On The (Ehem) Virtues of Industrial Bread

I know you’ll be shocked and horrified by the following admission, but I can be something of a, well, snob. Especially where bread is concerned, I can be downright obnoxious. I turn my nose up at pretty much everything that doesn’t have a thick, crackly cust and a chewy, flavorful crumb (both hallmarks of long, slow risings). So I suppose I was a bit surprised to discover how well the straight dough method worked this week. In future I promise to keep my mind open, and not go fermenting my hot dog buns overnight.

Trends in food are really quite funny things. These days I and my fellow bread elitists blithely push past the supermarket bread aisles, tut-tutting at all the poor ignoramuses who don’t know what “real” bread is.

Yet the packaged stuff WAS “real” bread for most people once upon a time. Which is to say it was white, fluffy, light, mild tasting, soft-crusted and resistant to staling. In short, everything that Old World peasant breads weren’t. Which was just peachy as far as Old World peasants were concerned, or at least most of the ones who emigrated to America, since they were sick to death of peasant food. They wanted a literal slice of the good life: the white, soft breads that the European gentry ate. For many of them, industrial breads like Wonder Bread (which debuted in 1921) really were a wonder, in no small part because you didn’t have to get up at the crack of dawn and wait in line at the communal hearth to get them.

Certainly some immigrants, notably those who lived together in urban ghettoes like New York’s Lower East Side, held on to their bread traditions. And thank goodness they did, otherwise we’d all be eating that mass-produced styrofoam. But just writing this I’m reminded of my father’s mother who, when I once proudly showed her a working 30’s-era telephone I’d bought at a flea market, said Good Lord, what would you want that for? We were all so happy to get rid of those heavy phones! I just stared blankly at her for a momemt before I furrowed my brow and said Now that you mention it it is kind of heavy…

I think I used it once before I set it in the corner as a curio and went back to my flip-phone. My shoulder ached.

So while I never buy white, industrial bread made via the straight-dough method if I can help it, I can at least appreciate why it’s there. Probably the vast majority of immigrants who grew up cracking their teeth on the inch-thick crusts of giant week-old whole grain loaves took one bite of mass-produced American bread and never looked back. I suppose had I been one of them I might well have done the same. I guess.

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