The bread’s name, in fact, is apparently based on a moment of wonder in 1921 when, according to the company’s press material, “Elmer Cline, a branding executive with the Taggart Baking Company searching for a name for a new bread, was ‘filled with wonder’ by the sight of hundreds of balloons creating a kaleidoscope of color at the International Balloon Race at the Indianapolis Speedway.”
If Wonder once did create wonderment among Americans — not just for its sliced loaf but also for adding nutrients lost during the processing of its bread — then those days are long behind the company. I asked a number of people to share their thoughts and opinions about the bread. Few had an encouraging word. I even found this rather scathing paragraph in Warren Belasco’s essay, “Food and the Counterculture: A Story of Bread and Politics:”
A virtue of brown bread was that it took some time and skill to produce, and this leads to another important contrast, convenience verses craft. Wonder bread represented the ultimate in labor-saving convenience, which was (and is) the food industry’s main product and primary hope for global expansion. It saved time, effort, attention, and money — it even took virtually no time or effort to chew. Sliced white bread thus may have been one of the world’s wonders, but the costs in taste seemed enormous. Thanks to the nutrients added back after processing, it may have been “biochemically adequate,” but was spiritually vacuous.
Industrialization made great contributions to America but not to American food. Wonder bread may have helped build strong bodies 12 ways but it discouraged taste for bread in all ways. Bread is meant to have a grainy taste and a chewy texture. A traditional sandwich was flavored bread. But Wonder bread’s bland flavor made the bread simply a holder for the fillings. Its softness contributed to the American appetite for foods that “go down easily.” Both had great caloric implications. In fact, I am sorry to say, the name “Wonder bread” is short for “Wonder why anyone thought to call it bread?”
Home breadmaker Sam Fromartz, who writes the ChewsWise blog and is working on a book about bread and bakers, put some historical perspective on Wonder bread’s anniversary:
Given that bread has been on the scene for about 7,000 years, Wonder bread is a relative late comer to the game. For most of that long history, whole grains delivered the caloric punch to keep the human race going. But their supply was highly variable, which meant that along with wheat, our ancestors chowed on rye, barley, spelt, millet, buckwheat, chickpea and chestnut flour. Then they added whatever was lying around: fruit, nuts, cheese, vegetables, meat, making what were truly local foods. They packed these loaves of various sizes and shapes into ovens and pounded them back with beer or wine when they were done. Then they went to sleep.
Now, the real wonder of Wonder bread was that industrial processes were able to reduce all these variations to one: a quickly made, soft white bread. What we gained in efficiency and predictability we lost in variation. Now this squishy stuff is what bread has become. It still delivered calories, but without all the nutrition, substance and taste of the former breads. So bakers had to “enrich” them. Now, even reconstituted whole wheat breads try to approximate the soft white stuff. So my advice? Visit a true baker, or better yet, mix flour, water, yeast and salt to make your own. Once you’ve tasted a real loaf, there’s no going back.
The wonder of Wonder bread is that it still exists. With the emphasis these days on whole-grain breads, the explosion in artisan breads, the expansion of everyday breads to include everything from pita to wraps, the endurance of the squishy cloud-like Wonder is, in its way, inspirational.
Call me a snob, but I really only like it for PB&J sandwiches. Somehow, no other bread, not even another white sandwich bread, works to create the teeth-sinking fluffiness demanded by the sticky, soft, ready-for-gumming creation.
Ah, but what about Texas barbecue, you ask? For those who don’t know, ‘cue in the central Texas BBQ Belt favors cheap, white sandwich bread over, say, cornbread. And on this matter, I prefer Thin-Sliced Sunbeam. If I must settle for something less (which I do, living in D.C. and not in Texas, as Sunbeam is not available here), then Wonder suffices as a distant-second substitute. But the Thin-Sliced Sunbeam is square, where Wonder is rounded, and the former is at once thinner and a tad less fluffy, perfect for wrapping a slice of thick-cut brisket or juicy sausage around.
Happy birthday to Wonder, anyway. I hope it lives a long and happy life. But, me, I won’t be at the party.
Finally, I asked Deputy Editor Bonnie Benwick for her impressions of Wonder bread. She quickly recalled how she would roll up the bread into little balls and pelt her older brother with them. “I was retaliating,” Benwick said. “That was my chosen weapon. Soft bread makes a rather hard ball.”