The American Way of Bread


There is no crumbling and no crushing of the loaf and the result is such that the housewife can well experience a thrill of pleasure when she first sees a loaf of this bread with each slice the exact counterpart of its fellows . . . One realizes instantly that here is a refinement that will receive a hearty and permanent welcome.

Sliced bread made its commercial debut in Chillicothe, Missouri on July 7, 1928, when the Chillicothe Baking Company’s first loaf thrills went on sale in local stores. As the front-page story in the town newspaper predicted, sliced bread swept the nation; and when SPAM hit the shelves on July 5, 1937, the nation doubled down on the culinary convenience: “Here’s a lunch that’s good and quick,” proclaimed a typical ad, “hot cheese SPAMwich does the trick.” Produced by the Minnesota-based Hormel Foods Corporation, the tinned “miracle meat” became a staple for Allied troops during WWII (albeit often the only option), and according to the SPAM poet, helped keep peace on the domestic front for decades afterward:

Husband (lying in bed): What’s that sizzling sound I hear?

Wife (from kitchen): Get up! It’s SPAM and eggs, my dear!

Weighing the time saved against the taste lost, the generic sliced loaf had a surprisingly easy victory in the marketplace. In White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, Aaron Bobrow-Strain explores the triumph as an interplay of economic and cultural factors, one that eventually transformed the profile of the housewife from that of cook and baker to shopper and home manager. One powerful factor, Bobrow-Strain notes, was “a powerful emotional resonance between the spectacle of industrial bread and a larger set of aesthetics and aspirations” ascendant at the time:

During the 1920s and 1930s, an obsession with machines and progress changed the look of America’s material life. Streamlined design channeled a love of industrial efficiency into the nooks and crannies of Victorian frill and Craftsman style. It began with vehicles — smoothing, tapering and lengthening their lines to help them slip efficiently through air. It was a seductive look, all speed and glamour, and it spread quickly to objects with no need to foil drag. Irons, pencil sharpeners, and kitchen mixers got lean and smooth. The country’s first pop-up toaster, the 1928 Toastmaster, looked like an Airstream camper.

Bobrow-Strain offers White Bread as one chapter in the larger story of “the post-war triumph of processed foods.” According to the latest numbers, one-third of the world is now overweight, and America leads the way, with 13 percent of children and young adults in the U.S. now obese. Among recent books exploring this alarming and costly trend is Michael Moss’s award-winning Salt Sugar Fat, which describes the ever-evolving strategies used by the giants of the food industry to achieve the “bliss factor” in products that are “knowingly designed — engineered is a better word — to maximize their allure.” In The American Way of Eating, Tracie McMillan describes her year working undercover in the food industry — on a large-scale Californian farm, stocking produce at a Walmart, working in the kitchen of an Applebee’s restaurant — in an attempt to explain and solve “the paradox of plenty” that plagues America and, increasingly, many other parts of the world:

Put simply, our agriculture is abundant but healthy diets are not. The American way of eating is defined not by plenty, but by the simultaneous, contradictory, relentless presence of scarce nutrition in its midst. This intransigent paradox has spread by many means, first and foremost by our industrial agriculture . . . And it has spread even further via processed foods — pioneered in American factories, kitchens, and boardrooms — that rely on the cheap grain produced by our agriculture and are tailor-made for supermarkets and restaurants that demand shelf-stable food-stuffs. There are mounting pressures that may change all of this, intensifying climate change and declining soil health not least among them, but the pattern is unmistakably set: The American way of eating is on track to become that of the world, too.