A SLICE OF WONDER BREAD RESTING IN HAND DROOPS listlessly over the fingertips. It has the feel of damp cotton. Take a bite, and it's goop in seconds. Wonder is to bread what Jujubes are to candy: Even a matinee isn't time enough to suck it off the molars. Oh, but remember the sandwiches -- peanut butter and jelly! Honey and bananas -- or, better yet, mashed apples. Cream cheese and pineapple. Miracle Whip. Marshmallow and cinnamon.Creamed beets.

Dipped in milk!

The Portuguese have massa sovada bread. The Greeks have tsoureke. Du- pont Circle has Onion Walnut at Suzanne's. Baileys Crossroads has Basler rye at the Bread & Chocolate European Bakery. But all of America (75 percent of it, anyway) has Wonder Bread: "Helps build strong bodies 12 ways." Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob sold the stuff! Last summer, Wonder even drooped over the fingertips of the world's Olympians. Said the Olympic TV ads: "It wouldn't be America without Wonder."

All-American Wonder white enriched bread -- wrapped in Pavlovian sensations that its bakers can't buy even on Super Bowl Sunday: the childhood memories of the drooping, the gooping, the sandwiches glutinous.

Wonder is a Wonder. Even after the whole-grain revolution of the '70s, after the Federal Trade Commission claimed Wonder's TV ads were deceptive, after white bread came to be cast as a nutritional mugging, after per capita annual white bread consumption fell from 45 to 26 pounds, after the cut of one's bread became a proxy for the cut of one's class -- Wonder holds on. This was not always a certainty.

People stopped buying Chevrolets in the '70s. And they stopped buying Wonder. It got so bad by 1980 that Continental Baking, the nation's largest baker, was poised to drop, yes, stop making, Woner Bread. The world's Olympians would have been eating New Improved Wonder Bread -- a natural white bread (vegetable oil, unbleached flour, no preservatives) wrapped in brownish cellophane and hawked with sepia-toned TV ads showing a family sitting down to breakfast on the farm as birds twitter in the background.

Euell Gibbons, good night!

But people who may not know much about bread knew what they liked: New Improved Wonder didn't sell. And then the precipitous drop in Wonder sales -- in all white bread sales -- stopped. Wonder was saved.

Still, the days when white bread was king are gone. It was deposed by nutritional knowledge and ignorance, by working women and small families, by Pop Tarts and whole-grain trendiness. Wonder survived because it is the quintessential bread for the American Century -- and because no matter how much stone-ground whole grain bread a person eats, nothing compares to a slice of gummy white bread oozing peanut butter and dripping jelly.

VITO MAZZOLI is a pro. Even as he loads his Wonder truck at 5:30 Monday morning, he knows that the sunny autumn weekend kept people out of the Giant, Safeway and Foodtown supermarkets and sent them to the corner High's and 7-Eleven for bread. On such trivia is the Wonder empire built.

Mazzoli knows, for instance, that nobody likes to buy the last loaf of bread on a rack. He also knows that a lot of people choke at the idea of stuffing their Thanksgiving turkey with $1.07-a-loaf Wonder Bread

when three loaves of Giant

white go for 99 cents. But

bread sales jump 30 percent

at Thanksgiving and if

Giant's bread is sold out, people will buy Wonder. If it

means dropping off a load on

Thanksgiving Day, Mazzoli

will do it.

"There's more than one

way to sell a loaf of bread,"

he says.

Mazzoli is no mere truck

driver. He earns about

$30,000 a year. He keeps

exact records of how many

loaves of Wonder he leaves at

each store and restaurant,

and he compares them week-

to-week, year-to-year for

trends. His customers know

his home phone number and

his wife's first name, Judith.

When she was in the hospital

recently, the most prominent

restaurateur on Mazzoli's

route, Joe Theismann, sent

her flowers. Twenty-eight

years on the street, and Mazzoli is among Wonder's best.

Yet, across the nation 7,000

Wonder drivers live by the

same rules the 53-year-old

Mazzoli follows in moving

Wonder white's 800 million

loaves a year -- about a third

of Continental's $1.5 billion a

year business, which also includes Hostess Twinkies,

Cupcakes and other snack

foods -- from TV image to

store rack to kitchen table.

Wonder is sold as supremely

fresh bread (drivers can't

leave a loaf on the rack more

than 48 hours) and as a nutritionally enriched bread.

But, the difference in freshness between a slice of Wonder and, say, Safeway or Giant white bread, seems subtle, and the government demands that all white bread be enriched.

Nevertheless, Wonder sells: The 110-foot-long oven in Washington's 80-year-old Wonder bakery beside Howard University rolls out 140 loaves of bread a minute, 20 hours a day, five days a week -- about 33 million loaves of Wonder white a year. When the line is moving, 30,000 loaves are rolling through the factory.

Not that Washington is white bread heaven: Its homemakers dislike white bread more than those anywhere else on the East Coast. The reason is simple: the affluent eat white bread about as often as they wear polyester. Wonder Bread's "heavy users," as Continental's marketing experts call them, are found in blue-collar and lower-income white-collar households with several children. About 40 percent of all heavy white bread users earn less than $15,000 a year, are Wonder's are more middle income. The biggest Wonder eaters are men and teen-agers. About half of Wonder's sales are to people older than 50. Blacks and other minorities, who tend to be strong brand-name shoppers, are also big customers.

Washington's White Bread Belt runs east of Rock Creek and throughout the black sections of the city, into the middle income suburbs of Maryland and Virginia, and throughout the rural areas beyond Washington. The Whole Grain Coast includes Northwest, Arlington, Old Town Alexandria and the more affluent sections of Montgomery and Fairfax. White bread is anathema in Georgetown, Capitol Hill, and Cleveland Park.

A person's bread says a great deal about him -- but for reasons that have little to do with bread. The two types of regular white bread users, according to a study by the Wheat Industry Council, are "Overweight Snackers" and "Unconcerned Food Lovers." They make up 35 percent of the marketplace, and tend to have average to low incomes, snack between meals, miss meals, eat at hamburger joints, let their children eat sweets and candy, don't worry much about sugar, salt or cholesterol, don't worry much about exercise, and believe a person can lose weight without eating less.

The wheat bread consumer profiles are in sharp contrast: "Three Mealers" and "Health-Weight Concerned" people compose 65 percent of the marketplace, and tend to have above average to high incomes, read package labels, eat less fast food, exercise,watch their weight, limit snacks, sugar, salt, starch and cholesterol and plan meals with nutrition in mind.

Wonder Bread has come to stand for all of this -- all that is wrong or right with what Americans eat. Wrote Henry Miller: "Bread: Prime symbol."

WHITE BREAD -- including Wonder -- isn't the mass idol it was when Mazzoli started delivering Wonder around Capitol Hill and the White House back in 1956. The bread rack at the Beauregard Giant, for instance, today includes four kinds of Giant white bread, Giant wheat, cracked wheat, wheat with butter, stone-ground wheat, natural grain, club rye, onion rye, corn rye, several kinds of Jewish rye and pumpernickel. And that's just Giant breads -- not one of which is more expensive than Wonder white. Continental's products, which include four Wonder white bread variations and soft variety breads such as Wonder Wheat, Wonder Family Wheat, Beefsteak Rye, Wonder Italian, Hollywood white and dark, Roman Meal, Home Pride Butter Top wheat and white, and Wonder muffins and rolls, get less than 10 percent of the Giant's shelf space.

It's a far cry from '56, when almost three-quarters of the bread Mazzoli sold was Wonder white -- compared with 30 percent today. "One market on South Capitol and M streets took 750 loaves on the weekend," he recalls. "That was just white bread! Those were the days."

Continental acquired the Wonder name when it gobbled up an Indianapolis bakery in the 1920s, and the Wonder label -- complete with a wrapper inspired by a balloon race at the Indianapolis Speedway -- became Continental's nationally marketed bread. (The balloons were customer attention grabbers, a Wonder executive insisted in 1938, and did not imply that Wonder was full of air.) Wonder and dozens of brands of soft white bread -- oddly symbolic of the modernization overtaking America -- dominated the market then.

For centuries, the high cost of wheat and milling flour for white bread had made it a luxury of the well-to-do. "Fantasy bread," the smallest, whitest loaves were called. Peasant breads of rye, buckwheat or barley were dark, heavy, coarse- grained. But wheat, which absorbed large amounts of water, and modern milling (which robbed much of the grain's nutrition), had changed all that by the late 19th century, making white bread cheap and plentiful. As European immigrants became Americanized and rural Americans became urbanized, white bread became king. "White breads," immigrant Italians derisively labeled Americans.

White bread said it all: mass-produced purity and freshness, the staff of life vacuum-sealed and mechanically sliced (the toaster industry was born), women emancipated from the kitchen. The Wonder Bakery was a popular exhibition at the 1939 New York World's Fair: Its theme, the World of Tomorrow, envisioned the technological utopia of 1960. Each slice of Wonder, a marvel of progress -- smooth, identical, without imperfection: America's bread.

The government required that white bread be fortified during World War II, and in the 1940s Wonder switched from a freshness to a nutrition appeal with a vengeance: "Helps build strong bodies . . . " The baby boom hit -- and Wonder, for those who ate it and those who didn't, became as American as Coca-Cola.

Vito Mazzoli did well, too. The 1960s were the best. Inflation was low, and so was his mortgage. His salary was high. In return, only Wonder was allowed in Mazzoli's house. It is 20 years later: "My daughter-in-law goes for wheat bread and croissants," Mazzoli says. "And it's not always Wonder. One daughter goes with Pepperidge Farm. It's the kind of thing I notice. Same with my brother- in-law. I go there and say, 'I don't want to see anything but Wonder.' He says, 'They didn't have any.' I say, 'Sure.'

In 1967, Americans ate 8.8 billion pounds of white bread. In 1982, they ate 6.2 billion pounds -- a 30 percent drop in 15 years. It was a revolution reflected in bread.

"Who would have said in 1960 that one out of two marriages would end in divorce?" asks Larry Epting, the Ted Bates advertising agency vice president who handles the Wonder account. "That nobody was going to have children?" Americans have eaten less and less bread since 1900: affluence has meant more meat and fish in the diet and more lunches eaten out; working mothers have meant more fast food and fewer sit-down meals; hot school lunches have meant fewer brown bags for kids. And then came the Me Generation: EST, hot tubs, the New Woman, the New Man, Saabs and BMWs, Save the Seals, organic farming, natural foods. Continental's marketing studies had predicted a niche for a homey, richer bread and its Home Pride breads came out in '71. But Wonder was still its big gun, and the fall in its sales was arresting.

"From all sides people were crying: 'Save the Wonder franchise!' . . . " says Continental chairman Lauren H. Batty. "We were thinking that the world was coming to an end."

As white bread sales fell, Americans doubled their diet of variety breads -- whole grains, ryes, pumpernickels. White bread became a goblin of the emerging health and nutrition movement -- and Wonder, then owned by ITT Corp., now by Ralston Purina Co., was the hoariest goblin of all. Wasn't it unnatural to mill the nutrition out of wheat and then pump it back in with chemicals? The whole-grain revolution was more than a fancy: government reports called for people to eat more complex carbohydrates and fiber found in whole grains, fruits, vegetables and cereals. Everything from laxatives to corn chips went "natural."

THE NEW Plan-O-Graph for the bread rack has arrived at the Foodtown Price Chopper at Baileys Crossroads, and it is no minor occasion. The diagram, determining how bread shelf space will be allocated, moves Wonder to the No. 1 rack position (eight feet of space at the far left when a customer faces the display) and shifts the store's bread (Foodtown Markets, three loaves for $1) to the No. 2 position.

Vito Mazzoli is fussing over the changes like a mother over a newborn. The No. 1 position is next to a freezer, which will make his bread go stale faster. So he asks that the Plan- O-Graph be changed to put Pepperidge Farm's breads next to the freezer. "When I was serving Grand Union, Pepperidge Farm was at the end and everybody did real well," he says. The idea is rejected.

Mazzoli then notices that Wonder white is stacked on the top shelf beneath hot display lights that will dry it out. Wonder's brown 'n' serve buns and Wonder muffins, which will be toasted anyway, should be under the lights. This time, Mazzoli says nothing, but he makes a mental note.

Selling Wonder is a science. Supermarket chains such as Safeway, Kroger, and, in the Washington area, Giant, are Wonder's largest customers. But the nation's independent su- permarkets are its biggest individual customers. The Safeways and Giants of the world own huge bakeries today and reserve as much as half their bread rack space for their own products. Wonder wins space through customer demand, which its national advertising creates. But at Foodtown, whose own bread is priced low to draw customers, Wonder delivers half the store's bread-shelf profits.

"Wonder likes to be in first position, and our philosophy coincides with theirs," says Tom Lenkevich, a Foodtown vice president. Shoppers looking for cheap bread, he says, will find it no matter what. But if the cheap bread is the first item on the rack, the customer may toss it into his cart and move on. If he gets to the bread shelf, however, and must scan through the first position to find the cheaper bread down the line, he may notice a Wonder product -- muffins, for instance -- and buy on impulse. Then he'll move on and buy the Foodtown bread, too.

So few decisions are private anymore.

SELLING WONDER always was a bit like selling cigarettes or beer: White bread is white bread to a lot of people, so it needs a niche. For almost three decades, nutrition was Wonder's niche. Then it became Wonder's dilemma.

In 1971 an FTC complaint alleged that Wonder's ads showing children grow to "90 percent of adult height" during the "Wonder years," ages 1 through 12, made false nutritional claims. The FTC eventually determined that the Wonder ads did falsely imply that Wonder was an extraordinary food for producing dramatic growth in children. Continental had already stopped the disputed ads before the ruling. Epting says the ads were stopped because consumers had become more responsive to a "freshness" appeal.

In 1975, Wonder ranked No. 1 on the Center for Science in the Public Interest's "Terrible Ten" list of foods: above sugar, Pringles -- and Coca- Cola. Wonder was a symbol, all right, but unlike 1939, when it reflected the feats of technology, Wonder stood for all the excesses technology could commit. Variety breads -- like Volvos, Haagen-Dazs ice cream and David's Cookies -- were most popular among the affluent, for whom food was more than sustenance. What person of distinction and individuality would eat "plain, ordinary enriched white bread, made by Continental Baking, a division of ITT?," as the "Terrible Ten" list described Wonder.

Wonder's "freshness" advertising campaign ("One squeeze proves we're the fresh guys") ran until 1979. Wonder sales plummeted. Says Epting: "I would maintain that you couldn't market Wonder Bread without a nutrition appeal."

In 1981, Wonder counterattacked: "Nutrition whole wheat can't beat," its new TV ad claimed. The idea was to reassure mothers who bought Wonder that it was good for their children. The Center for Science in the Public Interest immediately protested to the FTC claiming the ads were false: whole wheat contained many nutrients not found in Wonder and also contained more than twice as much dietary fiber, which improves digestion and is believed to lower the risk of colon cancer. Wonder pulled the ads and replaced them with commercials that compare the nutrients in whole wheat and Wonder, acknowledge the difference in fiber, but still conclude: "With Wonder in a balanced diet, good nutrition doesn't have to be whole wheat."

