When Hana enters the small bakery I have borrowed for a day, I am dividing a loaf into 1.5-centimeter slices. The loaf’s tranches articulate a white fanned deck, each one the exact counterpart of its fellows. The bread is smooth and uniform, like a Bauhaus office block. There are no unneeded flourishes or swags. Each symmetrical slice shines so white it is almost blue. This is a work of modern art. My ten-year-old daughter does not pause to say hello. She rushes to the cutting board, aghast, and blurts, “It’s fake!” Then she devours a piece in three bites, and asks for more.
I have just spent a day re-creating the iconic loaf of 1950s-era soft white industrial bread, using easily acquired ingredients and home kitchen equipment. With the help of a 1956 government report detailing a massive, multiyear attempt to formulate the perfect loaf of white bread, achieving that re-creation proved relatively easy. Until Hana’s arrival, however, I did not fully understand why I was doing it. I had sensed that extracting this industrial miracle food of yesteryear from the dustbin of kitsch might have something to teach about present-day efforts to change the food system; that it might offer perspective on our own confident belief that artisanal eating can restore health, rebuild community, and generally save the world. But, really, it was reactions like Hana’s that I wanted to understand. How can a food be so fake and yet so eagerly eaten, so abhorred and so loved?
Sliced white bread as we know it today is the product of early twentieth-century streamlined design. It is the Zephyr train of food. But, in the American imagination, industrial loaves are more typically associated with the late ’50s and early ’60s—the Beaver Cleaver days of Baby Boomer nostalgia, the Golden Age of Wonder Bread. This is not without justification: during the late ’50s and early ’60s, Americans ate a lot of it. Across race, class, and generational divides, Americans consumed an average of a pound and a half of white bread per person, every week. Indeed, until the late ’60s, Americans got from 25 to 30 percent of their daily calories from the stuff, more than from any other single item in their diet (and far more than any single item contributes to the American diet today—even high-fructose corn syrup).
Only a few years earlier, however, as world war morphed into cold war, the future of industrial bread looked uncertain. On the cusp of the Wonder years, Americans still ate enormous quantities of bread, but, even so, government officials and baking-industry experts worried that bread would lose its central place on the American table. In a world of rising prosperity and exciting new processed foods, the Zephyr train of food looked a bit tarnished. And so, in 1952, hoping to offset possible declines in bread consumption, the U.S. Department of Agriculture teamed up with baking-industry scientists to launch the Manhattan Project of bread.
Conceived as an intensive panoramic investigation of the country’s bread-eating habits, the project had ambitious goals: First, gain a precise, scientific understanding of exactly how much and what kind of bread Americans ate, when and why they ate it, and what they thought about it. Second, use that information to engineer the perfect loaf of white bread—a model for all industrial white bread to come.
After two years of preliminary research, focus groups, failed loaves, and exploratory taste tests around the country, the project reached its culmination in Rockford, Illinois. In the early ’50s, all the whiz kids of market research flocked to Rockford. An industrial center built by European immigrants, daring inventors, and strong labor unions, the city was the stuff of middle-class dreams. Although its economy was far more industrial than the national average, it suited America’s self-image to think of it as the country’s most “typical” city, and sociologists obliged with the label. In 1949, Life magazine declared that Rockford was “as nearly typical of the U.S. as any city can be.” This was a place where prototypical Americans could be viewed in their natural habitat.
Thus, in 1954, USDA investigators journeyed from Chicago and Washington, D.C., to the shores of the Rock River to select two test groups, each comprising three hundred families “scientifically representative” of a typical American community. Over the next two years, the market researchers would deploy all the techniques of their emerging field on these six hundred families. They tracked bread purchases, devised means of weighing every ounce of bread consumed by the test population, conducted long interviews with housewives, and distributed thousands of questionnaires. Most important, they created a double-blind experiment that asked every member of every family to assess five different white-bread formulas over six weeks. Four years and almost one hundred thousand slices of bread after the project’s conception, a clear portrait of America’s favorite loaf emerged. It was 42.9 percent fluffier than the existing industry standard and 250 percent sweeter.
