A family and social history of bread in the United States

A couple weeks ago, one of my students invited me to give a presentation on sourdough bread to a club she’s involved in, which I did last night I decided to script part of my talk so that I didn’t just blabber in a million different directions.

Below the jump is the transcript of most of that scripted portion, which I called “A family and social history of bread in the United States.” I lightly edited the script to remove the presentation cues and moved forward a paragraph on yeast culture from later in the talk. Enjoy.

The food we eat, whether at home or eating out, has meaning. It is shaped by economics, by social pressures, and, of course, by tradition. As Michael Twitty writes of Black and Jewish foods:

Ideas and emotions are ingredients—satire, irony, longing, and resistance—and you have to eat food to extract that meaning. The food of both diasporas [Black and Jewish] depends on memory. One memory is the sweep of people’s journey, and the other is the little bits of and pieces of individual lives shaped by ancient paths and patterns. The food is an archive, a keeper of secrets.

Michael W. Twitty, The Cooking Gene

I have been baking bread almost as long as I can remember. Growing up, Sunday night was pizza night. My father had a recipe for a honey-wheat bread that we used for crusts and baked on a well-oiled pizza stone. The remaining dough would be turned into (in retrospect) dense wheat rolls that my brothers and I would load up with cheddar cheese and place under a broiler until they were hot and greasy.

Cheddar cheese was important; we lived up the hill from the Cabot Creamery in Vermont, a purveyor of some of the best cheddar in the country.

I fully admit that my upbringing was, in some ways, unique. My parents came of age in the 1960s and embraced the hippie movement, so we lived in a house off the electric, water, and sewage grids. We also lived in an area with particularly good food for a rural state. In 2009, a book by Ben Hewitt crowned the town that my mother still lives in as The Town that Food Saved owing to its vibrant food co-op and enthusiastic local food movement. Sometimes overly-enthusiastic, depending on how you feel about being denied ketchup because they’re out of the house-made stuff. An article from about a decade later notes that the positive impact of the local food movement has been muted by concerns over accessibility and affordability.

What I find interesting about my road into baking is how it mirrors the broad trends of bread in the United States.

One branch of my mother’s side of the family can trace its roots in this country to well-before the American revolution and gradually made its way to the midwest where it eventually merged with the Steinbauers, an immigrant family from Germany that had run a bakery in Pomeroy, Ohio. In this town of about 5,000 people (fewer now), they baked bread for the riverboat crews plying the Ohio River.

An image of the establishment in Pomeroy, Ohio, published in The Little Cooper, by George T. Schilling. Scanned by Carol Flajole
The 400 block of Front Street, from the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Pomeroy, Ohio, 1880. This establishment is likely 450, Library of Congress.

Despite this background, I always associate my mother’s family with becoming enthusiastic adopters of what might be termed American middle class generic. By the time that I was around, this meant that the grandkids would get an all-American lunch of bologna, american cheese, and mayo on soft, enriched white bread. You know, Wonder-bread and its imitators.

My mother has a story about the last time she bought this type of bread. She was in college on a camping trip to Isle Royale on Lake Superior. They had a loaf of bread that they forgot in the car and, when they returned after about a week the loaf showed not a speck of mold, but then crumbled to dust when they opened the bag. After that, she swore that she wouldn’t eat commercial bread again. This would have been in the early 1970s.

Of course, there was a reason this was the way to consume bread.

The Taggart Baking Company of Indianapolis, Indiana, had been in business making crackers and cookies since 1905, and was the successor of a family bakery that had opened in the 1860s. But in 1921, Taggart released the first advertisements for a new product on the way, which you can see here.

Image from Historic Indianapolis.

Note the poem:

You’ve wondered now for several days, 
you’ve checked yourself in many ways.
This word, you know, you’ll not forget
But the real WONDER is unknown yet
Just remember this—you’ll never find
A WONDER of a better kind.

This new product would be a factory-made bread with a name inspired by the balloon races that had taken place at Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 1909—Wonderbread.  Now with a new jingle:

But now the best she ever knew,
She gives in this new loaf to you
For as Taggart leads, they’re still ahead,
And now it’s
Taggart’s Wonder Bread

Wonder Bread was a success, but it didn’t take off until the 1930s when, according to the company’s own marketing, “pre-sliced bread became all the rage.” 

By this time, Taggart had been purchased by the Continental Baking Company, which had quickly adopted the invention of an Iowa jeweler and engineer named Otto Rohwedder, who had unveiled a new innovation in Chillicothe, Missouri in 1928: an automatic bread slicer.

Gustav Papendick of St. Louis had bought the second version of this machine and made some improvements.

The automatic bread slicer (along with the display case Rohwedder had also invented) had been a revelation, but they were representative of their time. This was still a period of reveling in the possibilities of technology and consumers had become accustomed to factory-made bread, which lost most of the character created by fermentation. In its place, commercial bakers sought scientific ways to create volume and air bubbles or else used industrial yeast, which had started as an offshoot of the distilling industry and offered bakers speed and predictability.

