Wonder Bread Sucks: On the First Great Sourdough Boom of the 1960s
Eric Pallant Investigates Our Desire for the Authentically Homemade
The restoration of sourdough in the late 1960s and early 1970s was related to revolutions underway across American society: uprisings against America’s war in Vietnam, demonstrations in support of wider civil rights, the women’s liberation movement, a riot at the Stonewall Inn, strikes by the United Farm Workers of America, the first Earth Day, and what was called in those days a “health food craze.” Caught among the swell of Americans who questioned their country’s involvement in the Vietnam War and what felt like to some the especially stale decade of the 1950s were sourdough bread, Dale Noyd, and my father.
In the 1960s, when Wonder Bread reigned in America, sourdough bread was a form of protest—as was, come to think of it, simply baking a loaf at home. My father’s plan to take up baking was reinforced by my pediatrician, who reasoned that my hands turned icicle blue without warning because the food I ate had additives in it. If I consumed only “natural” food, he told my parents—it was the first time in America when natural food had to be distinguished from, what, unnatural food?—my cold hands would be cured.
Dad was a self-taught polymath who thought like a scientist, cooked like a chemist, and liked an explanation that included the word vasoconstriction. He purchased a book called Bake Your Own Bread and Be Healthier by Stanley and Floss Dworkin that soon became known in our house by the nickname Flossie. As in, “Flossie says, ‘Always put your bread into a cold oven.’” Or “Flossie says, ‘You can tell if your bread is done if it sounds hollow when you thump the bottom.’” Flossie bread was intended to displace Wonder Bread in my house. It did not always come out on top; well into my teens, I was partial to Wonder Bread and ketchup sandwiches. But as often happens, we rediscover foods we disdained as children, and homemade sourdough bread was one of mine.
How did Wonder Bread become so emblematic of modern, “unnatural” food? The answer came to me by way of a sourdough workshop I attended in Scotland in 2017 during my Fulbright. Andrew Whitley, author of the award-winning books Bread Matters and Do Sourdough and founder of Great Britain’s Real Bread Campaign, was teaching the class, and he and I traded heirloom starters. In exchange for some Cripple Creek, Whitley handed me a rye culture from a bread factory in the former Soviet Union that was in use in 1960. Of course, Whitley’s came with an origin story.
Whitley explained that in 1960, Soviet authorities demanded 1.5 million loaves a day from a factory he observed while working for the BBC. To meet their quota, managers set up many miniature bakeries inside the factory. Long conveyor belts carried thousands of loaves of handmade rye. The inability of communist economists to match supply and demand was evident at the end of every day, when five hundred thousand loaves of uneaten bread were returned to the factory, where they were boiled and added to make the next day’s loaves. Reusing boiled rye bread in the next batch is worth a try if you ever have any leftovers. It is delicious.
By contrast, in the West in 1961, bread manufacturing was overtaken by something called the Chorleywood Bread Process, or CBP, named for the village of Chorleywood in the United Kingdom. The Chorleywood Bread Process contained the essence of capitalism—speed, vigor, efficiency, and profit—and in so many ways, right down to the starting ingredients, was the very opposite of sourdough bread.
To produce uniform, pale, squidgy loaves with blond, insipid crusts, food technologists eliminated bulk fermentation, the long wait for yeast to consume sugars contained in flour. CBP is a “no-time dough system.” In a CBP factory, 500 to 1,000 pounds of flour and water are dumped into a high-torque mechanical mixer that takes off at several hundred revolutions per minute. It takes fewer than three minutes for the water to be absorbed.
To prevent that much energy from ripping dough, oxidizing agents such as ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and emulsifiers are added to increase dough strength. To put it into perspective, the mixer imparts so much friction that if it weren’t for an ice jacket around the mixing drum, the temperature of the dough would increase 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
There is yeast in the bread, but the quantity is double what you might add to a non-CBP bread. Moreover, modern yeast is so powerful that when it is used at home, a dough must be punched to keep it under control. Sometimes it has to be punched twice. In a factory setting, bread rises in, well, no time. Yeast cells need sugar to ferment if they are to generate large volumes of carbon dioxide, so a sugar supplement is frequently used. High-fructose corn syrup works particularly well. Enzymes, minerals, and amylases hasten the process of supplying cells with energy while relaxing the dough. The net result is that cells of yeast inflate dough in much the same way that the Aerated Bread Company accomplished it by injecting carbon dioxide into aerated bread.A loaf of CBP bread typically has more than 20—and frequently more than 30—ingredients, a far cry from the basic four of history.
Modern transnational corporations grow yeast for CBP factories using techniques that descend from forebears: patent seekers at the end of the nineteenth century and marketers like the Fleischmanns. They raise strains that generate carbon dioxide with outstanding speed and maintain prototypes under tight laboratory conditions. Samples of pure culture are brought from the laboratory to sterilized vats, where yeast cells are fed copious quantities of nitrogen-enriched sugars, minerals, and vitamins. Tons—in some factories, upward of one hundred tons—of microscopic yeast cells are harvested from each batch, separated from their spent liquid, and sold to bread bakers as cream, cakes, or dried granules, very similar to yeast you buy in tiny packets in the store.