This is the bread I sought to reproduce—“USDA White Pan Loaf No. 1”—the archetype of 1950s-vintage American bread. I’m far from the American heartland, however. I’m living in the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico. When the industrial-bread-baking bug bit me in this hot and unfamiliar place, I despaired at first. But Mexico is not as inappropriate a place to bake Cold War–era American white bread as you might think. In the early twenty-first century, U.S. companies no longer lead the world in the production of “American” bread. Today, the world’s most dynamic producer of sliced white bread is a Mexican multinational—Grupo Bimbo. Headquartered in the elite Mexico City business district of Santa Fe, Bimbo has almost ten billion dollars in global sales, one hundred thousand employees, and operations in eighteen countries, from Chile to China. Since 1996, it has also quietly acquired many of the United States’ most iconic bakery brands. After its takeovers of Weston Foods in 2009 and Sara Lee in 2011, the Mexican company poised itself to become the United States’ largest industrial bread baker.
How white bread took root in the land of the corn tortilla is a long story, but, like the story of USDA White Pan Loaf No. 1, it is a story of the early Cold War. After World War II, U.S. officials, Rockefeller Foundation scientists, and the Mexican government collaborated to undermine the allure of communism with cheap, plentiful, industrially produced wheat. Infusions of high-tech U.S. baking equipment and know-how then allowed Mexican companies like Bimbo to turn that wheat into cheap, abundant bread. Who knows whether U.S. food policy actually helped prevent the spread of communism south of the Rio Grande, but it did create a country with a taste for white bread—and a company with the ability to lead the world in its production.
So while there may be no better place in the world to bake American industrial bread than Mexico, living here means that I’m far from my own oven, mixer, scale, and familiar ingredients. I turn for help to Monique Duval, owner of a tiny artisanal bakery in Mérida, and one of the founding members of Slow Food Yucatán. She says she appreciates my irony and agrees to let me use her space. On the way, I pick up a loaf of Bimbo for good luck.
Surprisingly, the formula for “USDA No. 1,” as I begin to call it, is relatively simple. The ingredients are straightforward and easily found: enriched white-bread flour, water, nonfat milk solids, sugar, lard, salt, and yeast. And, although the instructions are written for a fully automated bakery, I’m able to adapt them for home use (a complete recipe appears at the end of this article). Only one piece of the formula gives me trouble—something cryptically referred to as “yeast food.” The name is misleading. “Yeast foods” are, in fact, a class of mineral salts and enzymes that don’t so much “feed” Saccharomyces microbes as help them eat faster, longer, and more effectively by breaking starches into the simpler sugars yeast consumes, by creating a more amenable dining environment, or by promoting the formation of strong gluten strands to trap the carbon-dioxide gas produced after it eats.
Since I have no idea what the USDA bakers used for yeast food in the early ’50s, or how to acquire it in Mexico, I resign myself to using humanity’s oldest yeast food—sugar—as a substitute. Then, walking home from the gym the day before I am to begin my experiment, I stumble upon a mom-and-pop bakery-supply store. There, amid unlabeled bags of grains and white powders, I discover mejorante para pan blanco. Let’s call it “the Magic Powder.”
Mexicans are serious about their soft white bread, and this stuff, the shop owner’s son assures me, is the secret. Better still, it has instructions and a printed ingredient list. I even recognize several yeast foods among the alphabet soup of six chemical compounds (the remaining components are emulsifiers—ingredients that help fats and water to mix, assuring speedy mixing, moisture retention, and a perfectly homogenous crumb—or dough strengtheners).
Armed with fifty pesos’ worth of Magic Powder, I cannot fail. Thirty-five minutes after I mix the dough’s preliminary sponge, it has exploded out of its bowl like a giant brain coral. Later, when it comes time to proof the loaves, the dough swells over the top of its pans in less than twelve minutes. Watching this, Monique’s assistants—young men who have learned all they know of bread making in her artisanal shop—look at each other guiltily. “Our bread doesn’t rise that fast,” one says, shaking his head as if maybe he had been doing something wrong for years. I’m also astounded. In almost two decades of making slow-rising European hearth breads, I’ve never seen a dough eruption like this. If I had, I would have used a bigger bowl.
Every element in this dough, I finally understand, is designed to achieve the ultimate ambition of industrial baking: faster, higher, stronger dough.
