BRAINFOOD : A slice of modern life

If your customers realise that your bread is not as nourishing as the bread they knew as children, then 'vitaminise' it, inject it with substances taken from the old 'natural' flour
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Who could have thought that when, on 13 February, 1866, Mr WB Vincent was issued a patent (No 52627) for a "Machine for Cutting Bread, Soap and Black Lead", that the result would be a long-term decline in the quality, consistency and flavour of our bread?

I've long thought that commercial greed was the only reason for the steady decline of individuality in our food; that the relentless pace of standardisation, and the consequent elimination of variety, was the nasty handiwork of agribusiness, among others, in search of higher profits. But I think I've now found another culprit: technological progress, which feeds on itself.

Start with Mr Vincent's premise. He's worked out a way to slice various products. It doesn't matter to him what he's cutting, and he could probably have listed a dozen other substances; the important thing is that cutting soap or black lead is tedious, but not many people do this at home. Bread - thick, hard, crusty bread - is another matter, for everyone in those days had to cut their own bread. This required a certain kind of knife; and there was waste in the form of crumbs involved, not to speak of incompetent slicing. In short, Mr Vincent thought he was contributing something socially and economically useful to society.

The technological paradigm for bread goes like this: bread is a product of daily consumption. Being made of flour and water (and sometimes enriched with butter or egg), it dries. The first technological problem to be resolved is how do you keep it fresh? An uncut loaf will keep a while, but once cut and exposed to the air, it goes stale, even if kept in a bread bin. The second is that it requires cutting, a tedious job and often inaccurately performed. If only the process could be industrialised, made more efficient, easier.

Mr Vincent solved a part of this problem, the second. But it could hardly be said that the world beat a path to his door (his ten sickle-shaped blades required uniform loaves, "soft in crust and regular in crumb"). It wasn't until 1928 that the multiple slicer, capable of dealing with 60 loaves at a time, was invented. Despite resistance from some bakers who thought slicing would "impair the quality and appearance of their loaves" (smart bakers, those), by 1930, the automatic slicer had gained acceptance.

In the background, needless to say, the baking, cooling, colouring and taste-adjusting process was being steadily automated. Was this, as technologists argued, in response to customer demand? In part, yes. In 1944, Herbert Matter argued that the rise of the great, industrial bakers had to do with the failure of artisanal bakers to produce bread of a consistent quality. But again, producing uniform bread is a by-product of technology. For instance, completely homogenous bread made with yeast could not be produced until the high-speed mixer, which scattered the yeast particles throughout the bread, was introduced in 1928. And once you have a uniform loaf, it must be an attractive one: hence the marketing of breads of a particular shade of crust, all of which can be produced by thermostats and "additional ingredients".

Any mechanised, automated product necessarily emphasises marketing: you produce a lot, you have to sell a lot, and to a lot of different people. This greatly exercised the minds of major bakers, and resulted in a bread produced - via the addition of fats, milk and sugar - for eye- appeal. As to mouth-appeal, that was achieved through the introduction of new shortenings, to produce the most "desirable tender eating or chewing qualities to the finished product", which Matter describes as a "soft velvet crumb, so that the bread is half-masticated ... before reaching the mouth".

Technology contributed much else: for instance, the thin crust created by ever-more finely milled flour. That came about not from public demand, but from the industrial process itself, because it made baking quicker.

Our technological paradigm now works this way: the old bread is not uniform, but variable; it is hard, crusty and inconvenient to slice. Mechanise the baking process to make it softer and more uniform; create a "standard" soft load which satisfies the majority. The next step is clearly packaging, for freshness first, and then for brand-name marketing. If sliced, waxed- paper-packaged bread has a short shelf-life, then re-moisturise it. And finally, if your customers realise, through some atavistic instinct, that this bread is not as nourishing as the bread they knew as children, then "vitaminise" it, inject it with substances taken from the old "natural" flour.

Bread is a good example of technological change and industrialisation. Not by accident, the changed characteristics of modern bread always turned out to be to the economic benefit of the mass baker; the consumer simply adapted his taste to mass production and rapid turnover. Of course, action and reaction between producer and consumer is always complex, but technology, rather than individual taste, drives change. Just think of frozen food, dehydrated concentrates, and the food of the future: astronaut-driven, packaged meals, capable of being reconstituted.

To be sure, we are experiencing a reaction; artisanal food producers are running against the current and creating individual, variable products. But as with all the technology- and profit-driven products of our age, it seems unlikely that a mass market will join them. Technology does not allow us to move backwards