Joe, I don’t like white bread. Yes you do. If you like bread, you like white bread. You might not like it when it’s pre-sliced and sold in plastic bags at the supermarket, but you like it in other shapes and circumstances, I’ll bet you money. If you like baguettes, focaccia, pita bread, fougasse, bagels, brioche, flour tortillas, naan, bialys, pretzels, pizza, pancakes, matzoh, ciabatta, sourdough bread, English muffins, olive bread, chapati, challah, lavash, breadsticks or dinners rolls, you like white bread. In fact if you prefer wheat or rye I’d still argue that you like white bread, because if that loaf is at all light and fluffy, it’s probably made with a least 50% white flour.
So you like white bread. Ain’t no shame in that. White bread is very good stuff. It’s high, light, soft and tender. It’s sweet and mild-tasting and nutritious. It doesn’t wear your teeth down or give you gas, nor spasmodic or insanity-producing diseases like ergotism or pellagra. The flour it’s made from, because it has no oily germ in it, will keep for years if necessary rather than weeks or months.
So with all it has going for it, is it any wonder that wheat eaters from Europe to the Middle East and Asia have prized white bread for millennia? The trouble has always been that prior to about 100 years ago there was precious little white bread around. To make white bread you needed to be able to grow the right type of wheat. You needed the technology to mill that wheat finely and consistently, and then, ideally, the expertise to age and treat it, then mix, leaven and bake it into something, well…lovely.
Very few people in, say, Europe, could amass all that wealth, technology and expertise in one place. Certainly not the peasants in the countryside, who were the majority of the population prior to the 20th century. Even at the best of times their breads were made from coarse ground, inferior quality wheat….assuming they had access to proper bread wheat at all. Often the peasantry was forced to make do with far less bread-worthy grains like rye or barley. As a result their breads were almost uniformly dense, dark and tough, with millstone grist and other impurities in them that were hell on dental work.
So is it any wonder that when the poor bread lovers of the world finally arrived in America, fluffy white bread was at the top of everyone’s grocery list? Nope, it isn’t. When you move to the land of plenty, you have rich people’s white bread at every meal. And for the most part we did. The great irony now of course is that white bread is so plentiful it’s only poorer people who are really proud to eat it, while we elites have moved back to breads of the peasantry, or at least refined imitations thereof (who really needs millstone grit, insects, or pieces of wheat stalks in their boule, I ask you). Again, ain’t no shame in that. Whole grain flours have nutritional, taste and textural advantages over white flours, and peasant levains and starters bring flavors that quick-acting brewer’s yeasts can’t.
These days we mix and match all those ingredients and techniques to produce breads with the best characteristics of rich and poor. We can eat 12-grain bricks one day and mass-produced fluff the next. It’s nice that we’re affluent enough to have the choice, no?