Faster comes first, because dough just taking up space on the shop floor “doing nothing” (i.e., fermenting) is anathema to the relentless pace of industrial assembly lines. Indeed, this is the reason bread production industrialized later than other staple foods in the U.S.: In order to achieve efficient capitalist production of bread, the slow, unruly rhythms of dough’s living nature had to be tamed and trained. To accomplish this, industrial bread formulas, like mine, have to deploy an arsenal of tricks. They require far more yeast than artisanal loaves, and boost it with chemical stimulants. All mixing is done at ultra-high speeds, and the USDA formula also sports an ingenious procedural shortcut developed in the early ’50s: almost all of the time spent waiting for nature is front-loaded into the recipe. In a home-baking context, the dough’s initial four-hour “sponge time” might seem slow for such a supposedly fast recipe. In a factory, however, it allowed bakers to dance around nature.
Until the early 1950s, even the most cutting-edge bakers still fermented dough in much the same way as ancient Egyptians did: they mixed a batch and waited for it to rise, mixed another batch and waited for it to rise. Temperature controls and chemical yeast nutrients could speed up batch fermentation, but dough’s biological rhythm still punctuated the otherwise-smooth assembly-line flow of industrial baking. No matter how fast a baker could mix dough or speed it through ovens, production capacity was limited by the space available for giant troughs of dough just sitting around for hours.
Beginning in the 1920s, scientists and engineers scrambled for ways to circumvent natural fermentation, but all failed. It was, in a sense, the Holy Grail of bakery science. Technology could accelerate fermentation, but it was too much a part of bread’s flavor and structure to do away with altogether. Then, in 1952, John C. Baker, a chemist who first grew interested in bread while studying the effects of chlorine-gas bleaching on flour, grasped the problem from a new angle. Previously, scientists had worked to eliminate fermentation altogether, which was impossible, or to speed it up, which still left bakers waiting for space-hogging batches. What if, Baker speculated, instead of eliminating or speeding fermentation, the microbial action of yeasts could simply be separated into its own industrial process, removed from
In 1953, Dr. Baker released the first prototype assembly line based on this theory. In “the Do-Maker Process,” as he called it, an independent assembly line continually produced vats of liquid ferment—a broth of yeast, water, and yeast foods. The broth required four hours of fermentation time, just like USDA No. 1, but some was always on hand, ready to be injected into an ultrahigh-speed mixer, where it combined with a steady stream of flour and other dry ingredients. The result was a nonstop stream of “fermented” dough ready for panning and proofing. The Do-Maker Process cut three hours of waiting time off every loaf. More important, because transferring batches of dough required more hand labor than any other aspect of industrial baking, it dramatically reduced personnel costs.
To make dough faster, the Rockford formula also makes lavish use of two of the world’s oldest accelerants: heat and humidity. USDA No. 1 ferments almost instantly at 80 degrees, and then proofs at 100 with rainforest-like humidity cranking up its yeasty metabolism to unbelievable heights. Combined with yeast food, it’s like microbes on meth. Artisanal bakers, on the other hand, favor long, cool dough development. Many even use refrigeration to slow fermentation over dozens of hours. They know that heat and humidity produce enormous volumes of dough quickly but don’t allow enough time for flavor development.
And this brings us to the second goal of industrial baking: higher dough, huge volume. In the Rockford study, respondents surprised researchers by universally choosing far fluffier loaves than even the standard supermarket brands offered at the time. The ideal loaf—USDA No. 1—contained an ethereal ten cubic centimeters of pillowy volume per ounce, compared to the then commercial standard of seven. To produce bread this fluffy, industrial formulas prod Saccharomyces microbes on to ever-greater productivity, making sure that large quantities of new yeast are around to step in when their companions drop dead from exhaustion, and chemically strengthen gluten to capture all that gas.
But what’s so great about fluffy bread, anyway? Even Rockfordians seemed confused on this point. Despite respondents’ overwhelming preference for the downiest loaves possible, almost 20 percent also complained that their bread was “too airy,” while other market studies regularly turned up dissatisfaction with the jet-puffed softness of modern bread. To understand this contradiction, we need to go back to the beginning of bread industrialization.
In the early 1900s, instead of baking their own bread or buying it face-to-face from a neighborhood baker, consumers were increasingly purchasing loaves from far-off factories. Instead of seeing, smelling, and touching their bread directly, they were picking up loaves sealed in hygienic wrapping. Although early twentieth-century consumers were, like their early twenty-first-century counterparts, obsessed with the question of where their food came from and took very seriously the task of choosing “modern,” “hygienic” loaves “untouched by human hands,” they had no good way of judging when their bread came. They needed a new way of determining freshness, and they found it by squeezing their bread.
