Today is a big day in the history of sliced bread. Otto Frederick Rohwedder of Davenport, Iowa, invented the first loaf-at-a-time bread-slicing machine. A prototype he built in 1912 was destroyed in a fire and it was not until 1928 that Rohwedder had a fully working machine ready. The first commercial use of the machine was by the Chillicothe Baking Company of Chillicothe, Missouri, which sold their first sliced loaves on July 7th, 1928. Their product, “Kleen Maid Sliced Bread”, proved a success. Battle Creek, Michigan, has a competing claim as the first city to sell bread sliced by Rohwedder’s machine; however, historians have produced no documentation backing up Battle Creek’s claim. The bread was advertised as “The greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped,” leading to the proverbial: “The greatest thing since sliced bread.” What was the greatest thing before sliced bread, I wonder?
Packaged, sliced bread was not something I was familiar with until I moved to the United States in 1975. Growing up, in both Australia and England, we bought whole loaves of bread and sliced them as needed. Every household had a serrated bread knife (and wooden bread board), and cutting off slices could be a haphazard affair.
Usually there was one person in the house who was trusted with slicing bread for a meal or sandwiches, and others who were likely to cut “doorsteps” (slices that were way too thick) if they were unskilled with the bread knife. Practically everywhere I have lived outside the US, bread is sold in whole loaves, not packaged in slices, but the bread-slicing machine has become more common, everywhere. The machine is convenient if you have a large sandwich loaf. For other kinds of loaves, such as French baguettes, or English cottage loaves, it is useless. Here in Cambodia, I can buy baguettes or sandwich loaves, and when I buy the latter I can have them sliced by machine at the shop if I want. I go with unsliced because I can cut even slices of any thickness I want, and I prefer the flexibility. Others prefer convenience: chacun à son gout.
St. Louis baker Gustav Papendick bought Rohwedder’s second bread slicer, and set out to improve it by devising a way to keep the slices together long enough to allow the loaves to be wrapped. After failures trying rubber bands and metal pins, he settled on placing the slices in cardboard trays. The trays aligned the slices, allowing mechanized wrapping machines to do their job. W.E. Long, who promoted the Holsum Bread brand, used by various independent bakers around the country, pioneered and promoted the packaging of sliced bread beginning in 1928. In 1930 Wonder Bread, first sold in 1925, started marketing sliced bread nationwide.
Commercially sliced bread resulted in uniform and somewhat thinner slices than those cut by hand. The statistical effects of this fact are a little surprising (to me, at least). People ate more slices of bread at a time, and ate bread more frequently, because of the ease of eating another piece of bread. This fact increased consumption of bread and, in turn, increased consumption of spreads, such as jam, to put on the bread.
During 1943, U.S. officials imposed a short-lived ban on sliced bread as a wartime conservation measure. The ban was ordered by Claude R. Wickard who held the position of Food Administrator, and took effect on January 18th, 1943. According to the New York Times, officials explained that “the ready-sliced loaf must have a heavier wrapping than an unsliced one if it is not to dry out.” It was also intended to counteract a rise in the price of bread, caused by the Office of Price Administration’s authorization of a 10% increase in flour prices. In a Sunday radio address on January 24, New York City Mayor LaGuardia suggested that bakeries that had their own bread-slicing machines should be allowed to continue to use them, and on January 26th, 1943, a letter appeared in the New York Times from a distraught housewife:
I should like to let you know how important sliced bread is to the morale and saneness of a household. My husband and four children are all in a rush during and after breakfast. Without ready-sliced bread I must do the slicing for toast—two pieces for each one—that’s ten. For their lunches I must cut by hand at least twenty slices, for two sandwiches apiece. Afterward I make my own toast. Twenty-two slices of bread to be cut in a hurry!
On January 26th, however, John F. Conaboy, the New York Area Supervisor of the Food Distribution Administration, warned bakeries, delicatessens, and other stores that were continuing to slice bread to stop, saying that “to protect the cooperating bakeries against the unfair competition of those who continue to slice their own bread… we are prepared to take stern measures if necessary.” On March 8th, 1943, the ban was rescinded. Wickard stated that “Our experience with the order leads us to believe that the savings are not as much as we expected, and the War Production Board tells us that sufficient wax paper to wrap sliced bread for four months is in the hands of paper processors and the baking industry.”
Usually I will go without rather than buy commercial sliced breads, but some finds its way into my kitchen for one reason or another every so often. Sometimes, for example, it’s a holiday and all the bakeries are closed, but one enterprising convenience store is open and all they have is sliced white bread, but I need some bread for my turkey stuffing or whatever. This happened a couple of times in Buenos Aires, and once in Mandalay. It happens – not often, but it happens. The best tip I can give you to avoid this situation is to always have some bread in the freezer. That’s my common pattern, but you know how things are. I usually have some bread in the freezer – except when I absolutely need it. When I buy sliced white bread out of necessity, I always have a lot left over that I have to do something with because I refuse to waste food.
All is not lost even though I find this kind of bread unpalatable. Sliced commercial white bread is not so different from other foods that have little intrinsic taste: you can use it as a vehicle for rich flavors. I prefer to use strong, wholewheat bread for my poultry stuffing, but cheap white bread will work. Lots of sage and onion are the chief ingredients, and they are not dulled by mixing them with white bread. They also make perfectly fine croutons if you dice up the bread slices and fry them in extra virgin olive oil, perhaps spiced up with a little garlic.
Then there’s bread sauce to go with roast chicken. My mother made this all the time when she roasted a chicken for a special occasion when I was a boy. You start by studding a peeled onion with cloves. Cover the onion with milk in a saucepan and bring it to a slow simmer. Cook for about 20 minutes, remove the onion, then add broken up pieces of white bread (crusts removed), and let simmer for another 15 to 20 minutes until you have a thick, creamy sauce.