When people move to the Charleston area, as several dozen people do every day, they might show up thinking about award-winning restaurants, or the possibility of learning to surf. They’re probably not focused on what kind of white bread they’ll find at the supermarket.
But as newcomers discover on a daily basis, the standard assortment of grocery store brands varies tremendously by region, a function of the supermarket fragmentation that followed the demise of A&P in the 1970s. Transplants are sometimes stunned to learn they can’t get Win Shuler’s cheese spread, Heggies Pizza or Tim’s jalapeno potato chips in South Carolina without recruiting a hometown friend to help or placing an online order.
The very desperate do both.
“Folk are fiercely loyal and territorial with regional brands,” says Kevin Pang, editor in chief of The Takeout, Onion Inc’s food site. “It's more than just the nostalgia of eating food from your childhood: It's a point of civic pride. It's like being a White Sox fan and screaming ‘We're number one!’ no matter how miserably the team plays.”
In other words, a come-yah may roast oysters and knock back boiled peanuts with a ben-yah’s gusto, but she won’t assimilate past the point of asserting the superiority of It’s-It ice cream sandwiches. At The Takeout, best-of lists are restricted to national brands just to keep sectarian food fights from breaking out. “We accept that we're evolutionarily hard-wired as humans to defend what we grew up eating,” Pang says.
Brand loyalty is so intense that studies show people are prone to overlook expiration dates and poor sanitation grades if they’re partial to the product or restaurant bearing them. In the case of some industrial foods, though, even shoddy examples aren’t available everywhere. That means an important part of adjusting to life in the Lowcountry is finding and accepting substitutes.
To return to white bread, Charlie Taylor is a devoted fan of Bunny, a brand launched in 1947 by Jack Lewis of Anna, Ill. It’s now available across the country, but its distribution map doesn’t include the Charleston market.
“When possible, we work through our special request process to try and bring in that product for our customer,” Publix spokeswoman Kimberly Reynolds says. Bunny white bread, she continues, “is not available to us.” (Taylor has spied Bunny’s Texas Toast on Publix shelves at least once.)
Taylor, a native Louisianan who’s lived in the Charleston area for going on five years, is counting on one of the local supermarket chains to find a way to make Bunny appear. “I tried store brands at all of the common stores ... and all were dry and coarse,” he wrote in his initial e-mail message to The Post and Courier decrying the situation.
Nostalgia for supermarket loaves is no scoffing matter, says Chris Wilkins of Root Baking Co., formerly headquartered in Charleston. “They have a place,” he says. “I’ve always argued this.”
A very important place, Whitman College politics professor Aaron Bobrow-Strain claimed in his 2012 book, “White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf.”
“Fluffy white industrial bread may be about as far from the ideals of slow, local, organic and health food reformers as you can get today,” he wrote. “But we owe its very existence to a string of just as well-meaning efforts to improve the way America ate.”
In the late 1800s, Bobrow-Strain explains, “the vast majority of the country’s bakeries were dark satanic mills,” where cheap flour was stretched with chalk, plaster of Paris and ground-up bones. When factory-made bread arrived, it was hailed as clean, wholesome and relatively nutritious. Plus, it was sold pre-sliced.
Even today, with whole wheat bread outselling white nationwide (white bread is still the top choice in the South, according to the Whole Grains Council), people like using white bread for their French toast and grilled cheese sandwiches. So to which brand should Taylor and fellow transplants shift their allegiance?
Scoring a slice
“It’s never a sensory professional’s place to dictate what someone else should eat, how to enjoy it or why,” cautions Michael Kalanty, an artisan baker and author of “How to Bake Bread: The Five Families of Bread.”
Kalanty has created an evaluation system for bread that is bound to resonate with people who’ve sampled wine in formal fashion. A handy chart summarizing his approach sorts the bread’s “crumb,” or what civilians would call the part that’s not crust, into sweet and sour characteristics. For example, does it taste of popcorn butter? Grapefruit? Plain yogurt? The crust’s flavor is classified as roasted, fruity, resinous, toasty or sweet. A careful taster might note qualities of stewed fruit or butterscotch.
Those guidelines don’t apply perfectly to supermarket white bread, Kalanty admits. “On the flavor intensity scales, most white sandwich bread scores low,” he says. Still, it’s possible to assess white bread for “basic taste balance,” as well as tenderness at first bite.
“How much does the bread stick to the teeth, demonstrating an adorable term sensory scientists call ‘tooth pack’?” he continues. “Then there’s the rate of dissolve: How long does it take from bite to swallow?”
To save Taylor the trouble, The Post and Courier tested all of the mass-market white breads sold at Publix, Harris Teeter and Doscher’s IGA, using Kalanty’s methods. The survey included Golden Bake, Captain John Derst’s Good Old Fashioned Bread, Wonder, Merita, Sara Lee, Pepperidge Farm, Arnold’s Country White, Dave’s Killer Bread, Nature’s Own Perfectly Crafted and Sunbeam Old Fashioned.
As Taylor predicted, some of the breads were wretched (and label aside, Dave’s Killer Bread’s “White Bread Done Right” has way too much quinoa and spelt to meet the traditional definition of supermarket white). The Merita slice was sour; the Sunbeam slice too flimsy and the Sara Lee slice bland even for its category.
Before our verdict, cast your vote.
Aye, aye, Captain
But two breads stood out. According to the package, a single slice of Arnold’s has more sodium than all but one of the other breads in the survey (by the numbers, Wonder Bread is the saltiest). But it works in favor of flavor. Smooth-tasting and with just the right amount of tooth pack, Arnold’s is an excellent all-around bread. It’s certainly the bread to have on hand if you plan to be in the vicinity of a toaster and runny eggs.
Then there’s the yellow-hued Captain John Derst’s, featuring a scaled-back sweetness that would surely complement an array of sandwich fillings.
Alone among the breads sampled, Captain John Derst’s is made with a small amount of whey, which is why Flowers Foods last summer voluntarily recalled it in connection with salmonella concerns about its ingredient supplier. The FDA said no illnesses were associated with the recalled products.
More importantly, Captain John Derst’s originated in Savannah, and traces its history back to a bakery founded there soon after the Civil War. It’s now sold exclusively in the South. According to representatives of Flower Foods, also based in Georgia, it’s extremely popular in the Charleston market.
And so Captain John Derst’s Good Old Fashioned Bread might just be the bread to beat Bunny. After all, giving up a regional brand from off is a way to sever ties with that place. Adopting a regional brand from here is a way to forge ties with this one.