In early twentieth-century consumers’ minds, fluffier bread seemed fresher—even if it wasn’t. Squeezable softness had become consumers’ proxy for knowing when their bread had been baked. By the 1920s, market surveys revealed that consumers didn’t necessarily like eating soft bread, but they always bought the softest-feeling loaf. By the 1950s, softness had become an end in itself, and savvy bakery scientists set about engineering ever-fluffier loaves—like USDA No. 1.
Speed and softness, in turn, created one final requirement for industrial baking: doughs that could stand up to the traumas of ultrahigh-speed mixing, mechanical handling, and juiced-up yeast. Subjected to the strains of industrial baking, any normal dough—Monique’s whole-wheat sourdough, for example—would collapse. Violent mixing and explosive swelling would tear its gluten strands apart, pitilessly shredding its lofty structure, producing a dense, fallen loaf. This is where the Magic Powder really pulls its weight, with several ingredients—sodium stearoyl-2-lactylate, hemicellulose, and azodicarbonamide—that help gluten strands in the dough stand up to tough handling and stretch to incredible heights without breaking.
Exactly six hours and five minutes after I first mixed flour and water, my loaves emerge from the oven. “The bakery smells like bread!” Monique’s assistant exclaims—which is to say that it smells like a bread factory. Sharp, yeasty smells overwhelm all others, drowning the milder nutty aromas that normally fill the bakery. But I don’t think about that. I’m too busy admiring the visual spectacle of my loaves. They are towering monuments; golden, overstuffed sofas inflated bigger than any loaf I’ve ever baked, yet not tearing or distending. In my gut, I know instantly that I’ve achieved ten cubic centimeters per ounce of loft, but what about the perfectly uniform internal structure I crave?
When baking European breads, I bend over backward to produce a honeycomb of bright, irregular holes, a mark of quality in many artisanal loaves. But large, uneven holes have no place in the modernist aesthetic. Each one would represent an unacceptable reminder of bread’s natural life, a worm-eaten realm of imperfection, unconquered by science. I can’t wait to slice the bread open to reveal its secret architecture.
First it must cool, and while it cools Monique and I drink café de olla redolent of cinnamon and brown sugar. Monique’s mother was an aspiring Mexican American movie star, and her father a Cuban dancer who pretended to be French and left a trail of deceived wives and children across the southern U.S. From them, Monique inherited charisma, a huge smile, and passionate energy. Her strange childhood also left her with a fierce aversion to anything false, and USDA No. 1 is about as false as it gets in her book.
Since moving to Mérida from the U.S., to simplify her life and get back to her Mexican roots, Monique has campaigned tirelessly to make “real” food available and appreciated. Her mind moves at a thousand projects per minute—the bakery, Slow Food, the weekly farmers’ market she organizes, a soon-to-open café, community gardening, backyard aquaculture… Every idea is intended to raise awareness about “real” food. “If people only knew about their food!” she repeats several times. When Hana enters at the end of our waiting and blurts out, “It’s fake!”, Monique gives her a smile of approval. When Hana tears into her slice, the smile wavers.
The refrain “If people only knew about their food” gets uttered a lot by food activists today. Once we learn the perils of industrial eating, it seems, we will instinctively go back to something more authentic; something like our grandmothers’ simple world, where people understood the difference between good food and bad food.
But what about all the people who know but don’t change? In this, sliced white bread offers a microcosm of our larger, fraught relationship with industrial eating. Industrial bread as we know it emerged in the 1890s and 1900s, amid widespread anxiety about germs and “dirty” immigrants. In that moment of upheaval, industrial bread was a perfectly shaped, perfectly clean, perfectly white antidote to fears of racial contamination. During the Roaring Twenties, however, industrial bread itself became the target of considerable anger and anxiety. It appeared to be too pure, too perfect; critics said that it was making the country fat, dumb, and lazy. Since then, the contradictory embrace of and aversion to industrial loaves have repeated themselves endlessly—even during the Golden Age of Wonder Bread.
