The Not-So Humble Loaf: An Interview with Aaron Bobrow-Strain

A couple of years ago I heard Aaron Bobrow-Strain give a fascinating talk at a conference at the University of California, Davis about American white bread in the Cold War.

So when I was offered a chance to participate in the blog tour for his new book White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, I was delighted.  And I was even more delighted when he said he would answer some questions.

1. The blurb for your book describes the modern wrapped American white loaf as “humble.”  The story you relate suggests that you think it is anything but humble. Could you sketch in a few words why you decided that the modern white loaf was worthy of a book?


 

You are so right about that—the modern loaf is anything but humble once you scratch the surface.  It’s the living, breathing result of more than a hundred years of science, engineering, political wrangling, and cultural wars.

Partly, I decided to write about white bread because I’m just such a total amateur bread baking geek.  But really I decided to write it because I was thinking a lot about how people can make the food system better.

Right now we have a lot of amazing books out there telling us about the social, environmental, and health costs of our industrial food system, but very little on how people struggled to change the food system in the past.  How did food earlier reformers succeed and fail? What traps can present-day reformers avoid?  How can we do better?

It turns out that industrial white bread is a great way to examine those questions because few other foods in the United States have been so loved and so reviled—so argued about by food reformers, diet gurus, health experts, and ordinary folks.

 

2. I think that many Americans are of the opinion that imperialism is not part of their history.  Yet you plunge right in and devote a whole chapter to bread and imperialism.  Can you explain for readers of the blog how the white loaf was implicated in American imperialism?



 

Bread Eaters Lead the World

 

Industrial white bread has had a lot of different meanings along the way, but for much of the twentieth century industrial white bread was also wrapped up in Americans’ ideas about their country’s place in the world.

Through my research, I discovered a strong sense that America’s diet of abundant industrial white bread made us somehow superior to other nations (as you can see in the first image above, from 1915).  I also found a lot of people who believed that our system of churning out bread was a unique and important gift America had to offer the world (as you can see in the second image, from 1951).

Bread: The US's Gift to the World

This attitude wasn’t always so explicit, but, especially after WWII, Americans increasingly began to act on it.  Government officials, industry executives, and development experts set out to remake the world’s bread production in our industrial image.

I think of this as a kind of alimentary imperialism.  It involved everything from massive shipments of U.S. bread wheat to prop up strategically-important countries, to the promotion of modern baking technology in the Third World, to efforts aimed at selling people everywhere on the idea that industrial food was the foundation of peace and security.

Nowhere was this clearer than in occupied Japan, where some U.S. officials believed that getting the Japanese to switch from rice to industrial white bread would improve the conquered people’s “democratic spirit” and prevent the spread of communism.  It didn’t work out so well in Japan—rice is still the staple food, obviously.  But I think that associations between American-style industrial food and national security are still very much around.

 

3. And while we are at it, what about a few comments on the empire strikes back in the form of Bimbo bread?



This was a really fun part of the book for me, because I’ve had a long connection to Mexico.  My dissertation and first book were about coffee and violence in Chiapas.  So, even though this book is mostly about the U.S., I knew I wanted to write about pan Bimbo.

Bimbo is a Mexican multinational company.  With almost $10 billion in global sales, 100,000 employees, and operations in 18 countries from Chile to China, it is one of the world’s largest producers of American-style white bread.  Since 1996, it has also quietly acquired many of the United States’ most iconic bakery brands.  After its takeovers of Weston Foods in 2010 and Sara Lee in 2011, this Mexican company poised itself to become the United States’ largest industrial bread baker.

I first got interested in Bimbo because I wanted to know how it was possible that the world’s most dynamic white bread manufacturer emerged out of the land of the corn tortilla!  The answer, it turns out, is wrapped up in the politics of the Cold War.

After WWII, U.S. officials, Rockefeller Foundation scientists and the Mexican government collaborated to undermine the allure of communism with cheap, plentiful, industrially-produced wheat.  Infusions of high tech U.S. baking equipment and know-how then allowed Mexican companies like Bimbo to turn that wheat into cheap, abundant bread.   Who knows whether U.S. food policy actually helped prevent the spread of Communism south of the Rio Grande, but it did create a country with a taste for white bread—and a company with the ability to lead the world in its production.

 

4. One thing that strikes me as I read your book is that you see writing history as a natural extension of your food activism.  In my experience, although many historical works are motivated by political concerns, historians are often reluctant to put their political views up front, perhaps for fear of not being taken seriously.  Would you care to comment on your strategy?



Great question.  I’m very conscious of this.  Every chapter in the book explicitly puts past efforts at transforming the food system in dialogue with the present.

Aaron Bobrow-Strain. Courtesy Greg Lehman

I think that my approach stems from the fact that I’m not trained as an academic historian.  My training was in cultural studies and political economy.  As a scholar, I take academic historians’ ideas about rigor seriously.  But I also really believe the cultural critic Walter Benjamin’s admonition that all writing about history is wrapped up in the politics of the present, whether the author makes it explicit or not.  I chose to make it explicit.  Like Benjamin, I’m interested in the shock of recognition that comes when we see the limits and possibilities of our own present-day efforts to reform the food system more clearly because we see them reflected in the past.

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. Finally, you make it clear that history has lessons to teach contemporary food activists.  Could you just talk about one or two of these?

One hundred years of battles over modern bread taught me that when people see making the right personal food choices (and then helping less privileged people to make the “right” choices about food) as the primary way to change the food system (or the world), two things tend to happen:

First, they tend to miss the real root causes behind problems in the food system—things like economic inequality, declining wages, and concentration of power in the food sector.

Second, even the most well-meaning food reformers often end up reinforcing social divides between “virtuous” people who make the “right” choices about food and people who are “dangerous” or “in need of help” because they make the “wrong” choices.

I’m very sympathetic to the alternative food movement in the U.S. today, and excited about a lot of what I see going on.  But my hope is that this book will help push foodies think a little bigger about how the food system needs to change.

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Thanks to Aaron.  Aaron also supplied the great cartoons. I added a couple of links to some of my blog posts on Bimbo because as any reader of this blog knows, I share Aaron’s fascination with Bimbo’s dizzying growth.

Aaron’s book is a great read and very thought-provoking. Highly recommended.

 

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