A Soft Spot for the Anti-Artisanal
I BELIEVE in God, organic produce and sustainable foods. I believe that an apple purchased in a Greenmarket will always be better for me than one purchased at a supermarket, even though it may look like a potato with a skin condition.
I will also pay a fortune for almost anything called heirloom or artisanal, knowing that some dedicated soul devoted more attention to a Camembert in a week than most mothers do their own children.
Handmade. Individual. Nurtured. Can’t beat it, right?
Well, sometimes, I think you can. Into every life some Kraft Singles, Hostess Sno Balls and Snickers bars must fall. Could you possibly substitute a wedge of that pampered Camembert for a workaday Kraft Single on a tuna melt? Never. And equal only to the fetishistic satisfaction of eating the filling of an Oreo before you eat the cookie is peeling the Sno Ball’s coconut-sprinkled dome of marshmallow from the chocolate cupcake beneath it and saving its creamy center for last.
These products are sui generis in our great American culture where variety rules; you can’t find a real substitute for any of them. Mallomars are health food compared with Sno Balls, a Milky Way is only a Snickers denuded of protein and as for orange-colored cheese food, once you’ve grown up with it, you’ll be hungry for it until the day it kills you. Which is why, all agricultural improvements aside, the taste memory of anyone over 30 cannot be satisfied by Greenmarkets alone.
So I believe there is still an argument to be made for sodium stearoyl lactylate, dicalcium phosphate, ammonium sulfate and ammonium chloride — and not just for cleaning the bathroom. I’m talking Wonder Bread here.
Builds strong bodies 12 ways, remember? For bodies that are already built, the label’s not even that scary — once you get past those ammoniums. No cholesterol. No trans fats. No saturated, polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats. Fiber? Well, O.K. Less than one gram.
But ever since I took a tour of a Wonder Bread factory in third grade and they gave us each a package of two fresh slices, which we wolfed down on the bus home, it has been love. Certainly, peanut butter and jelly is the echt Wonder Bread sandwich, the jelly staining the bread like church windows. A close second was my mother’s tuna fish sandwich.
And while we’re at it, let’s hear it for the glories of white food! Remember the old days, before chicken salad turned into fruit salad (Raisins? Grapes? Nuts? Why?), and it was only finely diced white meat chicken, Hellmann’s mayonnaise, salt, pepper and maybe some finely diced celery? Fine dice has never been my talent, so I run out of patience after the chicken and skip the celery. This simple salad, bound by the inimitable seal Hellmann’s makes with the bread, yields perfect triangles of gourmet spackle. I defy you to eat just one.
My mother knew a woman who used to make thin sandwiches of cream cheese and Swiss cheese on Wonder Bread. You can’t eat just one of those, either. I knew a woman who lived in Chicago who used a cookie cutter to make circles of Wonder bread, then mounded them with cream cheese and crowned them with caviar. If she had offered, I would have moved in.
Note to the uninitiated: bars of Philadelphia cream cheese must be banned in the presence of Wonder Bread. It’s Temp Tee Whipped out of the fridge for at least 15 minutes or bust. Because when you tear a slice, couldn’t you just cry?
As I write this, a loaf of Wonder Bread sits beside me, growing steadily smaller. For a mass-produced product, what a delicate creation! I’ve left a half-eaten piece on my desk for 20 minutes and it has already gone stale. One bite, though, and the heat of my mouth melted it right back to freshness. No, I don’t find that scary. I find it magical.
Which brings me to another point: to toast fresh Wonder Bread is a crime against nature. The fresh Wonder Bread experience, something like eating Play-Doh shot through with air and flavored with milk, cannot be truly appreciated when it assumes a form other than squishy. (Except perhaps as French toast when the edges get delectably crispy.)
The squishiness does have a downside, however, as I discovered as a kid, when we used it as bait. I remember balling up slices of Wonder Bread to stick on fish hooks, which worked brilliantly — until the fish started flopping around my feet, which was perfectly awful. After that I made sure to pretend to put the bread on the hook but ate it instead. The fish and I were both happier.
Anyway, don’t get me wrong. I’m genuinely glad about the progress being made in the culinary world, and I’m grateful that our daily diets are improving thanks to the tireless efforts of local farmers and obsessive compulsives who have chosen heritage pork as their final frontier instead of space. I salute them.
All I’m saying is that sometimes, people, you’ve still got to remember the wonder.