In 1950s Rockford, despite the fact that almost 40 percent of families purchased industrial white bread five or more times a week, and nearly 90 percent consumed it at every single meal, study
respondents expressed numerous critiques of their bread. About a third of housewives complained that industrial bread was “doughy; gummy; soggy; not well baked,” while 15 percent simply despised its taste. Indeed, depending on the year, between 60 and 75 percent of Rockfordians had at least one major complaint about store-bought bread. In the early 1950s, it wouldn’t have been hard to find these tepid responses affirmed by a whole range of white-bread critics writing for popular magazines and newspapers. Whether you looked at Better Homes and Gardens, Sunset, or Harper’s Bazaar, homemaker advice columns in small-town newspapers, or the more lofty New York Times food section, it would have been hard to find anything good said about the taste of industrial white bread. In a steady stream of newspaper articles, letters to the editor from housewives, and popular magazine features, industrial white bread was described as “cottony fluff,” “cotton batting,” “fake,” “inedible,” “limp,” and “hot air.”
So why did Americans also love the stuff? It wasn’t because they didn’t have access to other options. The majority of families in the Rockford study reported that they regularly bought other types of bread—whole wheat, rye, and Vienna loaves—alongside their white. And it wasn’t just because Americans were duped by corporate advertising. Certainly, advertising did play a major role in producing the desire for industrial food (just as advertising also helps produce the desire for “homey” artisanal food). But the truth is bigger than advertising. It lies in an ethos of scientific eating that emerged out of real anxieties and aspirations in the early twentieth century.
We could trace this ethos to the 1910s, when each perfect loaf provided an edible vision of purity and abundance; a time when efficient industrial production of the country’s most important food allowed consumers to imagine the imminent conquest of scarcity and disease. Or we could trace it to the 1920s, when industrial bakers reengineered loaves to look like sleek works of modern art, shining white spectacles of technological progress. For brevity’s sake, though, we’ll start with a moment fresher in the minds of 1950s consumers—the run-up to World War II.
In 1940, with U.S entry into Europe’s war appearing ever more inevitable, Congress authorized the country’s first peacetime draft. As men lined up at draft boards, however, it quickly became evident that the United States had a problem. After a decade of lean economic times, men age twenty-one to thirty-five were dangerously unfit to fight. While a spate of books written during America’s post-2008 crisis celebrate Depression-era cooks for their thrifty use of “real” ingredients, war planners saw a grimmer picture. Nationwide, Selective Service director General Lewis B. Hershey reported, draft boards had to turn away 380,000 of the first million men screened, with malnutrition directly or indirectly causing at least a third of all rejections.
A government commission convened to study war readiness found that 75 percent of low-income high-school students suffered from vitamin B2 deficiencies, and 65 percent of WPA workers suffered from scurvy or near scurvy. Another report revealed that 54 percent of a sample of low-income whites and blacks suffered from night blindness characteristic of vitamin A deficiency—a statistic that terrified war planners looking ahead to combat conditions. Meanwhile, pellagra—the vitamin-deficiency disease most closely, if incorrectly, associated with bread-eating habits—killed twenty thousand Americans and debilitated well over one hundred thousand between 1933 and 1938.
Because Americans got more calories from bread than from any other food, and because industrial white loaves had been widely condemned as unhealthy during the 1930s, war planners knew they would have to change the country’s bread habit. Eating industrial white bread, one popular science writer reflected in 1941, did Hitler’s work for him. Later, Cornell nutrition scientist Clive McCay would reflect back on the moment: bread’s role in war had been clear to anyone who looked abroad, he argued. The secret of Germany’s “husky soldiers” was its “excellent dark loaf”; the great resilience of Russia was its stubborn rye bread. France, on the other hand, a nation of puffy-white-bread eaters, had folded. What would become of the United States, where people simply would not eat whole wheat? Despite hopeful slogans like “America’s Bread Front Has Never Failed,” war planners were worried. Something had to be done, but what?
By 1943, this question had been decisively answered. The country would repair its broken staff with synthetic enrichment, the universally mandated addition of thiamin, niacin, iron, and, later, riboflavin to flour and bread. For war planners, synthetic enrichment was the only “realistic” way to improve the nation’s health in a hurry. Even prominent nutrition scientists long skeptical of white bread joined the consensus in the name of wartime expedience. Synthetic enrichment was, they conceded, the quickest way to rush vitamins to almost every American, almost every day—without needing to change the country’s tastes or upset its milling and baking industries.
