Aaron Bobrow-Strain on Atomic Bread Baking
Bobrow-Strain explores the Cold War history of white bread at The Believer.
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, "Its 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.