The Chronicle Review

What Would Great-Grandma Eat?

February 26, 2012

Not long ago I found myself crammed into a tiny commuter plane bucking over the Cascade Range of Washington State. Behind me, two women distracted themselves from the turboprop's lurching and groaning by talking loudly about beef.

A self-avowed "foodie" with a bit of ranching in my background, an overdeveloped interest in how people think about eating, and a pressing need to escape thoughts of turbulence-induced aviation disaster, I listened in.

The two women had clearly read their Michael Pollan. They spoke ably about the dangers of contaminated meat, the environmental consequences of feedlot production, and the benefits of grass-fed beef. At one point I heard them bandy about the name of a company that sold organic meat in the town we had just left. Then, as we dropped low over Seattle and the bumps eased, one of them concluded: "I guess I know all that, but we still buy regular meat from Walmart. It's just who we are." "Yup," replied the second woman.

Thanks to an explosion of socially and environmentally aware food writing, readers in the United States now have access to a great deal of information about the shortcomings of our industrial food system as well as a growing collection of fairly simplistic ideas about how to change it. Nevertheless, very little has been written about the complex world of habits, desires, aspirations, and anxieties that define Americans' relationship to eating—the emotional investments that frustrate reformers and help keep the industrial food system as it is.

Most foodie discourse assumes that once people have knowledge about the difference between "good" and "bad" food, along with improved access to the former, they will automatically change their diets—like a dammed river freed to find its natural course. But what about all the people, like the two women on my flight, who know and could change, but don't?

I wrote a book about ultrasoft, mass-produced sliced white bread because I wanted to understand America's fraught relationship to industrial eating in all its contradictory ferment. Over the past 100 years, few foods have been as revered and reviled as industrial white bread. It has served as a touchstone for the fears and aspirations of racial eugenicists, military strategists, social reformers, gourmet tastemakers, health experts, philosophers, and food gurus. Sixties counterculture made it an icon of all that was wrong with Amerika, and the famed style arbiter Diana Vreeland famously proclaimed: "People who eat white bread have no dreams." By which she meant that they don't dream the right dreams, the up-to-date, hip dreams. This sentiment still resonates today, as industrial white bread has become even more widely associated with poor choices and narrow lives. But, whatever the context, Americans' embrace (or rejection) of industrial white bread has never been a simple matter of taste, convenience, or health.

From the 1860s to the 1960s, Americans across class, gender, and, to a certain extent, racial lines got more of their daily calories from bread than any other single food: 25 percent to 30 percent, on average, and higher during times of war and recession. Not surprisingly, what people thought about bread said a lot about who they were. And I don't just mean that bread has long been a marker of social status, although that is true, too. Rather, what I found was that America's love-hate relationship with this fluffy stuff has been wrapped up in a series of much larger questions about who we are as a nation, how we understand progress, how we envision America's role in the world, what we believe counts as responsible citizenship, and, ultimately, how we relate to each other across our differences.

When, for example, Americans connect the decline of Mom's home-baked bread with a loss of moral virtue, as they have periodically since the 1840s, they are also making claims about the proper place of women in society. When industrial tycoons of the late 1800s lauded inexpensive white bread churned out by factories as a foundation for social harmony, they were also arguing against labor organizing and government regulation. Likewise, when proponents of back-to-the-land movements of the 1850s and 1960s rejected dreams of industrial abundance, praising hearty whole-wheat bread baked on independent family farms as a bedrock of American democracy, they rarely stopped to ask themselves who got left out of this invariably white, propertied vision. Yet these abstract dreams of good bread and good society had real consequences for real people.

Of course, we no longer get 25 percent to 30 percent of our daily calories from bread. In fact, no single item accounts for anything close to a third of the American diet anymore—not even high-fructose corn syrup. Nevertheless, anyone paying attention to the rising cries for slow, local, organic, and healthful food will find America's battles over bread surprisingly fresh.

As with today's calls for food justice (focused primarily on consumers' unequal access to safe, healthy food), bygone battles over what bread Americans should eat as their staple contained uplifting visions of the connection between good food and strong communities, insightful critiques of unsustainable status quos, and earnest desires to make the world a better place. And, as with many foodie concerns today, efforts to reform American bread habits were also replete with smug paternalism, misdirected anxieties, sometimes neurotic obsessions with health, narrow visions of what counts as "good food," and open discrimination against people who choose "bad food."

