Why do Europeans eat so much bread
“Bread is a living being. And this creature should be tamed. "
The American bread researcher Aaron Bobrow-Strain
SZ-Magazin: Mr. Bobrow-Strain, you bake your own bread, your wife makes her own cheese, at the same time you make fun of the organic movement. How does that fit together?
Aaron Bobrow-Strain: I support organic farming, food that is grown in the region, farmers' markets and health food stores. But I have become skeptical about some of the forms this movement has taken.
Which shapes do you mean?
The organic movement has fallen in love with itself. As if the main thing was to show the world that you yourself eat the real foods - and isn't that sad that other people eat so wrongly? This elitist thinking does not help us to fundamentally change the system of our diet. But I am convinced that this system has to change radically.
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So you wrote a book about better nutrition - aren't there enough of them already?
I've looked at countless books. We live in a golden age of information about our diet and related issues. But there are few books out there on how people have tried to change our diet in the past. But I wanted to know: What have people tried? Why did they fail?
You chose a particular food to investigate these questions: white bread.
But not the European way, the crispy loaf from the bakery around the corner. But the limp, already sliced toast from the factory, as we have it here in the United States.
Why this bread?
Because it was the most competitive food in American history. The example can be used to learn something about exercise for an alternative diet. My central question was: Can we change the world by trying to change what and how people eat? I quickly realized, however, that when we argue about nutrition, in reality we are almost always arguing about something else.
You write that bread is the "first political food".
As long as there is bread, there has been an argument about bread. As early as 2,400 years ago, Plato was concerned with the question of whether the ideal society should better feed on coarse bread or fine pastries - to put it bluntly: Should the good citizen eat wholemeal bread or white bread?
What does Plato recommend?
Of course, Plato does not give a definitive answer. His discussion isn't really about nutrition or bread. For him it was a debate about the moral virtues of the Athenians: people move from the country, where they ate simple bread made from barley, to the city, where there were cakes, pastries and other delicacies of the luxurious life - is anything lost? So bread becomes a symbol of a much larger social issue.
Why is bread such a powerful symbol?
In the Bible it says: Man does not live from bread alone - in the course of history, people have very often lived almost exclusively on bread. Depending on the era, Europeans consumed between 40 and 60 percent of their daily calories in the form of bread, which lasted until the 1950s. When food is so vital, it is not surprising that it takes on an incredible symbolic weight.
The Olympic Games of Baking
In terms of production, little has changed over the millennia - until the bread emerged from the bakery. You write that this white bread was developed and constructed like the streamlined trains of that time at the beginning of the 20th century.
White bread has been industrialized, that was the Olympic Games of Baking: They are trying to make bread faster, taller and stronger. Basically, bread, today just as it was a thousand years ago, is tied to the rhythm of nature: the rhythm of the yeast, the rhythm of the microorganisms that make the dough rise - at the beginning of the baking there is fermentation, because yeasts produce gas! Bread is a living being. And this wild creature should be tamed. Nevertheless, with technical advances and all sorts of additives, baking could only be accelerated to a certain extent.
After all, the dough still has to rise. This is why industrial bakery factories did not work very differently from the ancient Egyptians in the beginning: They mixed some dough, which then had to stand until it was gone. They could make the fermentation a little faster, but they still had lots of batches of fermenting dough standing around, taking up space. Imagine you are manufacturing cell phones and you have to leave each one on the factory floor for a few hours before you can assemble it completely. It doesn't make sense to a businessman. So food chemists started working on separating the fermentation process from baking.
You have called this goal of avoiding natural fermentation the "Holy Grail of baking science".
It was the hardest part of going into large-scale baking, and it took the longest to tackle. But in the early 1950s, food chemists managed to ferment in a separate process and on an industrial scale and then simply inject a fully fermented mixture of microorganisms and fermentation agents into the actual dough. In this way, the effects of fermentation, such as taste, were obtained without having to wait so long.
Industrially produced bread was a great success from the start. In 1890, 90 percent of American bread was still baked at home - but as early as 1930, 90 percent of bread came from baking factories, mainly as white bread. What made this product so successful?
The industrialization of baking begins at a time when people were fascinated by progress, by machines, by the future - a future in which industry would meet needs, technology subjugated nature and we would all be very happy. At that moment, the gleaming white bread that comes from modern factories takes on a utopian aura. Each slice of it was an edible symbol of technological progress.
