White Bread: Aaron Bobrow-Strain talks food politics

Rachel Alexander

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After five years of work, Associate Professor of Politics Aaron Bobrow-Strain has published a book entitled “White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf.” Published on March 6, 2012, the book has been selected as one of Amazon.com’s “Best Books” for March 2012, and was featured on NPR. It’s currently available in the Whitman Bookstore.

Bobrow-Strain spoke with The Pioneer about the book and the current alternative food movement in the United States.

 

Pio: Can you summarize what your book is about?

Credit: Allie Felt

Aaron Bobrow-Strain: Half of it is a kind of fun, sort of fluffy history of America’s most iconic industrial food, and half of it is a more serious exploration of how people have gone about trying to change the food system in the United States. I wrote the book partially because I’m sort of a bread baking geek, but also because I was looking around at the kinds of books that are out there about food.

There are a lot of really exciting books out there about food politics right now that are telling us all the different ways in which our food system is broken, and then they offer a few simplistic solutions. There aren’t really any books out there that look at how people have tried to change the food system in the past: what people have done, the traps reformers have fallen into, what they’ve done well.

It turns out that industrial white bread is a great, kind of fun way to get at those types of heavy questions, because it’s our most fought-over food. So in a lot of ways, even though the book started as a book about bread, it turned into a book about food reformers and diet gurus and health experts who thought that if we could just get people to eat the right type of bread, they would somehow save the world.

Pio: You’ve gotten a lot of praise for the book. Do you think there are things in the current food movement that are making people pay attention to it in a way they wouldn’t have a few years ago?

ABS: I think that there’s an increasing willingness to think about questions of food justice and elitism within the food movement. I think the way my book speaks to this moment, though, is that I really want us to take the idea of food justice further. Right now, when we speak about food justice in the food movement, it’s really a question of, “How do we help those unprivileged people get access to what we consider to be good food?” It’s all about access.

I think that we need to reconceive food justice as more than just getting access to good food. [It’s] really about questions of wages and social inequality. Why is it that people don’t have the money to buy good food? Those are much harder questions, less immediately pleasurable and fun for food activists to ask, but important if we want to get at the root cause.

Pio: Do you think the notion of “good food” itself is problematic, the idea that there are some foods that are inherently “good”?

ABS: I think that whenever people talk about or name something as “good food,” always in relation to something that’s ‘bad food’, those are very often quiet claims about what people want in society. They’re underlying social claims. I don’t know that I would say that there’s always problematic, but they’re very revealing about people’s social anxieties and aspirations.

A really current example is people right now pining for the lost days of mother’s bread: “Bread just isn’t the way it used to be when mother or grandmother used to bake it.” I think what’s interesting about that is that whether or not people recognize it, by talking about mother’s bread as good bread, they’re taking a quiet position on what women’s role in society should be. It may actually surprise them if they stop and think about it to realize that there’s a gendered politics to that nostalgia.

Pio: To what extent do you see these problems playing out in the Whitman food scene?

ABS: I think the place where I see it most in my classes is in questions of farm-worker rights and farm-worker justice. I’ve been really excited to see how students are really able to reconceive food politics as a question of farm-worker rights and farm-worker justice in a way that isn’t just all about the question of “What should I eat?” I see that as a really exciting place where people are pushing the meaning of food politics. Do you see it in other places?

Pio: I guess I’m most familiar with the Real Food Challenge and efforts to lobby Bon Appétit to change various things, which to me often seem like they’re focused more on the environmental impact of food and notions of good food than the ethics behind them. I would say that we’re a lot more concerned about how animals are treated in the food than how people who produce it are maybe treated.

ABS: Food chain workers really are still fairly invisible within the alternative food movement, and part of that is because of the focus on individual food choices. But part of it, I think, is the underlying agrarian mythology in the alternative food movement. It’s very much about the small family farm, with mom and dad who own a small piece of land and produce food, and that’s really seen as the highest and most virtuous form that the food system can take. Which is great, and I’m all for that kind of thing, but it has a tendency of making the labor within the food chain invisible. It’s hard for a food movement that kind of wishes that farm-workers would just disappear so we can have a whole world of small farmers that are family owned; it’s kind of hard for them to really engage thoughtfully with farm-workers’ questions.

