Stephen Jones has a question for America: “Why is our bread so damn white?”
It’s a question with a host of answers. White flour tastes sweeter. It’s predictable, and easy to work with. It’s efficient. It’s stable. And all of this is reinforced by habit.
But Jones, a professor at Washington State University who runs a research program called The Bread Lab, doesn’t find any of those answers satisfying.* Instead, he’s breeding new varieties of wheat, and pushing consumers to expect more of their loaves—more nutrition, more flavor, and more variety. He spoke on Tuesday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, perched on the edge of the stage, his legs dangling below, with a soft voice and an endearing grin.
Humans have been baking grain into breads for 30,000 years. For the last couple of millennia, some have been sifting the flour, making it whiter. “We’ve taken something that’s so beautiful and so pretty—that wheat kernel—we’re going to take 30 percent of it away, and feed it to hogs” or find other ways to dispose of it, Jones said.
The quest for pure, white bread took on added cultural meaning at the end of the 19th century as nativists tried to distinguish American food from the culinary traditions of immigrants, and of other societies. “White flour, red meat, and blue blood make the tricolor flag of conquest,” Wood Hutchinson wrote in McClure’s in 1906. “The boasted superior nutritive value of whole grains and cereals is absolutely without foundation,” he went on, praising instead the diet that had “carried the white men half round the world.”