Wonder had toyed with the idea of a radical image change. It tested its sepia-toned New Improved Wonder -- but discovered Wonder was at once a victim and beneficiary of its own carefully nurtured image: People who want Wonder, want Wonder -- not some back-to-nature clone. Peple who don't want Wonder, don't want it -- no matter how many birds are twittering offstage. This year, Wonder test marketed 10 variety breads, including white, wheat, honey wheat, and rum fruit loaf. The results were disappointing.

Says Epting: "There is no way Wonder can get out of the soft white bread market."

Wonder Family Wheat, a soft wheat bread, came out two years ago. (In some areas of Northern Virginia Wonder wheat sells as well as Wonder white.) On the West Coast Wonder white is baked without preservatives and is made heavier and denser. Buttermilk Wonder white is being tested in Washington. A soft Wonder Italian bowed in this year. If bagels get much more popular among middle Americans, Batty says, perhaps there will even be soft Wonder bagels. The folksy, yet soft, Home Pride Butter Top bread today makes up more than 15 percent of Continental's bread sales, and some predict it could become its biggest bread.

Wonder Bread -- born of mass production, mass marketing, mass taste -- is in soft breads to stay. Its profits are made by industrial economies of scale -- letting the production line run nonstop. Baking 20 variety breads, Batty says, could cost several hundred minutes of plant-wide productive time each day at its 56 bakeries, as the line is stopped to replace ingredients and clean equipment. Continental's mammoth delivery network is geared to mass distribution. Wonder's advertising also must appeal to tens of millions. "Wonder's appeal to 100 million people," says Batty, "is better than an appeal to 10 million."

Wonder remains America's bread -- which has always been the deeper gripe about all soft white bread: not that it's mush, but that modern American life is mush. "What do I find wrong with America?" Henry Miller wrote in 1945. "Everything. I begin at the beginning, with the staff of life: bread . . . If (Americans) knew what good bread was, they would not have such wonderful machines on which they lavish all their time, energy and affection . . .

"Here is the sequence: poor bread, bad teeth, indigestion, constipation, halitosis, sexual starvation, disease and accidents, the operating table, artificial limbs, spectacles, baldness, kidney and bladder trouble, neurosis, psychosis, schizophrenia, war and famine. Start with the American loaf of bread so beautifully wrapped in cellophane and you end on the scrap heap at 45."

VITO MAZZOLI has finished up. His day is about as long as it was in the '50s, although he has only 29 stops, compared with 60 then, and he drives only 22 miles, compared with 64 then. More items mean more trips to the truck, more rotating stock, more figuring out what to order. Mazzoli left hundreds of loaves at his Foodtown, Giant, Safeway and 7- Eleven stores, but at Moore's Market he left six. At Drug Fair he left only four. At the Woodlake Convenience, which just opened, he left two of everything -- knowing he'd take most of it back the next day. It takes time, but at a new stop he must experiment. He looks at the sleek, high-rise apartments nearby, and says: "He'll probably sell the wheat before the white."

He has read the trends: "Your variety breads and fancy breads are taking over. People are worried about calories and carbohydrates, breads with no preservatives. More people are going to natural breads. People's eating habits are changing. You got toaster waffles. If people eat them for breakfast, they won't eat toast. By the year 2000, you're gonna see a whole different market."

Mazzoli drives back to the Wonder truck depot, orders bread for next Monday, checks out (remembering to pick up the two loaves of Wonder his wife asked for), and heads home at 5:30 -- a 12-hour day. But later that night, as shoppers scan Wonder's new No. 1 position on the shelves at the Baileys Crossroads Foodtown, they find the Wonder brown 'n' serve buns and the Wonder muffins mysteriously moved to the top shelf, beneath the hot display lights. Plan-O-Graph or not, Vito Mazzoli couldn't let his Wonder go stale.

The empire hangs on.