Aaron Bobrow-Strain: What Would Great-Grandma Eat?

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.

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....

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