread has awakened a suppressed urge to return to the classroom where, among other things, I discussed how our social identity and what we eat were intertwined.

[We suggest that to get in the right frame of mind you play the Newbeats’ 1964 Bread and Butter music while you read on].

I regularly subjected my students to the classic documentary People Like Us  published way back in 2001.  One segment of the documentary points out how our bread preferences coincide with how we see ourselves socially and how we judge others.  Even though the majority of Americans at one time preferred white bread, whole wheaters (which I am guessing comprise at least 95% of those who would follow a food blog like this) tend to be more highly educated and affluent (i.e., “higher class”).  The documentary shows a Burlington, Vermont “food fight” over who would get permission to build a downtown grocery: the Onion River Co-op (favored by brown bread eaters) or Shaw’s, a national chain (favored by the white bread champions). Even though the Co-op promised to honor the tastes of the masses, many Burlingtonians were suspicious of a place they considered too expensive and possibly also too judgmental of those who opted for “Wonder Bread, cigarettes, and red meat.”

OK, at this point  my former-professor-self gives me license to add a thought exercise for your consideration.  Imagine while in your local market you pass a neighbor as you push your cart down the aisle. As you exchange small talk you notice that in his or her cart is a loaf of  Wonder Bread (see illustration above if you are unfamiliar with what one of these looks like; it’s the one on the left).  What goes through your mind at this moment?  Contemplate this while I continue.

Aaron Bobrow-Strain’s recent White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf was published just as I was retiring from university teaching, so I never had the opportunity to share it with students;  you are now surrogates for my lost student audience.  For those who do not wish to read the whole book (there will be no quiz, by the way) refer to Tamar Adler’s New York Times (not so flattering) review of the book. 

In short, big changes in the U.S. bread industry began with industrialization and the rapid rise of the working class around the turn of the 20th century.  Bread baked in the home declined and increasingly became a staple found in bakeries and markets.  A combination of factors led to the “Wonder Bread revolution:”  (1) a fear that unsanitary conditions in the food industry caused disease (Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was a major contributor), (2) a large influx of southern and eastern European immigrants, many of whom worked in the bread making industry and were perceived to be “ignorant of proper hygiene, and (3) technology allowing the efficient and relatively inexpensive steel grinding of wheat (vs. the old stone ground technology) as well as mechanically slicing perfectly shaped loaves of white bread  (because they were so soft and squishy they could not be sliced with a kitchen knife).    Now we know the source of the saying, “The best thing since sliced bread.”  According to 99% Invisible (our son Travis pointed me to this fascinating podcast),  “for middle and upper class whites, xenophobia become inseparable from fears about bread safety.”  The miracle of sanitized sliced white bread delivered them from the germ-infested brown bread of the lower classes.   The wonderful irony of this comes full circle when we consider what the Washington Post reports as the now booming artisan bread industry: brown bread has become the darling of the privileged class and beyond.  I ponder on these things as I munch my multigrain pumpkin seed toast.

So, the bread that we toast for our blog is more than merely toasted bread.  Bread undergirds our social stratification system and perpetuates the class structure (pretty dramatic stuff, no?).  It is no accident that not one of our recipes features a photo of a piece of white sliced bread.  We plead guilty to the class-based bias that artisan bread is preferable to sliced white bread.  However, that does not mean that those of us who are old enough don’t have fond memories of our more innocent childhood days when peanut butter and jelly sandwiches made with machine-sliced white bread were routinely found in our school lunch pails. In fact, my suppressed urge to return to the classroom lectern is being nudged aside by my repressed urge to return to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on soft, fresh, factory-sliced white bread.

A final note:  what about the political implications of sliced white bread vs. artisanal bread?  According to a 2014 New York Times article,  “the most Republican-leaning company in the country, based on political donations, isn’t Koch Industries. It’s the company that makes Wonder Bread”.    I can’t wait to see what our president will tweet about his preference for bread, even though I won’t say which kind of bread I think he would prefer (more than likely,  sources who wish to remain anonymous will spill the beans).


  1. David Ewing says:

    “Or rather would have, if she were.” She wasn’t, isn’t and doesn’t. But it would be kind of cool.
    As to the coffee and grammatical competence, maybe not. But the errors in question reflect rather typographical competence and in this case, definitely: coffee deficit > bleary eyes and inattention > typographical errors. Q.E.D.


  2. David Ewing says:

    Ooop. I apologize for leaving out “sandwich” and leaving in an extra “be” in the fourth sentence from the end. If you count, “Maybe not.” as a sentence. One shouldn’t post before coffee in the morning.


  3. David Ewing says:

    Of course. And so it is as well with all manner of costuming, custom and belief. But, Andy, puh-leeze don’t say stuff like, ” Bread undergirds our social stratification system and perpetuates the class structure (pretty dramatic stuff, no?),” or we’ll have to report you to the logic police for confusing correlation with causation, committing post hoc ergo propter hoc, and setting our few remaining teeth on edge. It’s not Frankie’s tattoo that makes her a biker chick, it’s being a biker chick that made her get a tattoo. Or rather would have, if she were. And for goodness sake, don’t repress your urge for a Wonder Bread peanut butter sandwich. I should think eating one now would pretty much permanently extirpate the urge. I wonder if the urge this piece stirred in me for a Wonder Bread, baloney, plain yellow mustard and sliced ripe garden tomatoes would be also succumb to re-experience from my current sophisticated and nuanced perspective. Maybe not. Sliced ripe garden tomatoes never went out of fashion. They just got really expensive.


    • theRaggedys says:

      I apologize for the inference that “undergirds” implies direct causality; you are correct that bread has very little to do with the origins of our class structure. I just desperately wanted to sound sociological just once. Also, it comes as a complete shock that Frankie has a biker chick tattoo (even hypothetically).


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