Gluten-free madness may obliterate white bread as we know it, but never its great history. (Illustration by Kelly Gilleran)
The year was 1913, on the eve of World War I, and Germany mysteriously bought up more than half of Russia’s annual cereal yield — about 4.5 million tons of barley and oats. A Russian newspaper, befuddled by the Reich’s intent, joked, “Are the Germans going to drink more beer?” Then in August of the next year, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s cavalry squadron, mounted on sturdy, well-fed horses, trotted across the Russian border, banners aloft, and the answer was clear.
No, the grain was not for beer.
By building barley stocks, Wilhelm believed he could win the war against the Russians by “out-nutritioning” the opponents. But what Wilhelm did not anticipate was that the Great War would last as long as it did. Within a year, his extraordinary grain stock had been depleted. Facing rampant malnutrition, many starving soldiers began deserting, while others faced horrific battles purely for the provisions. One Prussian general reported that his troops were happy to enter the horrific Battle of Verdun just for the crucial battle provision: “Death,” he noted, “was less terrible than the eternal lack of bread.”
And so the story would go throughout the Great War. It was simple canned white bread, standard among rations, that the United States brought to the Allies; white bread that reinvigorated the exhausted forces. It was white bread that gave armies a sturdier food supply; it lasted longer and stayed fresher than whole-grain bread. And it was white bread that the half-starved denizens of occupied cities craved: “In many a liberated town,” Time reported, “the first question asked was: Where’s the white bread?”
How the tides have turned.
America has long had a fraught relationship with white bread, but it seems these days that the naysayers have won out: Whole-grain and gluten-free options have conspired to slowly put white bread out of business. As you may or may not have noticed, fluffy white loaves are now relegated to the hard-to-reach shelves at supermarkets. By 2009, according to The Washington Post, whole-wheat consumption in the United States, measured in dollars, topped white bread consumption for the first time this century — and those whole grains have been on the upswing ever since. Think of the popular diets that have deftly banned bleached flour from our plates: GMO, Atkins, South Beach, and today’s gluten-free craze. A ridiculous one-third of American adults, the vast majority of whom have not been diagnosed with celiac disease, have gone gluten-free.
I am sentimental, remembering old school lunches packed with the turkey on white, hot dog buns, grilled cheese. Missing white bread means missing June Cleaver and the Wonder Bread label.
So it’s out of my nostalgia for an iconic, midcentury, 1950s hearth-and-linoleum Norman Rockwell America that I find myself in my aunt’s kitchen, attempting to re-create this second-greatest weapon of 20th century warfare: a simple white loaf. My aunt, after watching an alarming CBS special last month, has gone gluten-free. There is a scarcity of any grain at all in the house. I can see the withdrawal on my 8-year-old cousin Alex’s face when he finds me in the kitchen, separating a loaf into quarter-inch slices. He does not pause to say hello. He rushes to the counter and inhales three slices before asking for more.
“This is it,” I tell Alex, buttering him a slice, “the real America.”
Alex pegs me in the head with a doughy projectile he has fashioned from my hard work.
“Is this stuff real?” he asks.
At the beginning of the 20th century, bread advertisers peddled white bread as the food of the nation. Thanks in part to the fright caused by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, that famous novel about the nasty innards of the meatpacking industry, many Americans fixated on cleaner food. White bread provided some semblance of purity and health. Throughout the 1930s, more than 30 percent of America’s total caloric intake came exclusively from white bread. And in 1940, just 2 percent of all bread sold in the U.S. was of the whole-wheat variety.
Certainly, white bread had earned its share of flak from nutritionists since at least the 1830s, when its nutritionlessness had been publicized in the fiber campaigns of John Kellogg (yes, the cereal) and Sylvester Graham (yes, the sweet cracker), whose Treatise on Bread, and Bread-Making raged against the evils of refined wheat product. The consumption of white flour had been linked to a slew of deficiencies like scurvy, night blindness, anemia, cancer, diabetes, rheumatism, depression, obesity, even gout.
But it wasn’t until the middle of World War II that white bread entered its first true battle. With France under Vichy control, Congress authorized the United States’ first peacetime draft. Hundreds of thousands of American men were turned away because of — Selective Service director Lewis Hershey told the Los Angeles Times — malnutrition. Eating white bread, a Science News Letter writer reflected in 1941, would “do Hitler’s work for him.” As “dark loafs” fueled the German’s “husky soldiers” and “stubborn rye” fortified Russia’s resilience, he noted, “France, a nation of puffy-white-bread eaters, has folded.”
What would become of the U.S., he asked, yet another country full of puffy-white-bread eaters?
So began development of the 20th century’s littlest-known weapon: USDA White Pan Loaf No. 1. As sumptuously recounted by Whitman College historian Aaron Bobrow-Strain in his 2012 book, White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, the Roosevelt administration in 1942 teamed up with the USDA to launch a project that Bobrow-Strain calls the “Manhattan Project of bread,” with equal if not greater impact on the outcome of the war.
The USDA bakers in question had one job: to do to bread what America had just completed doing to uranium — enrich it. With government dollars in hand, bakers discovered four key ingredients that had been filtered out of American flour en route to turning it snow white: thiamine, niacin, iron and riboflavin. So in the heat of wartime, the USDA perfected enriching the bread, and one year later, War Food Order No. 1 was issued. It mandated the enrichment of all white flour. Millers knew what to do, and the soldiers were grateful. Healthy white bread was now cheap and plentiful for the Allied soldiers. And white bread, that old underdog, helped win the Second World War.
Today, American soldiers are still eating that triumphant dough, although now, thanks to new science, it is supposed to last for three years, explained Michelle Richardson, a senior food technologist at the U.S. Army’s Natick Soldier Systems Center. The best way to feed soldiers is to keep serving them enriched white-flour products, rather than turning to whole grains or gluten-free stuff. In other words, gluten-free madness isn’t coming anywhere near the world’s greatest armed forces. Even though soldiers can today choose pitas or tortillas, they continually prefer loaf bread. Jeffrey Sisto, one of Natick’s researchers, reflected: “A soldier doesn’t need bread to survive, but they will need it to win. It’s a taste of home. It’s something to look forward to.”
Down the road from my aunt’s home in Brooklyn are the ruins of the Ward Baking Company Building. The Wards, who produced the original Wonder Bread, harnessed advances in microbiology and grain chemistry to become the first industrialized manufacturers of white bread. At the company’s height in the late 1930s, its Long Island factory supplied 1 in every 5 loaves eaten in New York City. Today, the demolition site on Pacific Street is a makeshift parking lot. Through a series of acquisitions and mergers in the 1980s, the Wards’ company eventually became part of Interstate Bakeries Corp., later reincorporated as Hostess Brands (yes, Twinkies), which closed its doors just two years ago.
On another Sunday morning, I venture into the gluten-free bakery on the corner of my street. With just two ovens, Pip’s Place has been serving Manhattan’s celiac community for about two years now. Though it does more pastries than breads, its owner, Denise Cumming, offers me one of her gluten-free white rolls.
“They toast like an English muffin,” she urges. “Toast one with an egg — it’s a beautiful thing.”
There is a lot riding on this bite. Nostalgia, Americana. A gluten-free nation looms ugly on my horizon. Will I really have to serve my children mealy buns instead of cream-white loaves?
I taste it. “There’s a bitterness,” I say. It’s a little bit of a lie. I can hardly tell the difference between this and any old bite of turkey on white.