Bakers couldn’t believe their luck. One simple flick of a compressed nutrient wafer into every batch of dough could put to rest decades of condemnation, and restore the busted staff to its former glory. But early market research showed that bread buyers harbored deep-seated suspicions about bakers’ enriched-bread claims. Many housewives confused the word enriched with richness, assuming vitamin bread was more fattening than regular loaves. Some believed that enriched bread was a medicinal product best reserved for sick family members, while others simply dismissed enriched as a meaningless advertising word.
Underlying this was the fact that, while food manufacturers had enriched a few products since the 1930s, and home economists had lectured about the importance of vitamins since the 1910s, most Americans had no idea what it all meant. A 1940 Gallup poll found that only 9 percent of Americans knew why vitamins were important. If the country was to accept the idea that citizens had a patriotic duty to eat vitamin-rich foods, a national education campaign would have to convince them.
Bread seemed like a good place to start. In January 1941, the National Research Council for Defense announced that enriched bread would help the country “withstand the stresses and strains of war,” and newspapers from Marysville, Ohio, to Brainerd, Minnesota; Amarillo, Texas, to Ogden, Utah, carried the story on their front pages. The surgeon general reinforced this message in a widely read Better Homes and Gardens article. “The time has come,” the surgeon general declared, “when it is the patriotic duty of every American to eat enriched bread.”
Baking companies echoed the message in newspapers and radio ads, while Red Cross and civil-defense nutrition classes instructed housewives across the country to choose enriched bread. Government anthropologists developed strategies to communicate the importance of enrichment to immigrant groups, and The Modest Miracle, a Hollywood short feature, touted vitamin bread in theaters.
These efforts didn’t fall on deaf ears. Industry studies reported large increases in demand for enriched bread. “Probably no other food and nutrition program has advanced so rapidly as the national movement to fortify cereal foods with vitamins and minerals,” General Mills vice president R. C. Sherwood announced in an address to the American Public Health Association.
But this wasn’t just about selling bread. War planners believed that the enrichment campaign would engender a broader consumer consciousness around nutrition and defense—and it did. As the influential nutritionist Hazel K. Stiebeling reflected after the war, bread-enrichment campaigns trained Americans to take vitamins seriously. Indeed, this effort worked so well that government officials and bread advertisers frequently had to pause to remind consumers that enriched bread was not a medicine or a miracle. In this context, alternatives to industrial white bread—eating whole-wheat loaves or eschewing bread altogether—could be denounced not just as “fads” but as national-
security threats. Ten years later, an editorial in the Journal of Home Economics marveled at how effective this strategy had been at silencing critics.
When fighting ended in the Pacific, bakers understandably wanted to keep the association between bread and national strength alive. Advertising images of soldiers and war workers segued smoothly into depictions of children—mostly boys—engaged in competitive striving for physical and mental superiority. In these ads, boys lunged at fleeing girls, wrestled each other, triumphantly waved straight-A report cards, supported enormous weights, and grew bones, teeth, muscle, and brain cells at explosive rates. Mrs. Bohnet’s Bread in San Antonio helped a skinny boy drive railroad spikes with a toy hammer, while burly track-layers looked on in amazement. Holsum enriched bread gave “Johnny” the energy to swing from chandeliers over his listless, non-bread-eating sister, and a Town Talk bread poster showed a tiny bruiser tackling his grandfather on the football field.
With the country’s burgeoning fertility rates, the shift in advertising images from soldiers to children made sense. Baking-industry advertising had used children in the past, of course. But before the war it typically portrayed them as innocents to be protected through scientific hygiene, as cuddly objects symbolizing purity and wholesomeness, or as fragile objects of care. What changed after World War II was not the focus on children in bread advertising; it was the ubiquitous language of competitive striving used in that effort.
Baby-boomer nostalgia paints early Cold War childhood as an age of play and plenty. And it was, for many Americans, at least. But anxiety and competition underpinned play and plenty. Boys’ toys took an emphatically bellicose form, and the new media of television served up a steady stream of aggressive masculinity and Manichean struggle. As in previous periods of national emergency, Cold War popular culture consistently depicted mothers as both the country’s first line of defense against invisible enemies and, potentially, its weakest link. According to the emergent logic of permanent readiness, mothers would oversee the creation of warm, protective havens for the country’s future Cold Warriors, while guarding against maternal instincts that might produce overly soft “mama’s boys.”
