Tuesday, December 1, 2015

It's a Wonder Bread Life . . .

     We never ate Wonder Bread when we were kids in the 1950s, only the knock-off look-a-likes that came in bigger loaves and lower prices. They were our staple; hardly a day went by for all of the years of childhood that didn't feature a couple of slices of soft white bread. We ate it as toast or sandwiches, for breakfast and lunch. Dinner was always a good Irish-English meat, potatoes, boiled vegetable, and a dessert, but bread ruled during the rest of the day.

    These days, Wonder Bread gets a bad rap. I wrote about some of the cultural aspects of Wonder Bread in 2011, and recently decided to re-visit those fine white slices. There is still a gulf between those who eat and enjoy Wonder Bread and its kin, and those who eat only artisan breads, from their own oven or someone else's. I feel that someone has to stick up for the people who eat Wonder Bread, whether because that's all that they can afford, or  because they enjoy it.

      People have railed against soft white, sliced and packaged bread, practically since Wonder Bread introduced the first commercially available packaged sliced bread in the 1930s. In her essay "How to Rise up Like New Bread," (from How to Cook a Wolf) MFK Fisher characterizes sliced white bread as "stupid," and "tasteless [and] almost worthless nutritionally,"  . .  .  "emasculated pale stuff sold by every self-respecting bakery." She says that "class snobbism has conquered once more over good sense, for no matter what proof the Ministry gives that white bread will cause bad teeth, poor eyes, weak back, fatigue, the Britishers gone on eating what has for decades meant refinement and 'good taste.'" [Although there was evidence that removing the bran and germ from wheat during the milling process caused diseases, it was also a matter of fact that Dublin children developed anemia and rickets during World War II from eating 100% whole-wheat bread because high levels of phytic acid in the whole grain prevented the absorption of crucial nutrients].

     In the 1950s small-town Midwest, we ate sliced, packaged white bread, and found it good. Our mother who spent her early years, from 1914 to about 1928 on corn farms and in small towns in central Illinois probably ate home-baked bread, but I never saw her bake anything made with yeast. She made delicious pies, cakes, biscuits, quick breads and shortcakes, but never yeast bread. Her mother and two sisters, all excellent bakers, did make Parker House rolls but that was as close to yeast as any of the family got.

     They (but not us) ate Pepperidge Farm bread regularly, the epitome of desirable bread. It was white, sliced thin, a bit firmer than regular cheap white bread, and elegantly square, smaller than a regular slice. One could not do better than to be served a slice of Pepperidge Farm bread, perhaps spread with real butter, not margarine.

    That was the dream. The usual reality, and we were fine with it, was something equivalent to Wonder Bread, with a soft brown crust (belying the the name, "crust"). For breakfast, we toasted it and lathered on the margarine and jam. In high school, I added peanut butter to the breakfast toast, and it kept me from starvation until lunch. Lunch was often bread with peanut butter and jam, although by high school I experimented with everything available -- radishes, celery, raisins, as well as the old classics of sliced bananas, and honey. Tomatoes, delicious as they were on buttered toast, didn't work well with peanut butter.

     A memorable peanut butter sandwich day from about fifth grade was the one when we came home from school at lunch time and found my father Al in the kitchen. My mother was in the bedroom -- with the doctor, Al said, having a baby. We didn't ask more because in our childhood, we didn't ask. Al gave me the job of making the peanut butter sandwiches for lunch for all of us, and sat at the kitchen table watching and instructing. I had no idea that he could "cook" anything, but knew that following instructions carefully was the only option. "No, no, spread the peanut butter all of the way to the edges of the bread." "Don't put so much jam on. "Now spread the jam out evenly." And so forth. It was an odd thing to be in that hushed house, but everyone had to eat lunch and go back to school. When we got home later in the day, Al just said that the baby named Marie had died, and that Mother would be resting; he would take care of her. And that was that. We probably said a brief prayer for Marie and Mother when we said the usual rosary kneeling on the hardwood floor in the darkened dining room before bedtime. Marie was buried in the cemetery by my father's mother in the family plot, but we never visited her grave until after we were grown.

     A Sunday breakfast treat was eggs and fried Spam. My father, Al, liked Spam, and it was inexpensive, one of the fundamental criteria for food in a household of two adults and seven growing children. My mother fried the Spam in the big frying pan (not a skillet) first, then set it aside while cooking the eggs. The pieces of Spam were folded into a sliced of buttered (i.e., margarined) toast and eaten as a sandwich.

