The Worst Thing Since Sliced Bread

Up until the 20th Century bread had long been the staple food of the British Poor in both the city and the country: From the middle-ages black, brown and white bread were ever present through plenty and want and little was to change for centuries, especially for the better. Even as late as the 1890's bread was the only solid food in over 80% of the meals for the majority of children in Bethnal Green.
As the primary food of the people, the “staff of life”, bread has proved to be a hugely important not just as cause, but as buffer, to social unrest and revolution: In 1789 French women marched on Versailles driven by the price of bread; in 2011 millions took to the streets across North Africa and the Middle-East under the slogan 'bread, freedom and dignity; yet in 1848 English bread prices and its political structure were stabilised by cheap wheat as a wave of revolutions swept through Europe; and today...
However in Britain today the role of bread in society is perhaps of equal importance: As one of the earliest foods to be produced for the poor rather than by them, as the object of early “social imitation” and as the embodiment of the gains to be reaped from mass production. In looking at the importance of bread both as a dietary necessity and a product of its time a great deal can be understood about the culture of Britain's poor and the manipulation of this culture and the class itself by a lineage of powerful interests.
Food riots caused by famines and government policy are a mainstay of any history of the English poor: Desperate and bloody uprisings were frequent, directed against those who controlled the land and consequently the very food they ate. As early as the 16th century, when the international wool trade boomed, landowners often turned over every available scrap of land to grazing sheep, unmoved if it was the only source of food for those who worked it. Bread, although not yet the sole solid constituent of their diet it was to become, was hard hit as arable land was sacrificed, leading to shortages of corn. Adding insult to injury baker’s bread was not an alternative due to the unemployment caused by the shift away from crop farming and by the fact that many tenant farmers were cleared from their land by ruthless rent increases. The people, as Robert Crowley wrote in 1550, were not happy:
Cormerauntes, gredye gulles; yea men that would eate vp menne, women and chyldren, are the cause of Sedition! They take our houses ouer our headdes, they bye our growndes... they reyse our rentes... they enclose our commens!
Across the channel in France a similar situation was to lead to one of the most famous historical instances of the relationship between bread and revolution. This was the French Revolution, immortalised in the quote commonly attributed to Marie Antoinette, “let them eat cake”. The attribution is contentious at best but as in England it clearly shows the perception of a ruling class so out of touch with the life of the poor that their answer to a bread famine was to simply eat brioche: an enriched bread for an enriched class.
The near doubling of the price of bread, a product of poor harvests and distribution is one of the clearest causes of the revolution, as much of the population was left with little to eat and even less to lose. The failure to understand the essential importance of bread in the diets of those they ruled over became symbolic of the gulf in wealth that separated an uncaring aristocracy and made them prime targets for violent revolution. In England this malicious ignorance was clear as opposition to the Enclosures Acts continued into the 1800s. In response to the protests of those who could not even afford bread, parliament decried the lack of home baking amongst the peasantry, but their outrage was absurd as the Acts had made the gathering of kindling and consequently the preparation of any hot food almost impossible. Despite this, in this period one of the strongest indicators of the importance of bread in the fermenting of social unrest is the lack of revolution in England in 1848.
Throughout the 19th century, in addition to the Enclosures Acts one of the most popular sources of discontent were the Corn Laws. In 1812 the country had come close to famine but two consecutive years of excellent wheat harvests brought prices down and the hackles of the large farming interests up. The Corn laws were passed in 1815 to placate them but were to the severe detriment of the poor: Foreign wheat imports were banned whilst prices were below 80 shillings a quarter (a price it was to never reach) and bread prices were kept artificially high. The three decades of hunger which followed were marked by widespread unrest and brutal suppression. Notably, the tens of thousands in Manchester who marched for political representation, unfettered by famine exacerbated by the Corn Laws, were subject to a cavalry charge at the Peterloo Massacre in 1819.
Towards the middle of the 1800’s wages were falling to the lowest point in the century and Engels wrote:
The proletarian, who has nothing but his two hands, who consumes to-day what he earned yesterday, who is subject to every possible chance, and has not the slightest guarantee for being able to earn the barest necessities of life, whom every crisis, every whim of his employer may deprive of bread, this proletarian is placed in the most revolting, inhuman position conceivable for a human being.
