Remember day-old bread? I’m not saying it’s a fond memory, but if you’re old enough you can still see the carts of your childhood supermarket stacked with the day-old loaves of commercial bread priced at half off. My mother would buy a loaf or two of day-old if she was cooking with it, and buy fresh for her, my father, and the three boys (I was the youngest) for today’s meals and sandwiches.
I mean, seriously, half-priced loaves of bread that were only a day old. Was that better? I’m not saying so. Preservatives and advances in food preparation, processing, and delivery have been a godsend to the world, feeding those otherwise left to starve. In fact, I saw an article that said it wasn’t antibiotics, airplanes, automobiles, or the computer that qualified as the greatest advancement of the twentieth century: it was food processing, because it had the greatest impact on saving people’s lives.
Hard to argue. I can’t say my desktop pc has saved any lives lately. That’s flippant, since modern computing does its part in connecting us, securing resources, finding and delivery food, etc. Tangentially, the space program has done wonders for food processing, e.g., freeze-dried food is a direct result of research for the space program.
None of it is simple since food transport relies heavily on the speed and reliability of air transportation, communications, etc. But for saving lives, ok, the hated preservative has done its job.
Day-old bread got hard and crunchy. While good for turkey dressing, bread crumbs, bruschetta, and fillings, it was not ideal for a ham sandwich.
Preservatives changed that. Now bread lasts over a week, indeed two weeks or more and seems nearly indestructible. For a while, artisanal loaves were a throw-back to days of yore. A good Italian boule lasted about a day with a soft and fluffy interior and flaky, crusty exterior until the ravages of time (next day, that is) softened the crust and hardened the rest. In a couple of days, rigor mortis was evident and a day or two after that—the first signs of mold.
No longer. Artisanal bread (at least in the suburbs) has gone the way of all good, niche ideas that a majority discover, embrace, then immediately find impractical. The preservative strikes again.
I pulled a hamburger bun out of my bread drawer the other day that must have been three weeks old. It was stiffer, but not hard, edible but not savory, and had not one spec of mold apparent on its surface. How many preservatives does it take to do that?
And if I could say that was the only issue with the adulteration of our bread then that might be acceptable. But bread is as much water and sugar nowadays as it is wheat—if enriched, bleached flour can be called wheat anymore. I’m sure sugar adds taste (not that a good bread needed it) and the extra water adds bulk (to the detriment of flour). Add all the preservatives and binding agents (some of which are detrimental to human health by themselves) and it seems a slice of bread is a shadow of its former self.
I imagine I could place a slice of commercial white bread in a shallow dish of cold water and it would instantaneously dissolve like a breath strip on your tongue. It’s not quite that bad, but do you see how steamy bread gets out of the toaster? Take it out hot right away and lay it flat on a plate. It leaves a sweat behind of excess water about as appetizing as licking the arm of a weight-lifter.
Why? Well, we know why the commercial enterprises making our bread do it—to make more money. CEOs are under constant pressure to expand their companies and the quick and easy ways to do that are twofold: either reduce the cost per item made (make more with less) or if the market won’t bear that, sell at a higher price per unit of measure (by reducing the amount of inventory used per item) so that less sells for the same price.
In other words, make it smaller, but don’t reduce the price proportionately. That’s why all of our food products are shrinking. This affects even fruit where no apple, orange, or peach is allowed to grow to maturity and fully ripen on the vine when it can be picked pre-maturity and shipped to ripen in your refrigerator or on your countertop. It’s smaller, less tasty, but the yield to consumers is higher. That it’s inferior matters not. And consumers seem ok with this.
I see the clamor for organic and farm-fresh and produce bought fresher at farmer’s markets is on the rise. That’s good. But still, the great majority of Americans buy their produce at the supermarket and it’s unquestionably declined in quality from just a few decades ago.
Value for the consumer is not the riding concern of the commercial enterprises growing, processing, and shipping your food. But shouldn’t it be our government’s?
It seems that local, state, and federal agencies are complicit in this trend. I’ve talked before how there seems to be no truth in advertising when it comes to the commercialization of food. Why not? Did our government just give up? Is the chase for profit turning us into a nation of fascists?
We are barely a century removed from the rampart fascism of late nineteenth and early twentieth century big business. Carnegie, Frick, Rockefeller, Morgan, Vanderbilt, Ford—they all built empires and collected personal wealth on a scale still extraordinary by today’s standards. When Bill Gates crossed 60 billion dollars in wealth some years back, he was considered the wealthiest man on the planet. Rockefeller’s wealth (adjusted for today’s money) was 150 billion dollars. There are a few approaching this recently, where Jeff Bezos recently passed 200 billion while Bill Gates next trails at 116 billion.
Is this a good trend? I don’t begrudge the wealthy their riches. What we need to ask is not whether Mr. Bezos is worth his money but rather: is a company that makes its founder so wealthy under any control at all?
I’ve written before that I am rather anti-Socialist, but in the same way, I am vehemently anti-Fascist. And such wealthy individuals wield inordinate power over our elected officials. Case in point: the last four years under President Trump. He, his cronies in his cabinet and other high-ranking positions, et al (meaning those career governmental employees who didn’t resign out of disgust) bow to corporate America. The entire America First campaign was code for Corporations First, Consumers Second. The specter of Fascism rears its head.
I bring up Amazon since they are now (as of May, 2020 according to Progressive Grocer) ranked second only behind Walmart in food sales in the US. These two companies (Walmart and Amazon) offer differing delivery models, but both appeal to the convenience of choice, ease of purchase, and price satisfaction.
Two large retailers in my area (Giant Eagle and Shop N Save) offer remote shopping and food delivery. I love to cook and food shopping is one of my favorite ways to relax. Yet now, since about April 2020, I allow someone else to pick my apples, my oranges, my avocados—all of my fresh produce. Do they always pick the nicest and freshest out of the pile? No. They do well, but they aren’t perfect and I can’t expect them to be. I get what I’ve asked for.
This is another way our food delivery model is changing. Remote this and remote that is the name of the day. I remember once (years ago) a produce vendor in a farmer’s market chastised me for inspecting her apples before I purchased them. She expected me to pick two apples from the top of the pile and hope they were not bruised or unfit for purchase (some were). I took my business to the next stall.
Now I just take my chances.
Stay Friendly and Healthy.