In advertisements from the 1920s, loaves of white bread look like Bauhaus buildings, brands are given names like “Utopia” or “Wonder Bread”. But today, sliced white bread out of plastic packaging is considered "white trash", a symbol of poverty and poor nutrition. What happened?
It was a long process. What was surprising to me was how much Americans fought over white bread in the past. Love or hate this product is one of the constants in our history. I thought this change in symbolism didn't begin until the 1960s.
Hippies hated white bread?
For them, white bread was a symbol of everything they found wrong about America, what they wanted to change - it was commercial, it was artificial, it was establishment. The idea of only eating whole grain bread, preferably baked at home, was really a political vision to change society.
Back then it was said: the whiter the bread, the faster you are dead.
And the baking industry quickly decided to make use of this young, rebellious spirit: It brought industrially baked wholemeal bread onto the market - so-called health bread. Sometimes there was wood pulp in it to give the bread more fiber.
Doesn't sound particularly appetizing.
But this bread could be marketed as a high quality product and sold at a high price. With this impulse emanating from the consumer, bread becomes a kind of status symbol: I eat the real food, I eat this healthy wholemeal bread and not such a limp white bread. In the 1980s, industrial white bread already stood for a poor white person from the lower class who lived in the country. Incidentally, in my research I learned that the perception of bread did not change with the hippies; the debate began much earlier: As early as the 1920s and 1930s, people were dissatisfied with industrial white bread and said it was the reason for pretty much everything from laziness and crime to obesity and tuberculosis.
Despite the unclouded belief in progress that still prevailed at the time?
Yes, even during this time there were movements for a different diet and lots of nutrition gurus. They believed they could just go to the New York or Chicago tenements and teach the slums to eat decently and that would solve their problems.
Basically nothing more than what British TV chef Jamie Oliver is doing today.
Nothing against Jamie Oliver. His recommendations for good nutrition are great. But even the Jamie Olivers of that time did not recommend anything wrong: home-grown vegetables or wholemeal bread instead of white bread. However, they completely overlooked why the poor were poor. After all, they weren't poor or sick because they lacked the knowledge or the moral backbone to make the right choices about their diet. They were poor or sick because of the conditions in which they lived. They looked at the nutrition gurus with their tips on home grown vegetables and said, well, what we really need is health care. Higher wages. Schools. Then the gurus returned from the slums and said: I can't believe these people - they don't want our good food!
Power rests in the hands of a few food companies
What did these prophets of better nutrition do wrong?
They took social questions and turned them into moral and individual questions about how a person should feed themselves. When I look at the history of the struggles over white bread, I get the feeling that Jamie Oliver and others only intensify social gaps because they only criticize the individual but leave the entire food system largely untouched.
What do you mean by the food system?
The great world of agriculture. The governments that regulate agriculture. The corporations that sell seeds or pesticides. The world of workers who pick vegetables. The unprecedented concentration of power in the hands of a very few food companies that can determine how people around the world eat.
Doesn't everyone who is interested in nutrition know that?
At a book fair I listened to a lecture by an author who had visited socially disadvantaged areas for a year and taught poor people to cook, in her words: neat. The last sentence of her talk was: If we could only teach the poor to make vinaigrette - they would be so much better off.
After all of your research, what is the answer: Can we change the world by trying to change what and how people eat?
I still believe in it, yes. Food connects us in a very intimate way with the big questions about society or politics. Plato recognized this very clearly.
What is your advice for someone who wants to change the world in this way?
Moralize less. Not so much targeting individual food choices. We are trying to change the food system as consumers - instead we should try to change it as citizens, through political channels.
You can't see bread after your book, can you?
Yes, for a while I was fed up with bread. But I love it too much to do without it completely. A homemade white bread made from sourdough - wonderful.
The bread historian
A worn bowl made of earthenware is the most important utensil in Aaron Bobrow-Strain's kitchen: it is where he prepares his sourdough. Bobrow strain describes itself as a "bread freak". Born in Chicago in 1970, he studied at Stanford and Berkeley Universities, where he earned his doctorate in geography. The scientist concentrated early on in his research on questions of nutrition, agriculture and politics. His first book dealt with the conflicts over land ownership in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Today he lives with his wife and children in Washington State, where he teaches politics at a private university in Walla Walla.
Photos: Ricardo Cases
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