TCS Daily

Will Wonder Bread Survive?

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - September 2, 2004 12:00 AM

Wonder Bread is in trouble.

Wonder Bread!

The whitest of white breads.

The iconic integument for billions of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

The classic containment for camper pies.

Interstate Bakeries Inc. (sounds like a name from one of those corporate-bashing movies) has delayed release of its annual report and sought the advice of a "turnaround expert" while it resolves "a number of recently identified interrelated circumstances" concerning its business.

"Circumstances," indeed. As in those fateful two words "low carbs." Interstate makes two products that don't rank well in the brave new low carb world -- that fabled bread and Hostess Twinkies (500 million baked each year).

The wholesale stampede away from carbohydrate-rich foods has apparently hit Interstate hard. People have been reaching for the whole grain instead of the Wonder, and passing up the Twinkies for trail mix.

Interstate, in business since the early 1930s, has been closing some of its bakeries around the country since March. The Wall Street Journal reports a warning from independent auditors Deloitte & Touche indicating "substantial doubt about the company's ability to continue as a going concern."

Well, we'll see. Meanwhile, the whole affair triggered memories of my discovery of Wonder Bread. Allow me to elaborate.

Of the many joys of my childhood in Rector, Pa., one of the best was eating the bread my grandmother baked each week. Another was reading Hardy Boys books.

On occasion these two pleasures intersected -- a sort of sublime confluence of food for body and soul. I can remember sitting in a big old chair in the living room of our house, savoring a still warm slice of Grandma's bread while following, page-after-galloping-page, the exploits of Frank and Joe, the clean-cut sons of the "famous detective" Fenton Hardy.

They might be out on Barmet Bay in their speedboat, the "Sleuth," or concealed in bushes spying on some criminal, or tied up in some dank basement figuring out how to make their escape before the beginning of the next chapter. But wherever their adventures took me, I chewed and read. Read and chewed.

Grandma's bread was chewy. It had heft.

Mrs. Hardy, the boys' long-suffering mother, seldom figured in the stories except when sighing with concern over them and making sandwiches for them to take on their adventures. Whenever the Hardy boys went behind closed doors in their father's study to seek his wise counsel, Mrs. Hardy must have shrugged, headed for the kitchen and broke out the cold cuts.

Few details were given regarding these sandwiches. But they fascinated me for the simple reason that Frank and Joe were often described as stuffing them into their pockets before embarking on their crime solving escapades.

I realize the Hardy Boys books have been updated over the years, but back in my youth the well-worn copies we had access to had been printed in the 1920s and 30s. So the Frank and Joe I knew from the few illustrations (one per volume) wore woolen knickers, those short, somewhat baggy pants gathered at the knee, and something called a Norfolk jacket, a rather short close-fitting tweed sport coat with a belt across the back and two big front pockets.

I imagined them stuffing their sandwiches, wrapped in wax paper and tied with string,

into their pants or jacket pockets. The idea of these sandwiches in their pockets troubled me. I found myself uneasily aware of them as Frank and Joe rode their motorcycles, climbed cliffs or struggled with "swarthy" bad guys.

I once experimented, making a sandwich, wrapping it in wax paper and trying to carry it in my pants pocket. It would not fit. Grandma's hefty bread was too big, too substantial. I finally got a half sandwich in my front right pocket and set out on an imaginary adventure as Frank Hardy.

But I could tell that the mere act of walking was doing terrible things to my sandwich. I transferred the crushed package to my back pocket. Damage continued as I walked to the woods back of our house. Sitting on a log finished the job.

I withdrew the crumpled package from my back pocket and opened it. The bread had broken in several places. The contents, an interesting processed meat called "olive loaf," presented a forlorn, crumb-flecked landscape. The crust was still intact, but the sandwich had lost, so to speak, its integrity.

This experiment left me puzzled about Frank and Joe's sandwiches. Did they have bigger pockets? Did their mother have some kind of heavy-duty wax paper?

There were rare references in the books to Frank and Joe finding themselves stranded or trapped somewhere and saying something like, "Gosh, Frank, lucky for us Mom made these sandwiches." There were definitely no references to them removing some dripping wreckage from their Norfolks and muttering, "Yech-h-h!

How, I wondered, did their sandwiches travel so well?

Then I discovered Wonder Bread.

It was at a friend's house. We were playing over there and at lunch his mother made some ham salad sandwiches on these perfectly matched smooth white slices of bread. When I ate it the whole thing just melted in my mouth.

I was smitten by this soft white bread with its unobtrusive, perfectly even, pumpkin-colored crust. You really couldn't even call it crust. It was just a convenient border. Who needed crust anyhow? This miracle bread allowed me to get right to the contents of the sandwich with minimal distraction.

This bread seemed so civilized, so sophisticated, so...modern. Grandma's bread seemed coarse, crude, embarrassingly behind the times. It left lots of crumbs. Wonder Bread left a few very discreet crumbs.

It was foldable, too. You could just wrap it around a piece of cheese or bologna. In fact, as I discovered one day with an American cheese sandwich, you could grasp the whole thing in your hand and squeeze it into a single mass a little smaller than a baseball. There, in your hand in one convenient lump packed with "riboflavin, niacin and iron" was all the nutrition a boy needed to keep him going.

This, I realized, was Mrs. Hardy's sandwich secret. With this malleable bread, Frank and Joe were equal to any challenge that faced them as they sleuthed their way from case to case. When the chips were down, when exhaustion hovered, when they needed that extra "kick, they could reach into their pockets and retrieve a Wonder Bread energy ball.

A few bites and the thing was done. Refreshed and robust once again, the redoubtable brothers were ready to solve the Shore Road Mystery.

For a while, in my youthful ignorance, I lobbied for Wonder Bread in our household. My mother took a dim view of this but acquiesced, figuring I'd come to my senses. My grandmother said simply, "that's not bread, that's crap."

I did get over Wonder Bread (although I still think toasting transforms it into something fairly enjoyable) but I'm still hoping they make it through this present downturn if for no other reason than to discomfit the tiresome low carb mavens.

However, I'd give anything right now for a piece of Grandma's freshly baked, crusty bread.


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