Inside a CBP factory, along with yeast, water, flour, elasticizers, and dough conditioners are introduced; lactose is sometimes added because it browns nicely in the oven. Thick fats and surfactants are blended in to increase bread volume, tenderize the dough, and speed up the rate at which flour absorbs water. The resulting crumb is perforated by tiny bubbles of identical size and shape, and the crust remains soft. Calcium propionate is added to prevent mold from growing on old loaves. According to the United Kingdom’s Federation of Bakers, a CBP loaf takes four hours to produce, from end to end. Not quite as fast as aerated bread but still impressive, considering machines run around the clock and churn out hundreds of thousands of loaves per day. Wonder Bread is a CBP loaf, and most modern American bread uses CBP technology.
A loaf of CBP bread typically has more than 20—and frequently more than 30—ingredients, a far cry from the basic four of history: flour, water, salt, and yeast or a sourdough culture. Commercial bread emits a vaguely chemical smell you can detect as soon as you wheel your cart into the bread aisle of your supermarket. It isn’t bread you smell; nothing your nose picks up will make your taste buds spring into action the way a freshly baked sourdough can.
In the 1960s, American bread factories churned out millions of loaves, just like their Russian counterparts, but in contrast to the communist ideal of factories packed with workers, American and British planners applied technology, science, and money to factories filled with machines. Anxious though it was to compete with the West, Russia did not modernize its bread making, even while it mastered nuclear power and spaceflight. The Soviets designed factories to fit the nature of sourdough bread; America and Great Britain redesigned bread to fit their factories. Even France succumbed to mass production. After World War II, finding an authentic sourdough baguette with decent taste was nigh impossible as sourdough in France gave way to fast-acting yeast and tasteless industrial breads for all the same reasons sourdough disappeared in the United States and England.
Food technicians had moved a 6,000-year-old process from the discipline of biology to the discipline of chemistry, with the admixture of purified flour, enzymes, surfactants, oxidizers, emulsifiers, elasticizers, conditioners, colorants, and preservatives. In some ways, French chemists A. L. Lavoisier and J. L. Gay-Lussac trying to reason their way through fermentation were not so off the mark. Chemical analysis of CBP bread did lead to a reinstatement of some healthfulness, however. When nutritionists analyzed bleached white flour, pressed flat by Hungarian-inspired roller mills and mechanically separated from its bran and germ, they found it devoid of minerals and nutrients. Having removed much of the essential goodness in bread, scientists, in accordance with dietary recommendations of the day, introduced vitamins and minerals back into the mixture. They marketed bread fortification as a healthful bonus.
Like its antecedents in the textile industry, factory bread removed the production of our daily bread from the hands of humans and placed it inside whirring steel machines. The Industrial Revolution reached its bread apotheosis in the 1960s, but inside each eye-catching plastic bag, wrapped about a perfectly predictable loaf of vitamin-enriched, chemically preserved, evenly sliced white bread, lay the germ of a bread insurrection.
I found my dad’s old copy of Bake Your Own Bread and Be Healthier. There is a special section on sourdough and another on whole wheat flour, both of which had become so rare in the age dominated by spongy bleached factory breads that they required special introductions. My dad made his own culture, and viscous sourdough starter regularly grew over the open top of its crock in the back of my refrigerator. My dad and Dale Noyd were not the only bakers to rediscover sourdough and so-called natural bread—and the Dworkins were not the only authors on the subject at the time.
In 1966, the Zen Center of San Francisco opened the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. It was, and still is, a monastery for students practicing traditional Zen meditation. Students are given a simple diet of grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits. It is a testament to how processed American food had become by 1966 that consuming whole grains, fruit that was freshly harvested rather than packed in a can filled with syrup, and vegetables that required more work than defrosting and boiling was an idea waiting to be rediscovered by Buddhist monks secluded in the mountains of California.
According to Tassajara, its students were “accustomed as many have been to ‘bread’ being that pure white, bland, airy, unsubstantial filler that comes in plastic, cello, or wax paper.” Visitors were given homemade bread at every meal. The monastery’s head cook, Edward Espe Brown, published The Tassajara Bread Book in 1970. On page one, Brown laid out two principles that still ring true fifty years after they were written. The first was a poem:
with rich true-spirited flavor
that one soon learns to love and create.
Brown’s second principle was placed above a simple pen and ink drawing of three sunflowers: “Yet basically it’s just you and the dough—ripening, maturing, baking, blossoming together.” Four of Tassajara’s 98 recipes were for sourdough.
In 1973, Bernard Clayton published The Complete Book of Breads, James Beard penned Beard on Bread, and even Better Homes and Gardens, purveyor of mainstream Americana, published Homemade Bread Cookbook. To demonstrate their authenticity, bread books of the early 1970s included a handful of sourdough recipes, but it is as if the authors failed to trust themselves or their readers. They certainly did not trust sourdough to supply sufficient oomph. Their recipes all included the addition of commercial yeast to complete the task of leavening. Three years later, Ruth Allman published 95 handwritten recipes in Alaska Sourdough, and at last, along with blue whales and bald eagles, sourdough bread was on its way back from imminent extinction. The publication of half a dozen books on baking homemade bread was the decadal equivalent of a viral hashtag. “The times they are a-changing,” sang Bob Dylan.
Reprinted with permission from Sourdough Culture by Eric Pallant, Agate Publishing, September 2021.