Reflecting on the sometimes laughable, sometimes infuriating dreams of changing America's bread habits in the past—and the complex arrangements of anxiety, longing, desire, fear, benevolence, and greed that propelled them—can help us grasp more clearly the possibilities and limits of efforts to change the way America eats now. At least it might help us avoid some pitfalls.

For many foodies in contemporary America, of course, the past has no pitfalls. For them, yesteryear is a land where everyone grew up instinctively knowing the difference between "real" and "fake" food—wisdom we seem to have lost. Recently this attitude has crystallized in a popular axiom echoed from the pages of Pollan's Food Rules to the set of Oprah: If your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize it as food, don't eat it.

It's a simple, homey rule with immediate nostalgic appeal. I can even look past its questionable cultural assumptions. (My great-grandmother wouldn't have recognized many of my favorite Ethiopian, Thai, and Mexican dishes as human food.) But, as I dug into the history of battles over bread, I realized that this whole nostalgic perspective had a bigger problem: What if Great-Grandmother was just as conflicted about food as we are?

While researching my book, I discovered that my own great-grandmother's relation to her family's staple food was far less straightforward than I would have assumed. Her story suggests a lot about the contradictory mix of anxieties and aspirations tugging at the mind of early-20th-century eaters when they chose their bread.

As a young mother in the 1910s and 20s, Florence Farrell baked 12 to 16 loaves of bread a week for seven children. By all accounts, she enjoyed the sense of community created when neighbors crowded in her kitchen on baking day. On top of that, her husband insisted on homemade bread. Store-bought loaves were just "sacks of hot air," he proclaimed—and expensive, too. Yet, by the early 1930s, the Farrell family bought its bread. Even in the 20s, the seeds of that shift were in place. As my great-aunt recalled, "It sounds like we appreciated homemade bread, but the truth is we loved any baker's bread in our contrary way."

So, which version of my great-grandmother's bread am I supposed to treasure? The laborious homemade one her husband demanded and her community loved, or the factory-baked one the family eventually craved?

No one remembers exactly why the Farrells switched, but they were not alone. In 1890, 90 percent of the country's bread was baked in homes. The rest was purchased from tiny neighborhood bakeries. By 1930, this trend had reversed completely: 90 percent of bread was purchased, and purchased from increasingly large, increasingly distant factories. Despite their success, industrial bakers lived in constant fear that bread would lose its place on the nation's tables. Compared with newfangled fruits arriving by refrigerated train from California, or the novelty of modern wonders like Jell-O, bread was just basic. But something remarkable happened during the first three decades of the 20th century. Not only did Americans switch to store-bought bread en masse, but also per-capita bread consumption increased. Modern factory bread wasn't just a more convenient version of the ancient staple; it had taken on new meanings and appeal.

The Farrells' mixed feelings about these changes weren't unique either. Indeed, food politics in the 20s and 30s in America were distinguished by heated debates over what bread the country should eat. Legions of food reformers, social workers, public-health officials, advertising executives, and an astonishing number of diet gurus worked frantically to convince Americans that choosing the wrong bread would lead to serious problems. Some pinpointed newfangled loaves as the source of cancer, diabetes, criminal delinquency, tuberculosis, kidney failure, overstimulated nervous systems, and even "white race suicide." Others heralded modern bread as a savior, delivering the nation from drudgery, hunger, and dangerous contagions carried by unscientific bread. But they could all agree on one thing: Incorrect food choices were the root cause of nearly all of the nation's moral, physical, and social problems. So, in a fashion reminiscent of many community-garden and anti-obesity campaigns today, well-meaning reformers poured into the country's urban tenements to spread "the gospel of good eating."

What happened next entangled great-grandmothers' choice of bread with high-stakes questions of race, responsibility, and citizenship. Small immigrant-run bakeries came under intense scrutiny, with sanitary inspectors and women's groups painting pictures of dank, vermin-infested cellar workrooms where sewage dripped into dough-mixing troughs and whole families slept on rag piles next to ovens. Newspaper headlines warned "Bakeshops Menace Health" and cautioned against eating "Disease-Breeding Bread."

