Thursday, February 2, 2012

Book Review Friday: White Bread by Aaron Bobrow-Strain

White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf by Aaron Bobrow-Strain (Beacon Press) is due to be released March 6.  After wading through it this past week, I have to say that this book comes across as a well-documented term paper, but as a literary work that ultimately fails to satisfy, engage or provide meaningful solutions to the problems it lays out.

White Bread seeks to explore the efforts Americans have made throughout the past century to eat well and the impact these efforts have had on society, both intended and unintended.  Bobrow-Strain says that the intent of his book is to tell the history of those who "thought that getting Americans to eat the right bread (or avoid the wrong bread--could save the world--or at least restore the country's moral, physical, and social fabric."  The book lays out the different Utopian dreams that American society had for the "proper" bread, which was defined differently depending on the era.  In particular, Bobrow-Strain documents the rise of sliced white bread and what American's embrace of it says about us and about our view of the world.

Where I found myself most connecting to the book was in Bobrow-Strain's self-criticism of the dream of a foodie.  He points out that high ideals about food that are meant to increase a democratic people's approach to eating actually often end up dividing people and leaving more people hungry.  I have often though about this as a person who generally does not shop at Wal-mart on principle (I don't like what they pay their employees or how they treat them).  Despite my attempts to resist the "man," I sometimes forget that while Wal-mart doesn't pay its employees much, it does provide really low prices for staple items, including food, which lower income people need.  Is this really so evil?

Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows that I consider myself a foodie, I'm interested in ideals like trying to eat locally (though I'm not at all obsessive about it), and I love artisan foods.  But I also have often thought of how middle-class concerns about organic, local-grown, and artisan are completely irrelevant to someone in poverty.  I posted to Twitter this week two tweets that I thought made the point: "Is my arugula organic?

So, I appreciated this self-analysis from an idealistic foodie point of view.  We middle-class foodies need to be careful not to be so self-involved with obtaining supposed perfect food that we ignore the stomach-gnawing pains of the hungry.  To be more socially conscious as we pursue good food, to think about how we can share bounty with the world, would be a great place to start.

Although one cannot fault the depth of research conducted by Bobrow-Strain, what this book ultimately suffers from is a lack of narrative.  One could argue that this is a science book or a sociology of food book.  But books that hope to engage the masses can include both a successful treatment of niche science/sociology and story.  Story is what keeps the reader engaged and connected to the sometimes technical material.  A book that effectively engages this dynamic is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which tells a very scientific story of cells and medicine, but does it in a narrative fashion. Bobrow-Strain could have accomplished this through a different narrative in each chapter or he could have found a way to bring a running narrative through the entire book.  Either method would have greatly improved what unfortunately turns out to be a well-documented listing of relevant quotes and facts.

Bobrow-Strain did succeed in convincing me that our Utopian goals for bread and for food in general often lead to more exclusion and more hunger in the world.  But he didn't successfully leave me with a take-away understanding of what I should do to change this.  His book is a cautionary tale, but it could easily leave me afraid to try to change the food situation in the world for the better for fear I will impact the world in a wrong way.  He doesn't actually say not to try; in fact, he argues for the contrary.  But even his own efforts to try on a food worldview of "fermentation" (a yeast metaphor that is the opposite of the sterile and "pure" worldviews of past food theorists) seems somewhat unconvincing to himself.

I left the book with some positive take-away, but also with a sense that perhaps the author succumbed to over-thinking our relationship with bread.

2 1/2 stars out of 5

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Beacon Press.  I was not required to write a positive review.  The opinions I have expressed are my own.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


  1. Really good review Mama! I watch 'man vs food' here in England and it seems that Americans especially don't have a problem with food and at the same time do have a problem! I mean that, like most most wealthy western countries, few Americans are starving but that many overeat, to the detriment of their health and well-being.

    There is a strong growth of eating 'pure' foods in the UK, whilst at the same time many British people have an awful diet, eating lots of processed foods high in fat, sugar and salt. It isn't that as you mention Middle Class people should feel guilty for agonising over the right foods, but it should be that at the same time people who are well off should think about the plight of those living in poverty; we can all help, even if that's giving a few pounds or dollars now and again to charity, local and international charities.

    Yes, Wal-Mart! I've never understood why companies that make such a big deal about looking after the customer regarding low prices and cheap products, can't at the same time look after their staff by paying fair wages. This seems to be the problem everywhere unfortunately. Thanks for posting.

  2. Thanks for this, Tim. Oh my gosh, Americans and food are so weird. We are all about extremes: eating ourselves into oblivion or starving ourselves into oblivion. Where is the simple love of good food with thanksgiving and without obsessiveness? And yet we must also give thanks by sharing what we have with others.


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