Pio: Could you describe the process of writing the book?

ABS: The book has been ruminating in my head since long before graduate school, since I was actually working on the U.S.-Mexico border as an activist way back in the early 90s and doing a lot of bread baking and just starting to get excited about food politics when that stuff wasn’t really common in the United States. I put it on hold for a long time and have been really working intensively on it for five years. I decided early on to write a book that would be more focused for a trade audience beyond academia.

Pio: Why?

ABS: I think right now that there are a lot of really exciting people within critical food studies, within academia, who are really theorizing and critiquing the industrial food system, the architectures of power that sustain it, and the people who are trying to reform it. Their voices aren’t really getting heard beyond academia.

I thought that I’ve been part of that critical food studies for a long time and thought that I could use white bread as a fun way to get those ideas out. And I realized, figuring out how to do that is quite difficult. I thought that writing a trade book was really about writing in clear prose and not having jargon, but through a long process of struggle, I realized that it’s really a completely different way of telling stories and framing arguments that I had to learn.

Pio:  What are those differences?

Credit: Allie Felt

ABS: I think a big part of it is trusting the story. Trusting that I as a scholar have really engaged rigorously with my sources at a depth that’s sufficient enough that my writing and my storytelling will reflect that. I don’t need to then surround my storytelling with references to all that theoretical material. I can just trust the story to reach people, and then trust readers to wrestle with the story and think about the story without me always trying to say what people should think at each stage.

Pio: You’ve studied Latin American studies and geography. Was it a difficult transition to writing about food?

ABS: It wasn’t really, because even my early work, which is about land conflict, race and globalization in Southern Mexico was also about food politics. It was about coffee and cattle production. An agrarian element has always run through all of my work.

Pio: Do you have any thoughts on where the food movement is going or should go?

ABS: One thing I really learned is that when food reformers really focus on the question of individual food choice, which is the question of, “What should I eat, and how can I empower other people to make the right choices about food?” When food reformers focus only on that, they end up doing two things usually, and this runs through the past 150 years. The first is they tend to miss the root causes of what’s going on. The second is that even the most well-meaning food reformers end up reinforcing boundaries between a virtuous “us” who does make the right choices about food, and the scary, maybe threatening, in-need-of-help “them” who can’t seem to make the good and right choices about food.

My favorite story of that is from the 1830s, and it’s of Sylvester Graham, whom you might call one of the Michael Pollans of the mid-19th century, a really influential food and health guru who is really intriguing in a lot of ways. He was an early proponent of vegetarianism in the United States, he has some early ideas about the importance of eating local food, but he made his mark as a food reformer in the 1830s when he went to New York and a massive cholera epidemic that was sweeping up and down the East Coast. He gave this series of lectures on why the poor were getting cholera. And his point was that the poor didn’t have the moral backbone to make the right choices about food. They were eating too much white bread, drinking too much alcohol, et cetera.

His solution to the cholera epidemic was to give the poor more moral fiber by giving them more dietary fiber. He prescribed whole wheat bread, pure water and locally grown vegetables. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with his food recommendations, especially in a day and age when people were eating a lot of white bread and boiled vegetables and drinking a lot of alcohol, you know, that’s a fairly good list of recommendations. But because he was so fixated on his idea that if the poor could make the right decisions about food it would lower the cholera problem, he completely missed the root causes about why there was a cholera epidemic, which were the corrupt government that was unable to provide sanitation infrastructure, the fact that the poor were working long, grueling unpaid hours in factories and also profiteering by vendors of pure water. So all the best intentions about making the right choices about food completely misses the root problem.

I think that if you substitute obesity for cholera today we really haven’t come that far. In fact, I would say as a food historian, when we look back in about 50 years at our current obesity epidemic, we’ll realize that we didn’t have a problem with people making the right choices about food and that leading to obesity, we had a problem with growing social inequality, stagnant or declining average low wages, foreclosure of opportunity in large segments of the population. Obesity is really just the manifestation or the symptom of that much deeper social problem.

Pio: What role did Whitman play in the book?

ABS: This book really came out of a conversation with my food studies classes over the years, where I tried out all my outrageous ideas and students critiqued them and we went back and forth. And also there were about three students who really helped out with the research as well––Robyn Lewis, Justine Pope and DeeDee McCormick.