Friday, April 27, 2012

Booknote: White Bread

This is my review of the book White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf as I posted it to my GoodReads profile. This one falls within the microhistory genre-- those books that tell the history of one particular thing or item, but also take you on a broader learning experience. It is a genre of books that I enjoy quite a bit. I think my four readers here might find it interesting as well.

Now, let's get the disclosure note out of the way to keep the FTC (also known as "The Man") happy. I won this book via a giveaway from the GoodReads First Reads program. No, no one paid me to review it though.

And finally, before the review, for reference purposes, here is a small list of books that I think would make good read-a-likes. In other words, if you liked this one, you may also like these. The books I am listing are books that I have actually read. You can find my reviews of these books on my GoodReads profile:

  • Paul R. Mullins, Glazed America: A History of the Doughnut. (I also shared this review in my blog here).
  • Steve Ettlinger, Twinkie, Deconstructed.
  • Susan Sessions Rugh, Are We There Yet? The Golden Age of American Family Vacations.(I also shared this review in my blog here).
And now, the review itself:

White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought LoafWhite Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf by Aaron Bobrow-Strain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was an interesting little book. It is indeed a social history, as it looks at how white bread has been seen in society, and it also looks at what that mass produced white loaf says about us. How does the white bread illustrate our aspirations, dreams, and hopes as a society? What does it say about class? Where do you belong if you eat it or not? Those are the kinds of questions this book strives to answer.

There are various ways to look at white bread, and those ways reflect where our society has been and where it will go. White bread has been a symbol of wealth, and now (at least in the U.S.), it has become a symbol of poverty, of white trash. How did that happen? This book goes over that. The author looks at the various social dreams that white bread has come to embody. There is the dream of cleanliness and industrial efficiency; the dream of being able to feed more people and, hopefully end poverty (or at least curb it; the dream of military and defense of the nation, where you needed well-fed soldiers and members of society, going along with the importance of nutrition. In other words, you wanted good nutrition because it was the patriotic thing to do, and so on. In looking at each dream or stage, white bread embodies those dreams and symbols.

The author also asks some hard questions. The one that stayed with me, a question I often ponder, is the one of elitism in high end and/or organic foods. Sure, you can get high end fresh baked bread, but only if you have access to a community bakery that draws on high end supplies for its bread baking operation. Poor people in essence are stuck with white bread because that is all they can afford. While there is some critique of this, I am not sure any real solutions are offered other than we need to be aware. Then again, it must be noted the author is one of those people who can afford to buy that high end whole grain bread. Not something to hold against the author, but it has to be considered; it's where he is coming from. The issue of access to good food for all is an important one, and it goes beyond just bread, but illuminating this is the story of white bread.

The book is a fairly easy read. You do get some interesting history of the U.S., history of immigrants, society, so on as well with the bread history. This is a trait of a microhistory, though this one is more social than historical. You get stories of the dynasties that created the great bread making industries. I particularly found interesting the story of Grupo Bimbo, the Mexican baking conglomerate that owns a good amount of brands most people in the U.S. think of as "American." I was aware of it (as a Latino, I am fairly aware of Bimbo), but I am willing to bet many readers may find that interesting as well.

Overall, this is an interesting book. You can read it a bit at a time, and you can learn a few things along the way. I do think it will give you a better appreciation not just of white bread, but of bread and the dynamics of feeding society.

Disclosure note: I won this book from a GoodReads First Reads giveaway.

View all my reviews

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