Even that sentimental icon of all that is good—"Mother's bread"—was denounced under the banner of a safe and efficient diet. Scientific American, women's magazines, and home-economics textbooks portrayed careless home baking as a threat to family health, while other observers wondered whether even the most careful housewife should bake at all. "The modern baker's oven has a germ-killing power that is far beyond that of a household oven," the Atlanta Constitution warned, and a New Castle, Pa., reporter confirmed that baking factories' "great white ovens ... properly kill the yeast germs." "You and your little oven cannot compete. ... It is scientifically proven that home baking is a mistake from every standpoint."

Whether or not bread from small bakeries and home ovens was actually unsanitary—it probably wasn't—anxiety over unclean bread was a gift for industrial bakers. "I want to know where my bread comes from!" an affluent woman demanded in a national advertising campaign for Holsum bread. "I don't want bread from some nameless basement bakery." Or, as another ad put it more bluntly, "Many bakeries in New York, Chicago, and other cities are being condemned by health officers as unclean and unsanitary. How often do you inspect your bakery?" Strange as it might seem, especially to contemporary foodies, the language of "knowing where your food comes from" was a public-relations coup for industrial food.

Industrial bakers eagerly fanned the flames of consumer anxiety, but underneath it lay a deeper current of unease. One episode from New York makes that clear. In 1911 the city convened a blue-ribbon panel to investigate safety in industrial workplaces. Small bakeries figured prominently in the committee's work. Immigrant workers in the city's small bakeries typically worked more than 14 hours a day during the week and 24 hours on Saturday, and they toiled underground in unventilated rooms. Labor activists like Frances Perkins hoped that the committee would condemn those conditions, but the committee had other ideas.

With few exceptions, committee members darted around witnesses' appeals for workplace safety regulations, restating the bakery problem as a question of how best to control immigrant workers. One public-health doctor testified that nearly 100 percent of New York immigrant bakery workers showed signs of tuberculosis, bronchitis, and other lung infections. But the factory-inspection committee construed this as evidence of bakers' poor hygiene, not unsafe working conditions. As the city's health commissioner Ernst Lederle argued, "cellar bakeries themselves were not the problem," the problem was that "the people were dirty and careless."

In one revealing exchange, the state assemblyman Cyrus Phillips argued with another public-health doctor. "These men you have described are naturally and inherently unclean; aren't they? And they don't know how to do anything else?" the assemblyman queried. "Why, I guess that's true," the doctor allowed haltingly. Phillips pressed on with his point: "No amount of inspection will improve them very much?" Then the doctor surprised the committee by responding that, yes, he believed that bakers' habits could be changed. Assemblyman Phillips replied, "[You think] that they could counteract their natural and inherent tendencies?" "I certainly do," the doctor repeated.

The two officials weren't just talking about bread—they were debating the nature of new immigrants. Visions of food purity were impossible to separate from ideologies of racial purity.

For consumers anxious about making the right choices about what to eat, industrial bread offered reassurance in a sinister world of looming threats. This was not the only reason that so many families switched to factory bread during the early 20th century. Other factors included women's increasing role in the labor force, the monopoly power of giant baking companies, and the beguiling promise of industrial abundance conveyed by futuristic loaves designed to look like miniature works of modern art. But the story of early 20th-century bread fears does help illuminate something of the fraught and confusing emotions that swirled around families like the Farrells making decisions about their staple food.

Foodies today might simply respond that we must look even further into the past for instructions about authentic eating. If Great-Grandmother felt conflicted about industrial food just like us, what about Great-Great-Great-Grandmother?

I would rather draw a different lesson: The question of what to eat can't be contained in easy rules or glossed through the assumption that "if you only knew how evil your processed foods were, you would change." When we define what counts as "good bread," we are talking about a lot more than food. Dreams of good bread are statements about the nature of good society. Such dreams come with unspoken elaborations of who counts as a responsible citizen and how society should be organized. What remains to be seen is whether the alternative-food movement can effectively counter these affective attachments to industrial eating—create new dreams of good food—without reinforcing stark social divides.

Aaron Bobrow-Strain is an associate professor of politics at Whitman College. This essay is adapted from his new book from Beacon Press, White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf.