In 1970, Richard Pryor stormed off stage in the middle of his popular Las Vegas nightclub act, refusing to do another minute of "white bread humor." The outburst marked the beginning of Pryor's transformation into the scathing performer who turned comedy on its head in the late 1970s. It was also the first widely cited use of "white bread" as an adjective.
In truth, though, the pejorative "white bread" had earlier antecedents. In the diverse ranks of 1960s counterculture activism, the phrase had already come to signify everything bland, homogenous, suburban, chemical, and corporate--everything that the counterculture hoped to upend.
This meaning is still around: you know, for example, that music described as "white bread" will be funkless pablum enjoyed in cookie-cutter tract mansions. But, by the early 1980s, another usage had emerged. In this case, "white bread" signified almost the opposite: not dull affluent suburbia, but white trash. "White bread," like broken-down trailers, came to denote poverty of a white and rural kind--the world described by residents of TV's South Park as "a quiet, little, white-bread, Podunk, white trash, redneck corner of the U.S.A."
So how did stuffy old white bread become achy breaky white trash?
The answer to this question lies in the cultural trajectory from hippie to yuppie, from the mid 1960s to the mid 1980s, and it is not just a tale of the triumph of health or taste. It illuminates disturbing changes in America's economy and society that today's food movement has only begun to reckon with.
Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, counterculture food rebels believed that if people only knew about the dangers of industrial food and the goodness of healthy eating, they would change their diets. This, in turn, would catalyze bigger social transformations. As Crescent Dragonwagon, author of the influential Commune Cookbook, declared, food was so central to human life that rebellion against industrial eating united all struggles against oppression.
By the late 1970s, counterculture food gurus saw part of their dreams fulfilled: more Americans knew about the dangers of industrial eating than at any other time in the past century. But it was also becoming clear that this consciousness wouldn't necessarily set in motion the larger structural changes food activists had hoped for.
The industrial food system proved adept at co-opting health consciousness. And, by the beginning of the Reagan era, the counterculture's emphasis on social transformation had been rewritten as individualistic consumer-driven dreams of self-actualization and the pursuit of perfect health.
These shifts were not inevitable, nor did they occur in a vacuum. Rocked by recessions, oil crises, and de-industrialization, the U.S. economy began to take on a new form in the 1970s. Manufacturing and productive union labor no longer served as the country's driving engine. Financial services--making money from money--had begun to take their place at the center of the economy.
After steadily rising through the postwar period, real wages for most Americans began to decline. Even forty years later, average wages adjusted for cost of living still wouldn't have returned to their pre-1970s level, but the financialization of the U.S. economy did produce enormous wealth for urban professionals. Wealth distribution in the country became, and remained, more polarized than at any other period since the Roaring Twenties.
These trends transformed consumption in America. During the postwar era of rising wages and decreasing inequality, consumption largely took the form of standardized, one-size-fits-all, mass-market commodities. As with uniform white loaves on supermarket shelves, differences among competing commodities were relatively small. During the 1980s, however, fueled by the rapid segmentation of American society, consumer life diversified into ever-more precise niche markets.
No longer would everyone eat the same iceberg lettuce. Increasingly shoppers could choose the style of lettuce--shipped in from Mexico, if needed--that fit their status aspirations exactly. To survive, bakers would have to embrace real product diversification. And, in this area, upstarts outpaced industry leaders. Small bakeries sprouted up across the country in record numbers during the 1980s. By the 1990s, some of them had grown into chains. Au Bon Pain and Great Harvest clones spread through suburban malls and city streets. Independent small artisan bakeries extended inward from the west and east coasts.
Supermarkets still sold industrial white bread, of course, but demand for fluffy loaves increasingly concentrated in lower income brackets. Middle and upper class consumers were increasingly willing to pay more for their bread. Now "we can sell Cadillacs along with the Fords," a Bakery magazine writer beamed in 1986.
In 2009, according the Washington Post, the value of whole wheat bread sales topped white for the first time in U.S. history--presumably a healthy development. And yet the same anti-elitist attacks on industrial bread that set this historic shift into motion during the 1960s has generated new alimentary elites, new forms of social distinction.
While references to nutrition ground distaste for white bread in scientific truth, the elites' feelings toward who eat white bread are anything but objective.
Demonstrating interest in healthy eating is an essential piece of the performance of eliteness today, as is scorning (or pitying) those who eat the wrong foods. Maintaining a fit-looking body, keeping abreast of new health food trends, and at least paying lip service to scientific nutrition advice proclaim one's superior virtue and self-control to the world.
A person's elite status and fit body may, in fact, have arisen from destructive behavior--like insider trading and bulimia--or just some lucky inheritance, but the visual spectacle of affluent healthism declares, "I earned my wealth through discipline, self-sacrifice, and hard work, just like I earned this body."
This does not mean that we should abandon the social dreams championed by today's food movement--nor give in to the industrial food system. I, for one, crave the world of community, cultural vibrancy, environmental responsibility, vital health, and alimentary diversity symbolized a fresh-baked loaf of local artisanal bread. Nevertheless, white bread's journey from modern marvel to low class symbol reminds us of the dangers in confusing "good" food choices with social virtue.
When food justice is understood only in terms of an enlightened "us" helping an underprivileged "them" access "good food" (i.e. not white bread), we miss the real root causes of our dietary crises--soaring inequality, declining prospects for large segments of the population, and concentration of power in the food industry.
Aaron Bobrow-Strain is the author of White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf.