“Bread is the staff of life” the saying goes. Bread is so basic a food that it functions as a metaphor for material comfort, even wealth. Americans who work to support their families are “breadwinners.” The American who wants to get ahead in the world will strive to “know which side his bread is buttered on.” To many, “bread” is simply another word for “money.” Bread is as basic as you can get in the realm of American food.
Americans consume some form of bread at nearly every meal. For several years, the interest in low carbohydrate diets put a dent into bread consumption, though the trend seems to be finally reversing. If there is a long-term trend within the American market for bread, it is an increase in the proportion of whole grain breads at the expense of traditional white breads. Sadly, many mass-produced breads that claim to be “whole wheat” or “whole grain” fall far short of that standard.
The best breads in the United States are made in small, artisanal bakeries, which are proliferating as the public demands better bread on an everyday basis. Larger, mass production bakeries are also marketing traditional style bread they label as “artisanal.” Pepperidge Farm (a subsidiary of Campbell Soup) produces its Pepperidge Farm Artisan Bread in styles with evocative titles: Sourdough Petite Loaves, Rosemary Olive Oil Petite Loaves, Hearty Wheat Rolls, and French Demi-Baguettes.
In America even today, if an idea is innovative people call it “the greatest invention since sliced bread.” Iowa inventor Otto Rohwedder created a bread-slicing machine in 1912, but it wasn’t until 1928 that the Chillicothe Baking Company in Chillicothe, Missouri was able to perfect the entire process of slicing, packaging and selling the bread. Sliced white bread baked in long rectangular loaves proved perfect for sandwich making. A particularly long loaf baked in a closed metal form to ensure a true rectangular shape was called a “Pullman” loaf because it resembled the famous Pullman railroad car. Few food products are as thoroughly American as packaged, pre-sliced white bread.
While hearty white breads have always been produced, a bread brand called “Wonder Bread,” known for its feathery lightness, became a household favorite. Large automated bakeries create Wonder’s unique texture (considered a culinary abomination by many) by injecting air into the bread to make it rise; the yeast is added only as a flavoring. Culturally, Wonder Bread is associated with American childhood, peanut butter and jelly or baloney sandwiches, and the childhood habit of playing with the malleable bread to form small sculptures or even projectiles.
The modern American supermarket may offer fifty or more types of sliced bread: white, country white, low-carbohydrate, fat-free, seven grain, whole wheat, cracked wheat, multigrain, potato bread, rye, country rye, and any number of evocative variations that are largely similar. Many of these mass-produced breads add sweeteners and fats, neither of which would be used in any quantity by a true craft bakery. Evocative, “countrified” labels and packages are the rule.
Ironically, through most of American and indeed modern human history, dark bread has been considered food for the poor, white bread, because of the extra steps needed to refine the flour to make it white, the purview of the rich. Over the last few decades of the twentieth century, the roles reversed themselves. Sophisticated gourmets and people interested in healthier eating (generally people with high income and education levels) began to support a market for whole grain, multi-grain, and hence darker breads. The darker breads, because of their special ingredients, cost much more than their mass-produced sliced white cousins. Middle and lower income people tended to stick with the white bread they had come to like, and which they could also well afford.
In Burlington, Vermont something of a culture war erupted when a food cooperative applied for a license to do business in the city. A number of working class citizens objected that the market would tend to sell “gourmet” products and hence would not properly serve the whole community. In addition to the multi-grained and artisanal breads the market planned to sell, it was forced to agree to offer standard sliced white bread for sale, plus a certain core number of other standard products (like heavily aerated ice cream), as a condition of the license being granted.
Though tastes in bread can divide Americans, it must be said that many Americans fall into neither extreme group; American food lovers are perfectly capable of insisting on a hearth-baked artisanal baguette for their dinner tables, all the while consuming tuna fish salad or bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches on standard white toast for lunch. American bakeries offer a bread variety for every taste and requirement.
Above and beyond the recent but strong trends toward whole grain, multi-grain and hence darker breads, rye and pumpernickel breads have always had a small but steady share of the market, especially in large cities and in core ethnic communities. Among the white breads, oblong “Italian” and “French” breads have long been popular, especially for the making of “submarine” sandwiches, and for “garlic bread,” a delicacy often enjoyed with Italian meals. Crusty rolls, called hard rolls or Kaiser rolls, are seeded (with poppy or sesame) or baked plain as a bread-alternative for sandwiches. Smaller yeast rolls called “Parker House Rolls” (after the Boston hotel in which they were invented) are frequently served on the side with lunches and dinners; small hard rolls are also popular. Specially shaped soft rolls are, of course, used for the hamburger and the hot dog.
Once associated mainly with Jewish communities in large cities, the bagel, a chewy roll with a hole in the center, is becoming well known throughout the country: sliced horizontally, it is used as the basis of a sandwich. Bagels are first briefly boiled, then baked, sold plain or covered in sesame or poppy seeds, onions or other flavorings. Matzo, an unleavened type of Jewish flatbread, is popular in large cities. Various types of Middle-Eastern flatbreads, using some yeast, like Armenian lavash, are available, as are Scandinavian and British rye-based crisp breads like Wasa, Finn-Crisp and Ry-Vita.
In addition to European style springy yeast-risen breads, two flatter styles of bread are popular in the United States. The Greek and Middle-Eastern style of bread known as “Pita,” which can easily be spilt to make pocket sandwiches, is widely known. Even better known, all over the United States, is the tortilla, of Mexican derivation. Traditional flat corn tortillas, about the size of a compact disk, are enjoyed with Mexican food and its hybrids, but the flour tortilla, in small and large sizes, is giving traditional sliced American bread a real run for its money. Flour tortillas and similar pliable flat breads, plain and in flavors that run the gamut from spinach to sun-dried tomatoes, are fueling the American passion for wraps: tubular sandwiches that are easy to hold and eat.
Flour tortillas are also widely used in Mexican and Americanized variants of Mexican cuisine for enchiladas, burritos, fajitas, quesadillas, chimichangas and other popular dishes; despite their Spanish-language names these dishes are found in every corner of the United States.
In many native-American (Indian) communities, especially in the southwestern United States, fry bread is a staple; it is made from a simple dough of flour, salt, baking powder and water which is pounded flat and quickly fried in oil or lard, yielding a toothsome, puffed up delicacy. Some varieties may add lard or other fats to the dough. The fry bread may be enjoyed plain or with toppings.
In New Mexico, a local specialty is called the sopaipilla (or sopapilla), produced in a manner similar to Indian fry bread but using a more concentrated dough that, when deep fried, puffs up so that its center is hollow. Sopaipillas are frequently enjoyed stuffed with meats, chilies, refried beans, or other combinations, or alone as an accompaniment to main courses, in which case they are often eaten with a few drops of honey.
A popular snack in many parts of the United States is the chewy twisted soft pretzel, originally a German recipe once associated with both Philadelphia (where it is enjoyed with plain yellow mustard) and New York City (where purists shun any topping). The soft pretzel (not to be confused with its more popular cousin, the hard pretzel) is boiled, sometimes in water to which baking soda has been added, then baked; it is frequently dipped in large chunks of salt before being consumed. The Aunt Annie’s soft pretzel chain now has over 900 locations all over the country.
Bread, particularly at breakfast, may be toasted, enjoyed sometimes with a simple pat of butter or perhaps with fruit preserves (jam or marmalade) or jelly. The breakfast dish “French Toast,” is prepared from bread slices which are soaked in an egg and milk mixture then pan fried to a golden brown; it may be served sprinkled with cinnamon.
Bread is also used as a food ingredient in several varied forms. Croutons—fried bread cubes, often flavored with garlic—are used to garnish salads and soups. Breadcrumbs are used as a coating for fried foods or as extenders for meatballs, meat loaves, fish cakes, crab cakes and other similar dishes. They are available in pre-packaged form, both seasoned and unseasoned. Stuffing, sold in pre-mixed form or made from scratch, consists of heavily seasoned bread chunks; intended to stuff chickens and turkeys, stuffing is also enjoyed on its own as a flavorful alternative to potatoes. Bread is also used in slices or chunked as the major ingredient in bread pudding, a baked-custard created from the bread, milk, eggs and spices.
The extremely popular dish “Corn Bread,” despite its name, is better placed in the cake and biscuit category, as are many items that fall under the rubric “quick breads” (banana bread, pumpkin bread, squash bread, etc.)