by John Mattingly
Henry Miller’s 1945 essay, The Staff of Life, opened this way:
“BREAD: PRIME SYMBOL. Try and find a good loaf. You can travel fifty thousand miles in America without once tasting a piece of good bread. Americans don’t care about good bread. They are dying of inanition, but they go on eating bread without substance, bread without flavor, bread without vitamins, bread without life. Why? Because the very core of life is contaminated. If they knew what good bread was, they would not have such wonderful machines on which to lavish their time, energy, and affections. A plate of false teeth means more to an American than a loaf of good bread.”
Miller’s essay becomes even more harsh, and in some ways, prescient, in its criticism of American taste and values, which may explain why this essay is one of Miller’s lesser-known pieces, and thus hard to find. But history and facts do give some support to Miller’s observations.
The emerging corporate food-making machine of the 1940s and 50s in America decided that wheat needed to be processed: broken down into its constituent parts and then properly fortified before being re-assembled into baking flour. It was as if food scientists and industry market-makers decided that the wheat plant, in and of itself, was somehow insufficient, and humans had to intervene to make it better.
As a kid, I remember the Wonder Bread years of the 1950s. Its slices were as white and pure as wind-driven snow, and about as tasty. It came sliced, in a white cellophane wrapper with red and blue balloons. If you put it at the bottom of your grocery bag, it compressed to the size of a waffle, which made one wonder how much air was involved in its production.
Wonder Bread was the first to be sold sliced, taking credit for the expression “the greatest thing since sliced bread!” Wonder Bread carried the claim that it would build strong bodies in eight ways – then twelve ways as nutrients were added over the years. The added nutrients were mainly vitamins, supposedly added to fight beriberi and pellagra, diseases that result from a profound deficiency of B vitamins, and diseases that were common back in the days when Columbus and other explorers sailed the high seas in search of land to discover.
Whole wheat has all the “essential” nutrients, including B vitamins that humans, and Americans, need, but ironically, these nutrients were lost in the processing necessary to make the bread white, smooth, hygienic and appealing to the American eye. A loaf of whole wheat bread was brown and gritty. The 1950s was a period that favored white. Like sugar. We had to take raw brown sugar and bleach it white with gypsum (calcium sulfate). Our shirt collars had to be white (no “ring around the collar”). Our floors, our teeth, our sheets – and the list goes on for what was required to be white.
So we had this peculiar outcome: wheat was processed to make its end products more appealing to the consumer (neat and white), but the processing dissipated many of the essential nutrients. Instead of calling this a mistake, or stupid, the marketing geniuses turned it into an advertising advantage. They “enriched” the very product they had devalued, and then told the consumer they were building their bodies in twelve ways. Wow. Twelve ways. A kid could get stronger with every PB&J sandwich.
Though generalizations of this kind are always dangerous and usually faulty, I’m going out on a limb to suggest that it was an American cultural bias of the late 1940s and 50s to both sanitize and reconstruct “nature.” Maybe it was the horror of World War II, coupled with the specter of nuclear war, that made us want to somehow whitewash our everyday world. Or maybe it was a fascination with and faith in technology and science as capable of dominating, or at least taming, nature. Or maybe it was just a corporate food-processing-marketing machine that saw more profit in breaking wheat into pieces and putting it back together again. Whatever the root cause, Americans of the 1940s and 50s liked their bread white and enriched: aka flavorless. Henry Miller definitely had a point.
This attitude toward processing and fortifying wheat changed quite a bit with the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s, which, when coupled with the Green Revolution, Back-to-the-landers, and generally, the Environmental Movement, caused a true renaissance for bread and breadmaking. People started making their own bread, and it became not only fashionable, but also rewarding, to do so. I remember watching my wife knead the dough and break a healthy sweat doing so. Breaking bread meant good times and good food. Then came breadmaking machines and the “discovery” of ancient grains like spelt, amaranth and whole wheat itself.
From the 1980s through the early part of the new millennium, bread saw a great revival in America. Boutique bakeries sprang up all over the place, even in small towns. The kinds, types and styles of bread available expanded, and America really did answer Henry Miller’s complaint. You didn’t have to drive very far in those days to get The Staff Of Life.
Then something happened in the last few years. Even though we still have many boutique bakeries and wonderful abundances of bread, it appears that the corporate food-making machine is again trying to undermine our relationship with the nutrient-rich, humble wheat plant. After decades of attacking fat as the evil monster on our plates, the new monster is gluten, which is the protein constituent of wheat.
My private theory is that this is a subtle attack by corporate food interests on all the great advances that have been made by those of us in America who have become bread foodies. This processing-advertising machine has latched onto a legitimate concern over the real, but relatively rare, celiac disease, and flooded the advertising market with the horrors of gluten. Is it just a coincidence that the massive assault on gluten began shortly after Hostess, the maker of Wonder Bread, went bankrupt?
But maybe I’m listening too much to my Inner Old Man. I do know that, as a farmer, wheat has changed over the years, as the majority of cultivars being planted have been selected for their ability to respond to favorable conditions of chemical fertilizer, chemical weed control and managed irrigation, all of which result in higher yields for the farmer. It may be, however, that these “new, improved” varieties, through their exposure to so much chemical input, cause an increase in allergic responses and other sensitivities in the consumers of the wheat. This is difficult to prove, of course, and I mention it only as an observation. I know several old wheat farmers who refuse to plant the new varieties because they also bake their own bread from what they grow. These old boys tell me that the new wheat cultivars are full of “empty calories.”
The truth is, gluten gives bread and wheat products most of their flavor, and thus most of the old varieties of hard red winter wheat are nutritious and tasty, so much so that I’m often tempted to ask my server at a restaurant that serves a preliminary basket of bread and butter: “Could you provide some fresh ground gluten on my bread, please?”
John Mattingly cultivates prose, among other things, and was most recently seen near Creede.