Jul 072018

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.


Dec 192015


The BBC World Service began as the BBC Empire Service on this date in 1932 – a shortwave service aimed principally at English speakers in the outposts of the British Empire. In his first Christmas Message, King George V stated that the service was intended for “men and women, so cut off by the snow, the desert, or the sea, that only voices out of the air can reach them.” First hopes for the Empire Service were low. The Director General, Sir John Reith (later Lord Reith) said in the opening program: “Don’t expect too much in the early days; for some time we shall transmit comparatively simple programs, to give the best chance of intelligible reception and provide evidence as to the type of material most suitable for the service in each zone. The programmes will neither be very interesting nor very good.” This address was read out five times as it was broadcast live to different parts of the world.

The BBC World Service is the world’s largest international broadcaster, broadcasting radio and television news, speech and discussions in 29 languages to many parts of the world on analogue and digital shortwave platforms, internet streaming, podcasting, satellite, FM and MW relays. It was announced in November 2015 that The BBC World Service will start broadcasting in Nigerian Pidgin and Yoruba in Nigeria, when this service starts it will bring the total number of broadcast languages to 31. The World Service was reported to have reached 188 million people a week (TV, radio and online) on average in June 2009. The English language service broadcasts 24 hours a day.


You can find it streaming online here:


On 3 January 1938, the first foreign-language service, Arabic, was launched. German programs commenced on 29 March 1938 and by the end of 1942 broadcasts were being made in all major European languages. As a result, the Empire Service was renamed the BBC Overseas Service in November 1939, and a dedicated BBC European Service was added in 1941. These broadcasting services, financed not from the domestic license fee but from government grant-in-aid (from the Foreign Office budget), were known administratively as the External Services of the BBC.

The External Services broadcast propaganda during the Second World War. Its French service Radio Londres also sent coded messages to the French Resistance. George Orwell broadcast many news bulletins on the Eastern Service during World War II.


By the end of the 1940s the number of languages broadcast had expanded and reception had improved following the opening of a relay in modern day Malaysia and of the Limassol relay, Cyprus, in 1957. On 1 May 1965 the service took its current name of BBC World Service and the service itself expanded its reach with the opening of the Ascension Island relay in 1966, serving African audiences with greater signal and reception, and the later relay on the Island of Masirah.

In recent years, financial pressures have decreased the number and type of services offered by the BBC. Due to the launch of internet-based services, the need for a radio station is less frequent in countries where the population has easy access to the internet news sites of the BBC. The German broadcasts were stopped in March 1999 after research showed that the majority of German listeners tuned into the English version of the service. Broadcasts in Dutch, Finnish, French for Europe, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese and Malay were stopped for similar reasons.

Traditionally, the BBC World Service relied on shortwave broadcasts, because of its ability to overcome barriers of censorship, distance and spectrum scarcity. To this end, the BBC has maintained a worldwide network of shortwave relay stations since the 1940s, mainly in former British colonies. These cross border broadcasts have also been used in special circumstances to broadcast emergency messages to British subjects abroad, such as the advice to evacuate Jordan during the Black September incidents of September 1970.


The BBC World Service on shortwave was a great boon to me in the 1970s through to the end of the 1990s. I used to listen to the news regularly as a counter to the national news services of the USA, which omitted so many international stories that I was interested in. I would also tune in to comedies, quiz shows, and dramas, for a change of pace, and, of course, on Christmas Eve I always put on Carols from Kings. Long distance shortwave can often be temperamental, and the BBC routinely switched frequencies throughout the day. So I had to keep a log of when the different frequencies were active, to be able to catch programs I liked. <sigh> . . .days long gone with the advent of high speed internet, live streaming, and podcasts.

Cooking shows are not very common on the BBC World Service because radio is far from ideal for conveying recipes; television gives much more scope. But I found two places where you can tune in. Go here for the latest episodes of Paula McIntyre’s show “Cooking with Paula McIntyre.” I don’t know how long this link will work, but you can always go to the BBC home page and search for cooking shows that are current.


Also of interest to me is a current series called “Marguerite Patten’s Century of British Cooking.” This is a 10-part series currently in progress, with some past episodes available for a brief period. I don’t know if they will be archived. For now here is the 1930s episode:


Patten, who was a BBC home economics broadcaster for many years, gives an excellent account of cooking salient British events, decade by decade. Well worth a listen. In this episode she has a certain amount to say about the proper way to make bread sauce to go with roast chicken. If all else fails, go here for the current BBC recipe for bread sauce:



As Patten points out, bread sauce is delicious when cooked properly, or much like old-fashioned library paste if not. Bread sauce is basically a milk sauce thickened with breadcrumbs and seasoned with onion, cloves, and mace. The secret, Patten says (and as my mum made it), was to properly infuse the milk with the seasonings, which involves bringing a pan of milk to the boil with an onion studded with cloves plus a blade of mace, and then letting it sit to cool for several hours before adding the breadcrumbs. When I was a boy bread sauce was an essential component of Christmas dinner.