Yet there was to be no immediate political change. In 1846 the Corn Laws were repealed and two years later another prohibitive rise in the price of wheat preceded revolutions across Europe. As countries who had instead raised import tariffs witnessed massive social unrest, England was able to import wheat from Russia and North America. As a result the price of bread remained low enough, especially amongst the growing middle classes, to prevent famine, deprivation and consequently, revolution. Interestingly the repeal of protection for commercial interests over the basic health of the poor did not lead to the collapse of English agriculture, as prophesied by many at the time, but rather forced an innovation which briefly made it the model for all of Europe.
After centuries of Government legislation which had taken the food from the mouths of the poor it cannot be assumed that the repeal of the Corn Laws was a benevolent act and neither was it assumed at the time. The English Chartists, whilst not unified in their position on the abolition of the Corn Laws were well aware of the potential repercussions of its repeal. They did not deny that the cheaper price of wheat would reduce the price of bread but were well aware that lower prices would allow for a freezing or more likely a reduction in the wages of the poor: A prescience which resonates today. This conclusion was no doubt enforced by the fact that the powerful manufacturers, those most vocal in their opposition to the Corn Laws were simultaneously those most vocal in their opposition to the reduction of the working day in factories from 12 hours to 10. A fact that made claims of philanthropy a lot harder to take at face value. Here, with feudalism at its end and the rise of a powerful bourgeois class, the availability of bread was never to cause a revolution in England. Instead, from this point on a balance was to be struck, a subsistence wage paid and bread formed part of a culture which was to impose a far subtler control over the working class.
From the 18th century habits in the consumption of bread by the poor had followed an early form of social imitation. An understandable desire to consume that which had previously been the preserve of the few led to the rejection, especially in the south, of wholemeal, barley and rye bread in favour of a 'finer' white bread. This imitation mistakenly assumed that those above them benefited not just from an increased wealth but an also an increased intelligence, but this was not the case: White bread, shorn of the nutrients in the wheat germ, was considerably less nutritious than wholemeal, a very serious issue for those whose diets were largely comprised of bread.
Here was one of the first examples of the poor being pacified by consumption, but as was to continue for the next two centuries it was the consumption of a ‘luxury’ which was in fact harmful to them. It would be easy to say that this harm was unintentional, a result of the scientific understanding of the day. However, not only was the white wheaten bread less nutritious but in times of poor harvest it was often adulterated in order to mask the use of 'inferior' flour and improve volume and appearance. Such adulterating substances were thought to range in harmfulness from chalk to alum to white lead and the morbid inclusion of ground human bones.
In the 1800’s, with the shift of the population into towns, the pattern of feasting and fasting of the peasants remained as they became industrial workers. However in Britain after two world wars and austerity the promise to those workers was of a permanent feast. It's impossible to prove the allegations of the 1800s but the adulteration of working class food is clear to see in Britain since the 1940’s and continues to the present in the processes which make this feast possible. Today an unlimited access to meat, previously prohibited by the cost of production, came at the price of a vastly lower quality produce enhanced by additives and medicines. Likewise prepared meals, previously a luxury of the rich, were made available by advances in food production and storage but again contain dangerously high levels of salt, sugar and a multitude of other additives.
Bread of course was not excluded from this modern adulteration: The longstanding equation of the whitest, softest loaf with the utmost luxury continued and its exploitation was perfected in the development of the Chorleywood Method, developed in 1961 by the British Baking Industries Research Association. This method represented a huge step forward in the industrial production of bread and a nadir in the food of the poor: The high yield, economical process is responsible for the uniform, soft, sliced bread sold the world over. However the increased yield is the product of an artificially inflated loaf, high in water content, air bubbles and one that contains a far higher number of ingredients than traditionally baked bread. In addition to extra water much larger quantities of yeast are used and in the absence of slower rising times hard fats are added to maintain the shape. The poor quality of this bread inevitably lowers with price and so, 300 years on, the poorest are still left with a crude and injurious parody of quality.
