Bread Wars

Factory vs. Homemade

Dear bread friends,

I’m giving a talk about the rise of factory bread, a topic that’s always on my mind. If the question of my first book was how come fresh flour left the Northeast, the question driving me now is how come people stopped making bread at home.

Baked into this question is the assumption that homemade bread is the ideal universal staple. Wheat and bread are the basic foods of many cultures, and so grains and bread are embroidered into our foundational mythologies. My mind wants a single story about how the bad guy, factory bread, conquered the good guy, homemade bread. I know I’m not going to find a single villain, but I keep looking.

The bread years that really intrigue me are 1910-20, when bakeries got larger and the public began to buy more bread than bake it. This timeline also fits well with my trying to understand bread in my city, as Troy, NY got its first bread factory in 1913, Freihofer’s. (I’ve written before about Freihofer’s, and my search for the original recipes the factory would have used.)

A great book to read and reread about this shift is Aaron Bobrow Strain’s White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf. His bibliography might be where I learned of trade journals in baking and milling as a way to study bread. I have bookmarked digitized copies of The American Miller and Processor and The Bakers Review from these transitional bread years, and some days I fall into a bunny hole, reading about how professional bakers and millers discussed the changes they were experiencing.

Friday, I fell into a collection of 1912’s monthly editions of The American Miller and Processor. What a treasure trove! There’s information about how to handle insects at the mill, discussions of exports and tariffs, reports on what parts of the country had drought, and announcements from millers seeking work. I read about what the millers thought bakeries needed and what they thought housewives wanted. There’s sections of letters to the editor. This one really caught my eye:

“BAKERS AND THE FLOUR TRADE

Editor American Miller – The bakers of this country are making strenuous efforts to do all the baking for the families of our dear land, some saying that they want to be making 80% of the goods used. Should this come to pass, what is going to happen to the small mills that are dependent upon the country grocer for their trade?....

The bakers are making some of the finest bread it is possible to make, and the “home made” loaf they are turning out of some bakeries can be placed by the side of any turned out by the housewife; and it is gaining favor daily. Yours truly, C.E. Oliver”

I assume C.E. Oliver was a miller though he did not say – why else would he be worried about the future of small mills and writing to the editor?

The publication also ran editorial commentary from their own experts. Columnist Charles Cristadoro dismissed Oliver’s fears for the longevity of small mills:

“Estimates rule anywhere from 86% down to 70% of bread home baked. The baker will win over some of this, naturally is bound to do so, but as to all of it – never as long as grass grows and water flows. But it’s a pleasant encouraging dream for the bakers.”

The tension about who would make America’s bread was clearly front of mind, because lots of other pieces in The American Miller in 1912 mocked this dream, too. Another remark denigrated Mr. Paul Schulze for his words about the dangers of homemade bread.

Who the heck was he? Google didn’t have anything to say about this particular guy, but luckily, I had another artifact of this era bookmarked, a report from the 1911 convention of the National Association of Master Bakers. Turns out that their president was Mr. Paul Schulze, owner of Schulze Baking Company in Chicago. In in his address at the Kansas City, Missouri convention, he took up the case of homemade bread, pillorying a woman for coming to him with a dense undercooked loaf that she claimed her friends loved; he used her as an example of an impediment to the advancing of bakery-made bread.

“This country is just full of housewives in precisely that same fix. They are proud of their cooking, and so are their folks, and they think they are doing their duty by baking at home. Their kitchen equipment is such that they can’t possibly bake a big loaf clear to the center without burning the outside. Their ovens, like those of all kitchen stoves, are incapable of developing the proper temperature, and are devoid of the necessary moisture. The long-suffering stomachs up their families continue to pay the penalty of their mistaken sense of duty. Hundreds of thousands of wives and mothers are wondering today why their folks have so much trouble with indigestion and dyspepsia.”

This generation of American housewives, Schulze said hadn’t noticed that the baking industry was advancing, and didn’t know that their ovens did not possess “the germ killing power” that modern bakery ovens did. Ignorance and traditions were interfering with progress. Schulze said that advertising was the best method to promote a natural transition to buying bread. The final paragraphs of his talk show how the battle for bread looked in August 1911:

“Keep your own house in order by saying that every baker you come in contact with is working for cleaner and more sanitary surroundings, and go after your competitor hard and fast, your only real competitor – the housewife.

There is a world of romance and human interest in the staff of life for which the whole human race struggles and toils, and the men who find a way to “cash in” on this will be about the truest benefactors the baking industry could have.”

We were already advertising bread to ourselves. Bakeries just needed to capitalize on how sold we were on that romance. Of course, that’s not the only reason for the success of factory bread, but it figures into the equation.

Yours in bread and butter,

Amy

PS — Ellie Markovitch and I are holding another session of Baking By Touch on Wednesday, October 27th at noon EDT. We’re going to talk about incorporating fall vegetables into your bread. Join us!

PPS — the talk I’m giving is for the Boston Culinary Historians, and only for their members. Would you like to read more about this topic? Please let me know!

Notes:

Aaron Bobrow-Strain, White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf. Penguin, 2012.

The American Miller and Processor. United States, National Miller Publications., 1912.

Report of Convention National Association of Master Bakers. United States, National association of master bakers., 1911.