White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf

White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf51bNCaKLChL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_
Aaron Bobrow-Strain
Beacon Press, Boston. 2012

I read or acquired a number of books last year on food/social history that I meant to review and didn’t because of the move. Let’s start with White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, which not only does what it says on the tin amazingly well but also covers the rise of shokupan (食パン) in Japan–as part of SCAP’s “democratization” efforts during the Occupation.

From the introduction:

In writing this book, I set out to uncover the social dreams (and nightmares) played out in battles over industrial white bread. I wanted to understand how one food could inspire so much affection and so much animosity; how something so ordinary could come to symbolize both the apex of modern progress and the specter of physical decay, the promise of a better future to come and America’s fall from small-town agrarian virtue. And I wanted to know how those battles over bread shaped America and its fraught relationship with food. (Kindle Locations 41-45).

…Sadly, this turned out to be the difficult story of how, time and time again, well-meaning efforts to change the country through its bread ended up reinforcing forms of race, class, and gender exclusion— even when they also achieved much-needed improvements in America’s food system. (Kindle Locations 67-69)

I don’t often read a lot of non-academic pop social-issue books because I get incredibly annoyed about footnotes and citations, specifically lack thereof. Bobrow-Strain does a great job with keeping the historical portions and social commentary interesting and on point, and using citations and primary sources to his advantage to build his argument.* The ratio of primary sources, personal anecdotes, and theory is perfect, and the author uses historical elements weave not just a single timeline but a complex set of constantly shifting narratives about bread and culture.

The story of bread is the story of how social structures shape what we eat, and how what we eat shapes social structures.(Kindle Locations 182-183)

Moreover, Bobrow-Strain takes an intersectional look at the narratives surrounding white bread: how these narratives about gender and food were propagated; how xenophobia and racism played into the creation of White Bread; how industrial food production and the rise advertising changed how we think about food safety; and how white bread also came to Japan and Mexico. (More on that in a moment.)

The moral ideas about “good” or “real” food, of course, haven’t changed all that much:

Legions of women heeded the advice of scientific nutrition and hygiene, changing the way their families ate. Legions more poured into the country’s tenement zones and mountain hollers to spread what they called “the gospel of good food” to the turbulent masses. (Kindle Locations 492-494).

We, of course, have to look to our “good food” movements of the past to see how they fit into our present. We’ve now replaced with these Progressive-era women (and men) with “healthy living bloggers,” some of whom are genuinely helpful, and some of whom are orthorexic, have disordered eating, and whose food morality smacks of classism and fatphobia. I’m for “real food” vs. low-fat, low-carb everything, but at the same time, I realize how “real food” can be very elitist, and this is also a point that Bobrow-Strain thoughtfully discusses in depth.

The history of food movements and food production and their intersections with gender, from “bakers’ smug paternalism” (location 1240) to home economics to femivores (location 3335), contemporary and sometimes feminist domesticity and homesteading, is fascinating, so instead of quoting the rest of the book at you, I’ll head forward to the section on white bread in Japan.

Source: Yamazaki Bread (山崎製パン)
Source: Yamazaki Bread (山崎製パン)

Shokupan is the Wonder Bread of Japan, and it is ubiquitous. The section covers bread in Japan before WWII, as well as how SCAP (Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers–the Occupation forces) tried to use bread and other “democratic” pastimes (kissing in films, for example) to “break” Japan of its “imperialist notions.” As any Westerner who’s lived in Japan has surely been asked whether they prefer bread or rice, with one’s very legitimacy of living abroad or “inate” national preferences hanging in the balance,** Bobrow-Strain discusses what happens when the morality of bread meets the morality of white rice:

Its larger mission was to “correct” the Japanese diet while fostering “the scientification of the Japanese kitchen; [and the] permeating of democratic thought.” “Democratic spirit,” SCAP headquarters insisted, could be nurtured in school cafeterias through the “substitution of reason and scientific practices in place of local customs and superstitions regarding cooking practices.” Propagating American meals was part of a strategy of forging civilized citizens, and without bread— the perceived core of a civilized diet— a local school official complained, how can we teach these lessons to our children? (2784-2789).

If you’re interested in an academic-level text that is witty, entertaining, and accessible, I can’t recommend White Bread enough. Bobrow-Strain does not tiptoe around the misogyny and ethnocentricism of bread culture. Furthermore, the section on Japan is particularly well done, a stark contrast to current journalism about foodways in Japan and gendered food. Bobrow-Strain’s discussion of the failings of “good food” movements to address food security is still relevant whether he’s discussing the 1890s or the 2010s, and this is an important read for those looking for a nuanced discussion of food culture.

For more on baking your own bread in Japan, see my series of recipes here.

*Compared to, say, a collection of primary sources with no analysis or with repetitive and unhelpful superficial commentary. More on that in a future book review.

**”I eat whole-wheat bread and brown rice equally” was not a sufficient answer, apparently, and also doesn’t account for food diversity in the US.


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