The falsity of this post-war technological promise is nowhere clearer than in another saying from popular culture: “The best thing since sliced bread”. Although the phrase originated in North America the idea of sliced bread has become inextricably linked with the Chorleywood Method and consequently British culture. A pre-sliced white bread that stayed softer for longer appeared to provide not just luxury but importantly value for money and convenience. The days of home baking and the 'national loaf', a standardised brown bread which was legally enforced during the rationing of the second word war, were disappearing. Yet the fact that these promises of economy and luxury were to turn out to be hollow was not without historical precedent, as the chartists’ assessment of the repeal of the Corn Laws makes clear.
Today the claims of mass produced, homogenised bread being part of a wider push towards a society with more leisure time and a greater distribution of wealth are equally hard to believe. Technological innovation has not led to the promised utopia however this is not down to a lack of innovation but rather the way in which society has used it. Similarly we now know the nutritional deficiencies of mass-produced bread and the poor diets of the working class are lambasted, however the post-war technological revolution has done little to change working hours or wages and so a better bread, bought or made, is out of reach.
Whilst in Britain the poor get what they pay for, a century and a half after the ‘Springtime of the Peoples’ of 1848 and poor distribution coupled with commercial inflation of food prices remains a factor in social unrest elsewhere. In 2011 the 'Arab Spring' spread through north Africa and the Middle East caused in part by the rise in the price of bread when commodities trading and environmental factors had a devastating effect of the price of wheat. As Russia suspended wheat exports after extensive wildfires and pressure from specialist commodities traders prices rose by 15% in two days. In Egypt the government increased spending on wheat but the price of bread rose 25% and it failed to do anything to prevent the toppling of the regime. A similar radicalising of those who had previously suffered in silence, but were now unable to feed themselves, was to be seen in each of the uprisings in the region.
In Britain during this global recession, as in 1848, a free trade policy reliant on others hunger ensured the relative stability of food prices. Again, despite an estimated 4 million in food poverty, rising food prices and a lowering of wages in real terms the situation has not become desperate enough, for enough people, that a popular uprising could erupt. However, while no one has taken to the streets due to a lack of basic sustenance a look at an emerging societal role of bread reveals a system of cultural manipulation and nutritional dearth which is actively pursued.
Social imitation has shaped the class status of bread yet this value system has recently been turned on its head. For Bread what was good is bad and vise-versa, both in terms of fashion and nutrition, but the producers can no longer claim the ignorance of those three centuries earlier. Neither can those once imitated. Over the last few decades an artisan baking movement has gathered speed, resulting in chain boutique bakers on the high street and a catalogue of bread choice at each and every sandwich shop. Customers at Pret A Manger can choose fillings served simply on 'artisan' a stomach-turning familiarity that shows those in the know are on first name terms with their bread. It is clear that a large part of the appeal of this bread is its exclusivity: The problem isn't that it is more nutritious but that its increased price pushes it beyond the means of those 'on the breadline'.
Moreover, the irony is that this luxury bread is based on a French artisan baking, the very bread that was the object of the march to Versailles in 1789. As with much of the recent authentic, honest and rustic cuisine, working class food which was dropped in favour of post war technological innovation in the kitchen, is 'rediscovered', repackaged and sold at prices prohibitive to those who developed it.
Over the past few decades England has been 're-discovering' it's culinary history and cookery programmes are amongst the most popular on television. However the nauseating rise of the 'foodie' and its attendant price tag has ensured that the poorest can only watch this 'food revolution' from a distance, never to participate. Jamie Oliver attacks the appalling quality of school dinners, the tattered remnants of a progressive, postwar policy to ensure children in poverty had at least one hot meal a day. Yet he also attacks parents for not cooking proper food for their children after at least 8 hours at work: The working class can neither afford the money nor the time to participate. Here bread forms both parts of the Roman metaphor 'bread and circuses': Food prices will not be allowed to rise high enough to prompt a societal breakdown and the individualistic obsession with celebrity chefs and exclusive products and ingredients encourages a passive involvement and a blindness to larger issues. Baking bread and moreover the cooking of food can be a creative and gratifying act in addition to its obvious health advantages but, like much else, it cannot become a way of life for the working class without a radical change in the balance of work and leisure and the distribution of wealth.