In this context, health and vigor sold bread far more than taste or freshness did. Tellingly, 98 percent of Rockford housewives in the USDA study believed that, despite its many flaws, industrial white bread was highly nutritious—a strong and vigorous food. People who still felt that there was just something wrong with industrial loaves would have to find a language other than that of nutritional science to express their doubts. Aesthetic arguments offered one of the only ways forward, but epicurean appeals often rang hollow against the muscle-bound science of enriched-white-bread advocates.
Take, for example, Lee Anderson’s bizarre tirade in the Atlantic Monthly in 1947. “Modern bread may well be more digestible than [grandmother’s] bread… more nour-
ishing, more scientifically pure, more enriched with those essential substances which make hair grow, eyes see better, bones get harder,” Anderson conceded. “But Grandma’s bread was bread… and if Grandpa had to wear ‘specs’ at sixty-five and lost all his teeth at eighty because his diet was deficient in vitamins, no one ever complained that the bread was at fault.”
With friends like these, critics of industrial white bread needed no enemies. Enriched bread might taste like a “soggy mass of chemicals,” but at least you kept your teeth and eyesight. White bread might taste like cotton batting, but it gave Americans the strength to do what they needed to do in a dangerous world.
Even Jane Nickerson, the New York Times’ influential food editor, replicated the unbreachable divide between gourmet taste and industrial fortitude. In an article written during the Rockford study, Nickerson compared American white bread to its European counterparts. Opposition to American white bread, she argued, was divided into two camps, one based on health and the other on flavor. The epicurean critics held a special place in her heart; indeed, they were incontrovertibly correct. Fluffy, limp-crusted, bland industrial white bread couldn’t hold a candle to crisp, nutty-flavored French and Italian breads. Alas—and one can almost hear her sigh echoing across the decades—“health values deal with fact while flavor considerations deal with opinion.” Thus, in the end, readers were better off buying industrial white bread, for their family’s health.
Armed with this confident and urgent vision of good food, Americans didn’t just buy a lot of white bread; they also set out to transform the world’s bread. Nowhere was this stranger than in occupied Japan, where U.S. officials believed that getting the Japanese to switch from rice to industrial white bread would build the conquered people’s “democratic spirit” and prevent the spread of communism. At home and abroad, a peculiar way of producing bread had become fused to the imperatives of peace and progress.
Looking back at all this, it would be easy to laugh. White bread and health? White bread and progress? White bread and “democratic spirit”? Really? But foodies who dismiss industrial food as low-class kitsch, an emblem of sadly uninformed choices, miss something important: real, authentic attachments to the promises of industrial eating. What remains to be seen is whether advocates for food-system change can confront the dreams of leisure, abundance, vigor, and security wrapped up in industrial eating, not just dismiss them.
When I cut my loaf as neatly as possible by human hand, the crumb is so even it might have been laid down by a dot-matrix printer. When I divide out a piece measuring exactly ten cubic centimeters, it weighs .7 ounces—lighter and fluffier than USDA No. 1. For different reasons, neither Monique nor Hana notice this triumph. But I do. I have mastered nature, conquered time and biology, banished scarcity and strife. “I am Prometheus!” I declare, eating a slice… but what is that odd metallic aftertaste?
Over the next five days, USDA No. 1 remains ungodly soft, even in this tough climate. Its flavor disintegrates, though. Early overtones of warm, yeasty fun give way to a solid base of aseptic cardboard. Even Hana agrees. Mentally comparing USDA No. 1 to the crisp-crusted pain au levain we usually bake at home, I find it easy to feel smug. Thank god today’s dreams of good society rest on the natural and rustic, I think. But baking USDA No. 1 has also attuned me to the possibility that today’s miracle food can become tomorrow’s catastrophe. In some ways, the visions of “good food” put forward by contemporary food reformers and champions of industrial eating couldn’t be more opposed. But in their confident belief that “good food” can restore the physical, social, and moral fabric of the world, they are two sides of the same slice. In the way that their vision of “good food” ends up distinguishing “responsible” people from the duped and damned, they are alarmingly close.
Tossing the uneaten stub of USDA No. 1 to the seagulls, I’ve made a choice. But I’ve also realized that social change does not arise from individual dietary decisions. In a time when open disdain for “unhealthy” eaters and discrimination on the basis of dietary habits grow increasingly acceptable, we might do well to spend more time thinking about how we relate to others through food, and less about what exactly to eat.