Yeast culture in the early 20th century was exceedingly weird, including health fads that called for eating cakes of yeast and this spectacular piece of ad copy from the early leader in the industry, Fleischmann’s.

Photo from the Busy Beaver Button Museum

This was the low-point for naturally-leavened bread, at least in the United States.

(This was true of other foods, as well. In Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell laments that people accustomed to the taste of tinned milk prefer it to the fresh kind.)

However, the story of bread in this period was also a story that runs parallel to the history of commerce in the United States. We can see it with advertising, as Rohwedder declared in New South Baker in 1930:

“I have seen enough bakers benefit in a big way from sliced bread to know that the same results can be obtained by any baker anywhere if he goes about the matter correctly. A good loaf, a proper presentation of Sliced Bread to the grocers and a truthful, clean advertising program based upon successful experiences and the baker can build his business far beyond what he could do without sliced bread.”

The new circumstances of mass production also offered possibilities of fortifying the breads with vitamins to aid nutrition and, of course, shelf-stabilizers to prevent mold that my mother had witnessed first-hand.

It also accompanied the explosive growth of chemical companies that mass-produced packaging for sliced bread, as seen on this DuPont advertisement…for cellophane.

A DuPont advertisement from 1952. Found (and purchased) on Etsy.

By the 1940s, sliced bread was so ubiquitous that when the Secretary of Agriculture banned sliced bread in 1943 in an attempt to preserve packaging and eliminate food waste (sliced bread goes stale faster than unsliced), the order was met with outrage across the country. Sue Forrester of Connecticut declared in the New York Times:

“I should like to let you know how important sliced bread is to the morale and saneness of a household”

Beyond the neatness of the slices, bread made its way into all facets of life. An ad in a Canadian journal declared that a bread diet would be the key to women growing slim, while the male equivalent promised that bread would help them compete in hockey.

Wonder Bread advertised: “Builds strong bodies 8 ways!” Or 12 ways. The number varied.

By contrast, my father’s family were Jewish immigrants who came to this country in the second decade of the twentieth century. Then, as now, immigrant communities have had a profound influence on the American food scene.

In 1905, for instance, the supreme court issued a ruling in favor of Joseph Lochner, a Bavarian immigrant who had opened a bakery in Utica New York and stood charged with violating a New York labor law limiting the number of hours a baker was allowed to work in a week. 

(Ironically, Lochner was actually doing right by his workers. Rather than wanting them to work more, he was paying his workers for time that they were sleeping so that he could use one shift).

These immigrants were not immune from the allure of mainstream breads, but they also patronized shops that catered to their immigrant communities—or, else, baked at home so as to bypass a society largely oblivious to their dietary needs. In this case, kosher laws that circumscribed what Jews could eat, including the prohibition on leavening during Passover, which just ended.

The most obvious example of this is the bagel that didn’t go mainstream in the United States until the 1960s when it was greeted as a curiosity.

My parents met in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the early 1970s. My mother had attended college there and my father made his way to join a friend who was starting a community bakery named “Wildflour.” [Edit: my father tells me that his move to Ann Arbor predated the bakery and he had already been volunteering at the Coop there.] This was a period when “hippie food,” as a recent book called it, was transforming the American food scene, particularly through whole grains.

Preachers in this movement declared:

If your background is similar to mine you probably grew up on plastik enriched builds strong bodies 12 ways white bread. Three quarters of a group of laboratory rats fed bread like that died from malnutrition in 90 days.

Jonathan Kauffman, Hippie Food, p. 118

The Wildflour bakery staff included one person with commercial experience, several home bakers (including my father), and a general awareness of current baking books like the Tassajara Bread Book that was something of a bible for hippie bakers. They didn’t have the book itself, according to my father, but they did have its recipe for a dense, whole wheat loaf leavened with nothing more than old brown rice.

Most of the bread I consumed growing up was in the vein of whole wheat, but in the last 20 years something has started to change. Coinciding with the local and slow food movements, the internet, and other cultural trends, there has been a revival of interest in artisanal bread. 

Now, artisanal does not necessarily mean sourdough, but this period has included a return to sourdough. 

The epicenter of this movement is in San Francisco, which has long been famous for its sourdough breads in the same way that New York is famous for its bagels. Sourdough traditions in the city go back to the Gold Rush and have continued practically without interruption. Robin Sloan’s recent novel Sourdough takes as its premise the intersection of contemporary start-up culture with the necessity of sourdough bread in the San Francisco Farmer’s Market scene.

My entry into this world began about seven years ago when both of my brothers moved to San Francisco and promptly made sourdough starters. Not to be outdone, I made my own and have been baking with it almost exclusively for more than five years.


The talk went on, talking about leavenings, yeast culture, and some discussion of baking generally. Plus samples.

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