Cultural Caviar

White Food

January 08, 2014

Multiple Pages
White Food

In 2002, on the tenth anniversary of the Rodney King riots, I drove down to the intersection of Florence and Normandie in South-Central LA where all hell had broken loose. To see if the locals were suffering from a “food desert,” I stopped at a nearby supermarket. Yet the main difference from a suburban supermarket was found not in the fresh produce section but in the bread aisle: The good folks of the ‘hood would only buy white bread, such as Wonder Bread.

That struck me as curious because it didn’t fit the popular notion in the media that white suburbanites are “white bread” people.

A few stand-up comics are trying to “reappropriate” this ethnic epithet: Jim Gaffigan, for example, is currently on his “White Bread Tour.” But it remains one of the few ethnic slurs that’s acceptable—indeed, almost unquestioned—in the 21st century.

Of course, blacks didn’t make up the “white bread” insult.

As an interesting Slate article by David Merritt Johns called “Why Do Jews Hate Mayonnaise?” recounts, the late Milton Berle used to joke, “Anytime somebody orders a corned beef sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise, somewhere in the world, a Jew dies.”

Johns recounts similar ethnically charged jokes about white bread and mayonnaise from Jackie Mason, Harry Shearer, and Woody Allen. (Alvy Singer is contemptuous yet intrigued when Annie Hall orders her pastrami shiksa-style: on white bread with mayonnaise.)

Comparable ethnic connotations of boring blandness have been attached to a variety of white foods such as vanilla ice cream, milk, and mashed potatoes. Mel Brooks claimed that a typical Midwesterner “drives a white Ford station wagon, eats white bread, vanilla milkshakes, and mayonnaise.”

While some of those white foods are indeed dull, others are not. Vanilla, for instance, is a superb flavor. It lacks the oomph and caffeine kick of chocolate, but to a discerning palate, vanilla is more exquisite.

“A century ago, demanding whiteness was a way to fight corruption and adulteration in purchased food.”

At the other end of the subtlety spectrum, mayonnaise, while slightly disgusting, is delicious, offering a far richer flavor than its Germanic competitor mustard. If mayonnaise were a condiment from Kyrgyzstan only recently introduced to America, it would be a sensation among foodies.

Then again, the Borscht Belt jokesters did have a point: Average American whites in the middle of the 20th century sure did consume a lot of literally white stuff.

How come?

I finally started to understand when my wife mentioned that sometime before WWII her grandfather had worked inside a Chicago ice-cream factory. He came home and told his children, “After what I saw today, never eat any flavor of ice cream other than vanilla.”

The shift from homemade to store-bought food did much to liberate women from household drudgery, but it brought about new worries.

In 2014, “transparency” is a popular buzzword used in the fight against corruption. The Turkish Gülen cult that runs all those charter schools in America, for example, is frequently upbraided for not being transparent in its finances.

Similarly, a century ago demanding whiteness was a way to fight corruption and adulteration in purchased food.

Today a fashionable diet item such as South American quinoa may look like ground-up bugs, but we trust that supermarkets couldn’t get away with selling us ground-up bugs. (They can’t, can they?) Back then, however, people didn’t put much faith in grocery stores and restaurants, especially when they were traveling—and often with good reason.

Now, though, even if we get food poisoning we have antibiotics to keep us alive. The introduction of penicillin around 1945 made American life less fraught—the chance of dropping dead from bad bacteria declined sharply.

The most thorough article on the white-bread wars is a long 2011 academic essay by Aaron Bobrow-Strain entitled White bread bio-politics: purity, health, and the triumph of industrial baking. It starts off with an abstract that touches all the postmodern lit theory bases:

Building on Michel Foucault’s work on bio-politics, it shows how notions of food safety dependent on discourses of purity, contagion, hygiene, and vitality inevitably constitute lines of exclusion and social hierarchy, even as they are used to mobilize ‘progressive’ social change.

But Bobrow-Strain’s article includes a key statistic. In 1890,

…bread was the country’s single most important food and 90 per cent of it was baked in homes by women. By [1930], bread was still the country’s number one food, but 94 per cent of it was baked outside the home by men.

To American women looking for relief from their endless homemaking duties, the invention of sliced bread in 1928 was the greatest thing since, well…since the invention of wrapped bread in 1915, which allowed consumers to buy bread never touched by (no doubt diseased) human hands.

