A Harsh Beauty

Revising the Escorial, plus the wonders of Wonder Bread

But Kamen is completely right to approvingly quote—twice!—Miguel de Unamuno’s observation:

Nearly all who visit the Escorial go with blinkers, and political and religious prejudices, in one sense or another; they go less as pilgrims of art, than as progressives or traditionalists, Catholics or Freethinkers. They go in search of the shadow of Philip II, a man little known and even less understood, and if they do not find it they invent it.

By enlisting the Escorial in his longstanding project to rehabilitate Philip, and by simplistically focusing on “the role of its creator,” Kamen continues the long tradition of reducing the Escorial to a means of special pleading, and so does it a disservice. Surely this immense, wondrous, reactionary building, almost modernist in its severity—and in that respect oddly similar to the aesthetic of the late creations of the great, archtraditionalist, monastic Spanish couturier, Cristóbal Balenciaga—is a product of its historical circumstance. But like all great works of art, it ultimately transcends the conditions of its creation. Kamen rightly excoriates those whose speculations on the Escorial’s context are untethered to historical knowledge. But ultimately, artistic wonders of the world are too important to be left to the historians.

In this fascinating history of perhaps the most maligned and emblematic American food—industrially made white bread—Bobrow-Strain subtly upends common prejudices while illuminating fundamental shifts in the nation’s economy, gender relations, aesthetic preferences, diet, and cultural politics. In the early 20th century, Americans got more of their calories from bread than from any other single food. This meant that they had to depend either on keeping women close to home—where wives and mothers were “tethered by the slow schedule of rising dough” and enervated by the tedious and exhausting work required to produce the daily staple—or on buying bread from the thousands of unregulated “cellar bakeries” that typically produced adulterated loaves in filthy conditions. The solution, developed early in the century (a period “when food-borne illnesses were the leading causes of death”), was inexpensive bread mass-produced in sanitary, factory-like conditions, wrapped in packaging to prevent exposure to germs. Consumers preferred the very whitest bread—achieved by chemically bleaching the flour—because they could see that no dirt, sawdust, or any of the other usual impurities had been added. And they now wanted their loaves to be extremely soft—not because they liked the taste of the gummy bread (they didn’t) but because they considered squeezing to be the best way to determine if store-bought, factory-made loaves were fresh. This squishy bread proved all but impossible to cut into sandwich- and toaster-ready slices—a problem that led, in 1928, to maybe the greatest revolution in American food processing: presliced loaves. Owing to the then-popular streamlined aesthetic, these were elongated and made flat on top (better for stacking).

The result was a product that, although called bread, looked, felt, and tasted like nothing from a home oven or traditional bakery. To an underfed population, however, it was a cheap and safe source of calories and—thanks to vitamin enrichment, a radical innovation of the war years—essential nutrients. Health advocates decried the stuff until scientific studies convinced the Consumers Union and similar groups that loaves like Wonder Bread and its ilk were in fact extremely nutritious (albeit high in sodium). Industrial bread was still vilified, but as Aaron Bobrow-Strain, a politics professor at Whitman College, perceptively contends, the arguments against it were now exclusively “aesthetic and epicurean”—and hence grounded largely in cultural politics and class-based scorn. Urban sophisticates use white bread as a disdainful term connoting bland, conformist, suburban Middle America; the stuff itself has become “an icon of poor choices and narrow lives.” As the swanky, ever with-it Diana Vreeland pronounced, “People who eat white bread have no dreams.” Bobrow-Strain, a progressive foodie, is astute enough to note that they did have dreams—but modest, democratic dreams of safe, reliable, nourishing, if hardly delicious, food made universally available—dreams whose very modesty has made them an object of derision among the “individual-centered, consumer-driven” hipster types who now largely define the nation’s cultural values.

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Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic's national and literary editor. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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