Thus, in 1954, USDA investigators journeyed from Chicago and Washington, D.C., to the shores of the Rock River to select two test groups, each comprising three hundred families “scientifically representative” of a typical American community. Over the next two years, the market researchers would deploy all the techniques of their emerging field on these six hundred families. They tracked bread purchases, devised means of weighing every ounce of bread consumed by the test population, conducted long interviews with housewives, and distributed thousands of questionnaires. Most important, they created a double-blind experiment that asked every member of every family to assess five different white-bread formulas over six weeks. Four years and almost one hundred thousand slices of bread after the project’s conception, a clear portrait of America’s favorite loaf emerged. It was 42.9 percent fluffier than the existing industry standard and 250 percent sweeter.
…In early twentieth-century consumers’ minds, fluffier bread seemed fresher—even if it wasn’t. Squeezable softness had become consumers’ proxy for knowing when their bread had been baked. By the 1920s, market surveys revealed that consumers didn’t necessarily like eating soft bread, but they always bought the softest-feeling loaf. By the 1950s, softness had become an end in itself, and savvy bakery scientists set about engineering ever-fluffier loaves—like USDA No. 1.
That is from Aaron Bobrow-Strain, interesting throughout, I just pre-ordered his new book White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf. For the pointer I thank Michael Rosenwald.
Here is Alex in 2006 on bread in Paris. In the comments I wrote this:
Alex’s response is, as you would expect, right on the mark. But most of the differences in ingredients *can* be traced to underlying economic causes. For reasons of rents, commuting distances, and city design, the French are better situated to consume fresh breads right after consuming them. Cheaper bread alternatives, in the U.S., also stem from economics, although this is a long and complicated story. The best salts come from France, for complex but largely economic and geographic reasons. Non-pasteurization makes French butters better, plus French farm subsidies keep many more small farmers in business. This raises price but also improves quality and shortens supply chains. Freezing foods, including dough, is much cheaper in the United States, again for economic reasons. We have a more dispersed population and longer supply lines, both of which favor freezing, plus we have much cheaper transport.
Again, I would stress that American bread is getting better and French bread is probably getting worse. We are seeing convergence, though I would not expect this to ever be exact.