“How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like kleenex? – Julia Child
The story of bread and baking becomes complicated around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Advances in technology led to changes in production methods of bread, and even in farming and cultivation of wheat. Social changes abounded, as well; more people were engaged in factory and production work leaving less time for baking and cooking at home.
Gradual changes in farming and agricultural technology paved the way for more commercial production of food items. In the early 1900’s, large tractors began to work alongside horses on expansive farms of the Great Plains. By the mid-1950’s, tractors outnumbered horses, and modern irrigation systems helped mitigate the effects of drought. These advances in technology and efficiency allowed fewer farms to produce more goods. While the benefits and drawbacks of this change could be debated, there is little question that these changes allowed for more commercial production of food in a prosperous, post-war nation that was primed for convenience.
On the production side of the equation, the older method of stone grinding wheat was replaced with much faster steel rollers. These steel rollers were more consistent, and could produce much finer flour that was compatible with mechanized bread production. There were new machines that could knead, weigh, and shape loaves of bread, then slice and package them. Joseph Lee of Boston developed and patented one of the first mechanized bread making machines in the early 1900’s.
In 1928, Otto Frederick Rohwedder finalized production of a bread-slicing and packaging machine. He sold the first slicer to the Chillicothe Baking Company in Missouri, which sold Kleen Maid Sliced Bread. A massive marketing campaign by competitor Wonder Bread a few years later, and the mass production of toasters, ensured Rohwedder’s success with his invention. Rohwedder sold the rights to his invention to the Micro-Westco Company during the Great Depression; however, they hired him as a vice-president and sales manager. The “father of sliced bread” created an iconic American food that is still widely sold today.
Nearly 100 years after Joseph Lee’s invention, the one-loaf bread maker became a household appliance, and sliced bread can be found on shelves at grocery stores or gas station convenience centers. Americans today consume approximately 200 pounds per person of grains and cereals each year, as compared to 150 pounds in the 1950’s. Flower Foods, which owns both Wonder and Sunbeam breads, had sales of 3.1billion dollars in 2012, and according to the American Institute of Baking, Wonder and Sunbeam sold over 150million loaves of bread that year.
Until a few years ago, hand made bread was considered an artifact, and stone ground flour can still be difficult to find. Yet our love of bread has not diminished. Those four simple ingredients have paralleled human history, they have sustained us, been a catalyst for social change, and have been subject to our advances. Those four simple ingredients; flour, water, yeast, and salt are as much a part of the human experience as the joy of a sunset or the iconic moments in history.