      As soon as the first real snow fell, Al sprayed water over large parts of our backyard, and made an ice rink that extended from the back porch out past the standalone garage, and well into the back lot. We helped shovel and clean the ice each night after we were done skating, and kids from all around town came over to skate. On Sunday mornings in the winter, my mother would bring the electric frying pan out to the back porch and cook the Spam on the spot for sandwiches. Washed down with hot chocolate by the gallon concocted of powdered milk and  Nestle's Quik, those winter sandwiches made the meal that every one of us remembers as one of the best things in our childhood.

     In my memories, picnics were just as good as the Spam sandwiches on skating days. On every summer day when the weather was good, we ate lunch out of doors, spreading one of the old "picnic blankets" -- something too worn to put on a bed, under the maple tree in the backyard near the house. We made the sandwiches in the kitchen and carried them out, along with sliced raw veggies or hard-boiled eggs, maybe with raisins for dessert. The ants got a few crumbs that 'accidentally" fell off the bread, and we watched them drag the bits of bread off to their sandy hills.

      On the best days, we packed sandwiches made with white bread into tote bags, along with celery and carrot sticks, and walked three blocks south down the hill to where our street ended at the bridge over McCoy's Creek. I hated the bridge -- two logs with planks nailed across and always with planks missing. I feared it, and cried, but crossed it, pushed along by my siblings' annoyance and pulled by the anticipated delights of dragonflies and tadpoles at the Frog Pond a little ways up the hill by the railroad tracks. My mother carried a jug of red KoolAid and cups, one of us carried the blanket, and we set up lunch under a big oak tree near the pond. We sat down, said the standard Catholic grace that preceded every meal, made the sign of the cross, and settled into the sandwiches hoping that a train would go by so that we could wave at the engineer.

      Sometimes we did have sandwiches with other fillings -- tuna salad, egg salad, slices of Velveeta cheese (or the bargain equivalent). Lunch meats were rare -- they were too expensive. We had hamburgers and hot dogs, of course, and they were usually encased in the same white bread that made up our daily quota. On special occasions -- if company came, which was rare -- we splurged on hot dog or hamburger buns.

     Bread showed up as a special treat in other forms. Sometimes on Sundays we had French toast instead of eggs, with fried Spam. At Thanksgiving, bread cubes showed up as stuffing inside the turkey. Bread crumbs might be sprinkled on top of a Friday night tuna fish casserole (with canned peas, macaroni, and something to bind it -- not Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup). At my mother's parents' house in Kalamazoo where we ate once a month, bread crumbs appeared on top of corn casserole, but no matter how much I loved the crumb topping, it couldn't make up for corn and red pepper filling underneath.

     Our first encounter with yeast was not bread but Chef Boy-Ar-Dee packaged pizza, which arrived in Buchanan years and years before any actual pizza parlor. It might have been as early as the late 1950s, or 1960 that it showed up in the local grocery stores (I can't find an exact date). I was fascinated by mixing up the yeast and the warm water, watching it bubble and smell, waiting for the dough to rise, and then eating this wholly foreign food -- not a potato or bit of tough chuck roast in sight. It was still years before I got around to baking bread, but pizza became a staple.

    White bread -- stuff to butter, to drench with honey until it stiffened, to mound with butter and payers of white sugar, to toast and drown in butter with sugar and cinnamon piled on to the thickness of the bread, to eat plain if necessary -- white bread filled my stomach and nourished my soul with its dailiness, its willingness to collaborate with so many other foods, its availability when the next-to-last dollar had to stretch two more days, the kids were sick, or the twelve-hour working day was the reality.

     All of this is to say that white bread --  plastic-wrapped, dirt cheap, nutritious mostly because of the vitamins and minerals added back into it -- has its place. I haven't eaten it often in recent years but it sustained me, day in and day out through much of my life. Artisan bread has its place too, but should never forget that its white bread working-class sibling feeds much more of the world today than can ever afford that crusty baguette or the flour-dusted ciabatta loaf. Even white bread is the staff of life for many, and deserves its own measure of respect and appreciation.

1 comment:

  1. We ate a variety of breads -- Italian and American -- ie, the white bread you describe. The Italian loaves were for dinner; the American, for the endless peanut butter lunch sandwiches and occasional French toast. Mom made bread from time to time and we often had hard dinner rolls. Pizza was common in Columbus, even in my earliest childhood.