Thursday, January 19, 2012

From the Staff of Life to the Fluffy White Wonder: A Short History of Bread

This is the first in a series of 6 articles by Educator Judy Levin, originally written as research for our “Foods of the Lower East Side" tasting tour. During the coldest months of January and February, we're offering a modified indoor version of the tour.

Most cultures have had one complex carbohydrate at the center of their diets: potatoes or grains like rice, sorghum, corn, barley, rye, oats, millet, and wheat. Bread made from some of these cereals is one of those staples, its importance reflected in Western religions and languages: The Lord’s Prayer says “give us this day our daily bread.” The word lord is from the Old English for “keeper of the loaf.” Dough and bread are slang for money. A companion is someone you eat bread with. Long before potatoes or corn arrived in Europe, bread was the “staff of life.”

“Staff of life” bread is dark, made from whole wheat or mixtures of wheat, rye, barley, millet, and oats. German pumpernickel is whole-grain rye flour baked until nearly black. Its name—dialect for “devil’s fart”— reminds us that dark breads can be difficult to digest. But rye grows where wheat cannot, in bad soil and cold climates. Other peasant breads are “black” only in contrast to “white” loaves. English brown bread could contain rye, barley, and buckwheat. Some Italian breads included the bran and germ removed from the wheat so that whiter flour could be sold to the rich.

An Italian Bakery on Bleecker Street c.1937; Image Courtesy the New York Public Library

The desire for white(r) bread is ancient. In Rome 2000 years ago, “to know the color of one’s bread” meant to know one’s place in society. Rich people ate bread of finely ground wheat, there and elsewhere, because wheat flour develops more gluten than other flours and rises better. The wealthy French of the 1600s ate bread made whiter and lighter with the addition of milk and of yeast from brewing beer. But truly white bread couldn’t be made from stone-ground flour. It wasn’t ground finely enough and there was no technology that removed all the bran and germ—the brown part that contains the nutrients and flavor. Technological improvements in 1834 (steel rollers) and 1880s (high-speed rollers and mechanical blowers to remove bean and germ) made finer flour, but it was still faintly yellow.

By the 18th century bakers bleached flour and adulterated bread to make it whiter. 20th century Wonder Bread is the extreme outcome of the search for white bread. Its whiteness and plastic wrapping showed that it was clean, sterile, and untouched by human hands. Added sugar and chemicals speeded the baking process and created a long shelf life. By the 1920s our daily bread was truly white and then, in the 1930s, sliced and wrapped in plastic.

An early advertisement for Wonder bread

Stories and memoires of the immigrant experience of bread offer contradictory images. The Fleischmann family, Jews from Hungary, established their yeast company after the Civil War because they so disliked American bread that they brought over their brother—and their family’s yeast. Yet numerous immigrant narratives speak of the astonishing white bread first tasted on Ellis Island. Many children of immigrants write of being ashamed to bring their un-American homemade or dark bread to school.

By the 1960s, some Americans were rebelling against the “white bread” culture of the 1950s, seeking foods—including bread—that were healthier, tastier, and more varied than Wonder Bread. African-Americans, reclaiming their cultural “roots,” encouraged the children and grandchildren of immigrants to reconsider their own history. Assimilated European-Americans felt nostalgia for the cultures they’d left behind. Ethnic restaurants flourished. And an ad campaign showed a stereotypical Native American, Italian mama, or Asian kid eating rye bread with the slogan, “You Don’t Have to be Jewish to Love Levy’s Real Jewish Rye.” Now commercial pumpernickel is dyed brown instead of bleached white.

A 1960's advertisement for Levy's Jewish rye bread

People have always moved from one place to another. Whether they do so as conquerors or immigrants, they tend to hang on to their basic carbohydrate.

--Posted by Tenement Museum Educator Judy Levin

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