How often have you heard some wonderful new development heralded as “the greatest thing since sliced bread”?
These days all kinds of supermarket breads are available pre-sliced, and every neighborhood bakery has a bread slicer. But whenever I hear that expression, I always think of the cottony Wonder Bread-type stuff.
For me, today’s recipe may be the greatest thing since the invention of Wonder Bread. But while I was thinking about the recipe, I thought I’d look into the history of sliced bread. It turned out to be a lot more interesting than I’d imagined.
The one-loaf-at-a-time bread slicer was invented by Otto Rohwedder, who grew up in Iowa as the son of German immigrants. At 20, he moved to Chicago where he earned a degree in optometry and did an apprenticeship with a jeweler.
In 1905, Rohwedder moved to St. Joseph, Missouri, acquired three jewelry shops, and used his profits to invent new tools and machines.
As he started thinking about a bread-slicing machine, he wondered how thick he should make the slices, so he put a questionnaire in several large newspapers, garnering responses from 30,000 housewives.
In 1916, he sold his jewelry stores and used the profits to built a prototype bread slicer. Even a fire at his warehouse, which destroyed his machine and all his blueprints, failed to deter him.
One of the problems with pre-sliced bread was the perception (mostly justified) that the bread would get stale faster than a whole loaf. By 1927, Rohwedder had built a machine that solved this problem by tightly wrapping the
sliced loaves in waxed paper. This kept the slices together as a loaf and preserved freshnhess.
A tough sell
Bakers weren’t interested. The machine was bulky, five feet wide by three feet high. Finally Rohwedder asked a baker friend, Frank Bench, to give it a chance. Bench was on the brink of bankruptcy, but he decided to invest in the slicer.
The machine was installed at the Chillicothe Baking Company in Chillicothe, Missouri, and on July 7, 1928, the company sold the first loaf of commercial sliced bread, called Kleen Maid.
(According to Wikipedia, 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.)
Frank Bench’s bread sales increased by 2,000 percent within two weeks.
The New York-based Continental Baking Company started using Rohwedder’s machines in 1930 and created Wonder Bread.
By 1933, 80 percent of the bread produced in America was sold pre-sliced.
A ban on sliced bread
While housewives of the 1930s were thrilled not to have to slice bread every day, U.S. Food Administrator Claude R. Wickard ordered a ban”on sliced bread in 1943, citing wartime conservation efforts.
The government capitulated less than three months later, after a tremendous outcry from customers. Wickard said the War Production Board decided the industry’s use of waxed paper would not affect the country’s defense.
The bread slicer may not be the most important invention in human history, but Otto Rohwedder couldn’t ask for a better tribute than describing something new and exciting as “the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
My husband loves to bake bread, so I hardly ever buy sliced bread, especially the puffy, white supermarket variety. But I made an exception when I found this recipe, which makes a lovely dessert for this time of year when berries are plentiful. It’s from the New York Times, which is a little surprising considering how easy it is to make.
Berry Pudding: The greatest thing since sliced bread
- 1¾ lb. mixed berries (e.g. blueberries, raspberries and strawberries) – about 6 cups
- ½ cup sugar, or a little more to taste
- 1 Tbs. lemon juice, or a little more to taste
- A few drops of rosewater (optional)
- 10 to 12 slices soft white bread, crusts removed
- Combine the berries, sugar and ? cup water in a saucepan.
- Simmer over medium heat until sugar is completely dissolved and the berries release their juices, about 7 to 10 minutes.
- Stir in the lemon juice. The sauce should be sweet with a hint of tartness. Add more sugar or lemon to your taste. Stir in the rosewater if you use it.
- Spoon an even layer of berry syrup (not the berries themselves) over the bottom of an 8-inch loaf pan or a medium-sized bowl. Line the bottom of the pan or bowl with a single layer of bread; cut the slices into smaller pieces as necessary to make it fit.
- Spoon a third of the fruit on top of the bread, making sure the bread is completely covered; top with another layer of bread.
- Repeat twice, alternating layers of fruit and bread and ending with bread on the top (so you’ll have four layers of bread and three layers of fruit).
- Let the mixture cool completely, then wrap the pan tightly with plastic wrap. Place a light weight on top of the pudding (e.g. a couple of ceramic mugs). Refrigerate at least 6 hours or overnight.
- When ready to serve, run a knife around the sides of the pudding, cover it with the serving plate and then turn it over to unmold. It should slip right out of the pan or bowl.
- Serve in slices with cream, whipped cream or ice cream on top.
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