In grad school, I took a course called something like “Global Commodity Chains” or something like that. It explored the global political, cultural and economic shifts that took place to allow the rise and spread of commodities like coffee, chocolate, and bananas. It was a fascinating class.
As I began to read this book, I realized it would’ve been right at home on the syllabus of that class. I thought I might send an e-mail to the professor of that course recommending it to him, but alas I can’t remember his name and the internet thus far has not been helpful.
If I was expecting a breezy read, based on the jolly cover and a description that included “a social history,” that is not what I got. This text is pure academia. Readable academia, and entertaining, but in a fairly intellectual way. Look no further than the table of contents:
The premise is that, since its very inception, white bread has always found itself caught in the crosshairs of our national obsession with food. This national obsession is based on several general ideas about our national identity, our sense of security, desire for purity, and our feelings about health and wellbeing, which the author details in each chapter. As a Latin-Americanist, my favorite section was about how Bimbo brand, a bread producer from Mexico, has managed to corner the North American market on white bread.
Another thing that stuck out for me is that the author quotes Crescent Dragonwagon extensively. Having only been familiar with her Passionate Vegetarian cookbook and not her politics, I was surprised. I’ll have to check out her The Commune Cookbook. Based on Passionate Vegetarian, you would think she’s just a little plain-spoken, humble owner of a humble bed and breakfast.
Finally, and I wasn’t sure if Bobrow-Strain was going to touch on this, in the chapter on health and wellness he interweaves Grahamism (yes, from the crackers) from the 1900s and today’s gluten-free craze, and how our ideas of what is and isn’t healthy have changed over time.
I did feel like his chapter on how white bread became synonymous with white trash could’ve used a bit more fleshing out, since that seemed to be a large part of his premise. Ultimately, he concludes that food in general, and bread in particular, is really a symbol for how we feel about ourselves, our health, and our national identity, and maybe we should focus less on how our differences divide us than on celebrating our heterogeneity. My one disappointment with this conclusion is that he opens the chapter describing using a sourdough starter. He never admits to eating wonder bread, and so he still seems to be coming from a privileged position of ranking homemade sourdough above lesser breads.
This book didn’t have any recipes, not that I was expecting it to! It did give me a craving for super soft white bread, so I may make that soon.