The irony in the expression, “the greatest thing since sliced bread,” is that bread devolved into something less than bread after we started slicing it.
In most American supermarkets, sliced bread has neither flavor nor texture; it is little more than a fluffy, chewable four-inch square vitamin pill. Bread lost its greatness with the rise of the supermarket in the post-war expansion of the 1950s that made food into pasteurized, homogenized, flavor-enhanced, vitamin-enriched, chemically preserved (and potentially carcinogenic), and highly processed foodstuffs. One goal of food processing is to restore the very things — namely flavor — that the processing itself removed.
Our scientifically-supported neurotic obsession with sterility in the 1950s resulted from a meeting of a war-stimulated technology boom with fear in the face of a polio epidemic. We invented the supermarket for hysterically clean shopping; steaks appeared to be produced in a factory right next door to the Lysol and Clorox plants. Ironically, by boiling every dropped pacifier and by eating processed food, we inhibited the natural immunizations we otherwise would have acquired. Our neurotic caution actually worsened the epidemic. (It seems worth noting that a popular high school chemistry text in this era was Better Living through Chemistry.)
Many forces have steered our outlook on food since the big polio scare. Jonas Salk emerged as a latter-day messiah to end the polio epidemic. The Vietnam war ended and the radicals turned their attention to food (and the horrible things done to it) as part of their mellowing and spiritual awakening. The ever-present American Europhilia heightened as television shrunk the globe and as college education became the norm instead of the exception; for the first time the American middle class began to have a slightly less romantic perception of Europeans (but only slightly), and a greater awareness of the things they ate. The croissant — the most diversely pronounced word in American English — paved the way for the return of bread.
I first discovered Dean & DeLuca’s, an East Coast upscale grocery store chain, on M Street in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC. I had visited shops specializing in imported foods before, but suddenly here was a small supermarket that carried real food. In some ways, of course, Dean & DeLuca is nothing more than a European-style food market, Americanized until it is ripe with a particularly middle-class flavor of kitsch. Yet the sudden reappearance of quality food that hasn’t been bastardized beyond existence assuaged my distaste for trendiness.
I end on a mostly hopeful note. A snowballing health consciousness has given rise to a new wave of healthy breads as well as impostors like groupies around a rock band. The not-so-healthy ersatz imitators have saturated fats and added sugars and some nigh unpronounceable ingredients like calcium sulfate and DATEM (diacetyl tartaric acid ester of mono- and diglycerides, also known as E472e), and while I presume that the scientists who invented these chemicals and the cooks who would add them to my food are convinced that, at least in the short run, these preservatives and enhancers won’t give me colon cancer, I’m more comfortable with Michael Pollan’s maxim in Food Rules:
Avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce.
There are breads out there that are returning to what makes breads healthy. For example, the ingredients list of Dave’s Killer Bread Thin Sliced 21 Whole Grain and Seed has mostly organic grains and flours made from them. Dave’s Killer Bread contains dried cane syrup as the third ingredient on its list (US labeling regulations list ingredients by descending order in weight), so it doesn’t quite slip by another Pollan maxim:
Avoid foods that have some form of sugar (or sweetener) listed among the top three ingredients.
But at least it’s dried cane syrup as opposed to some artificial sweetener or refined sugar. Otherwise, Dave’s contains no scary chemicals and no saturated fat.
Here in Austin where I live now at least one grocery store sells bread made of only organic flour, water, yeast, and salt, but they’re a bit far to walk for daily bread. I’m settling on Dave’s as the least evil within walking distance (I don’t want to own a car), and I’ll get by Central Market, where the elemental bread gets baked, once a month. Just thinking about it, I can taste the sweet grains in the simple dough. The other day I bought a loaf there and took it to the clerk, and she ran it through the slicing machine for me. It was the greatest thing since, well, sliced bread.
Addendum: Dave’s Killer Bread Ingredients
- Organic whole wheat (organic whole wheat flour, organic cracked whole wheat),
- organic dried cane syrup (sugar),
- 21 Whole Grains and Seeds mix (organic whole flax seeds, organic sunflower seeds, organic ground whole flax seeds, organic un-hulled brown sesame seeds, organic triticale, organic pumpkin seeds, organic rolled barley, organic rolled oats, organic rolled rye, organic un-hulled black sesame seeds, organic millet, organic rolled spelt, organic blue cornmeal, organic brown rice flour, organic yellow cornmeal, organic amaranth flour, organic rolled KAMUT® Khorasan wheat, organic quinoa, organic buckwheat flour, organic sorghum flour, organic poppy seeds)),
- organic oat fiber,
- organic wheat gluten,
- organic molasses,
- sea salt,
- organic cultured whole wheat,
- organic vinegar.