But if you aren’t going to make your family’s sandwiches from bread you baked yourself and from sausages you ground yourself, how do you know your baker and butcher aren’t just, say, tossing in dead cockroaches they swept up off the floor? What if the factory is adding strong flavors to cover up filler? How can you tell that your delicious store-bought dark rye bread isn’t infected with the brownish-purple ergot of rye mold, which can cause the neurological disorder St. Vitus’s Dance?

One solution favored by some immigrant groups was to rely upon a trusted neighborhood delicatessen with famously high standards. The ethnic deli method was especially popular with cultures that traditionally endorsed complicated food taboos that made it difficult to share a convivial meal with outsiders. Of course, it also tended to exacerbate immigrant ethnocentrism, making them nervous when they dined away from their home turf, as when Alvy Singer tries to eat an Easter ham with Annie Hall’s family.

In contrast, the Pure Foods Movement that WASP ladies (many of whom were also in the temperance struggle) started after the Civil War sought to find remedies for their more open and mobile culture. One was federal regulation: The coalition finally succeeded in passing the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 after the publication of Upton Sinclair’s muckraking The Jungle.

Another tactic was favoring lighter-colored and lighter-flavored foodstuffs that were harder to pollute.

And it worked. A scientist wrote in 1926 of trends in bread, “To all appearances…the general public is continuing in its belief (justified both by the bacteriological count and the microscopic examination) that whiteness or creamy whiteness is a sign of cleanness.”

Whiteness was next to cleanliness. A non-food example was Procter & Gamble introducing in 1881 a famous slogan to sell their Ivory Soap bars: “99 and 44/100ths pure.” By today’s standards, a packaged good that is advertised as 0.56 percent random crud sounds like trouble, but in 1881 that marked a new benchmark in quality control.

(Similarly, Asians have been demanding to have much of the nutrients polished off their rice for centuries, in part because it’s harder to hide contaminants in white rice.)

Before the spread of franchised fast-food restaurants with standardized methods, travelers were highly concerned about where and what to eat without suffering food poisoning. It was widely believed that the safest meal to eat in a strange diner was a grilled-cheese sandwich. As NPR reported on Bobrow-Strain’s research: “And some foods are just better with white bread, he says, whether it’s a simple grilled cheese or something fancier.”

Milton Berle learned the prudential wisdom of eating white during his years on the road. Johns notes:

You wouldn’t guess from Berle’s joke that he himself took his corned beef with mayo on white, a preference he attributed to a nomadic showbiz youth fueled by pit stops at railroad lunch counters in the 1920s.

An alternative to whiteness was for a brand to advertise heavily to build glamour and confidence that its products weren’t put out by some fly-by-night operation. The most famous representative of the dark side of American consumables was Coca-Cola, whose brown syrup was based on an ostentatiously secret recipe, one that came with jolts of caffeine and, for decades, cocaine.

Eventually, the goals of the Pure Foods women were met. By the post-War era, a mother could take her children on a summer vacation road trip secure in the knowledge that they wouldn’t be poisoned by food she bought them along the way.

But that remarkable cultural accomplishment bred its own inevitable backlash. Once food safety was largely accomplished, it quickly became taken for granted and the reasons for a white-on-white diet were forgotten. Thus, the mid-century favorites became unfashionable and subject to derision. Bobrow-Strain explains:

The counterculture movement “took up white bread as an emblem of everything that was wrong with America. It was plastic, corporate, stale,” Bobrow-Strain says. Eating handmade, whole wheat bread became “an edible act of rebellion, a way of challenging The Man.”

Their ancestors having conquered the threat of macro-poisoning, the Baby Boomer generation moved on to obsessing over micro-poisons such as pesticides, thus requiring organic foods. Today, the affluent insist upon local food whose advantages are presumably found at the nanoscopic level.

Interestingly, Johns points out in Slate that mayonnaise itself is kosher. Former rabbi Jackie Mason replied to him that his people’s strong feelings about mayonnaise were probably the result of Jews feeling “guilty over betraying mustard.”

As always, white guilt is about your ancestors being too ethnocentric, while Jewish guilt is about you not being ethnocentric enough for your ancestors.

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