White Bread and Beyond: The Complexities of the Midwest’s Bread Culture

Nothing seems more Midwestern than white bread. But take a deeper dive into the delights that flour, water and yeast can yield, and you’ll discover a colorful and multicultural Midwest “tradition” that encompasses complex histories of immigration and creative adaptation. Illustrated by Drishti Bansal.

“When you look at how sometimes people outside of the Midwest view the Midwest, they see it as kind of a homogeneous, one-dimensional culture or almost absent of culture,” Capri Cafaro, former Ohio State Senator, author of the cookbook “United We Eat” and host of the podcast “Eat Your Heartland Out,” said.

While the Midwest is known as “America’s breadbasket,” those outside of the Midwest tend to view the “bread” in the “basket” as just Wonder Bread: sliced, white and plain. And behind some of these assumptions are truths.

“I think that part of the reason why convenience foods and that sort of thing are associated with the Midwest is because so many of those companies come from the Midwest, like General Mills, Kellogg’s, Kraft and Pillsbury,” Cafaro said. “And so when you think about things like mechanized sliced bread or TV dinners and things like that, a lot of that industrialized convenience food did originate in the Midwest,” Cafaro said.

To be more exact, sliced bread entered the scene in 1928 in Chillicothe, Missouri, and would go on to become an American staple during the Great Depression, making up 80% of bread sales in America by 1933.

Despite a deeply disliked and short-lived ban on sliced bread in 1943, the convenience of sliced bread worked well with the survival culture of the Midwest as people settled in places where comfort was sometimes hard to come by. 

“People had to be very pragmatic,” Lucy Long, director of the Center for Food and Culture, said. “People didn’t want to stand out as different. They wanted food that was cheap, convenient and what everyone could eat.” 

Nonetheless, the Midwest’s bread history comprises much more than just white bread.

“The concept of sliced American Wonder Bread is this continued concept that the Midwest stands for this sort of homogeneous melting pot of bland Americana — which it is not,” Cafaro said.

A complex combination of agricultural, Indigenous and immigration histories have made the Midwestern culinary landscape of today more nuanced than stereotypes lead on.

“First of all, we have to acknowledge that the Midwest is referred to as the breadbasket of America or the breadbasket of the world,” Cafaro said. “I think that the combination of that agricultural resource or bounty in addition to the immigrants that settled in the Midwest, as well as the Indigenous cultures that were already there — those things together have created a really interesting and unique bread culture.”

The first people who lived in the region were Indigenous peoples, including the Kickapoo, Sac, Potawatomi, Ottawa, Ojibwa, Illinois, Miami, Huron, Dakota and Sioux tribes. Frybread, a flat quick bread typically made by frying a basic dough in lard or other fats, has been the state bread of South Dakota since 2005. It carries with it a complex history of forced displacement, as it was given to Native Americans by the U.S. government as a form of sustenance during relocation.

In addition to Indigenous cultures, the Midwest has also historically hosted significant Greek, Italian, Croatian, Polish, Amish, German, Irish, Puerto Rican and Mexican populations, each with their own cultural breads. 

An example is Russian zwieback, or “double buns.” Winner of the 2012 Kansas State Fair Family Heirloom Recipes, the winner described how this recipe is a favorite amongst the Russian Mennonites and created each Saturday to eat on the following Sunday. Catherine Lambrecht, president of the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance, described the contest: “50% is the history, 40% is the prepared dish and 10% is the presentation. And boy, these people did great.” 

And Russian immigrants do, indeed, have a long history in Midwestern states. In 1920, Russian immigrants made up of 5% the foreign population in Wisconsin in 1920. By 1950, nine to ten thousand Russian immigrants called Wisconsin home. Throughout the 1930s, thousands of Russians arrived in the U.S., with urban centers like Chicago and Cleveland as popular Midwest destinations. As of 2021, Illinois remains one of the leading states in Russian-American population.

Data is from the 2021 American Community Survey 1-year estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. View the interactive graph here.

Another popular cultural bread in the Midwest is the pączek (or, as you may be more familiar with, its plural form pączki), a Polish jelly doughnut that makes a particularly notable appearance on Fat Tuesday each year.

By 1911, Polish immigrants had mainly settled in ten states, majority in the Midwest: Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas, Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, New York, North Dakota and South Dakota. Of those immigrants, 63.4% were in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. 

Today, Polish communities in the Midwest are found mainly in Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Detroit. As of 2021, Illinois was home to the largest Polish-American population in the U.S. at 785,062.

Data is from the 2021 American Community Survey 1-year estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. View the interactive graph here.

Newer waves of immigration are also gradually shaping the bread culture of Midwestern states, including Vietnamese, Somalian and a diverse array of Middle Eastern communities. 

“One of the largest in the Midwest —or in the nation, even — Middle Eastern populations [is] in northwestern Ohio, but more explicitly in places like Dearborn, Michigan,” Cafaro said. “We have a lot of Lebanese in this region, but also you have a growing and more diverse Middle Eastern population throughout and particularly in Michigan.

Many immigrants ventured toward Michigan in the 20th century to work in the auto industry, and many continue to arrive, whether because of the already thriving communities in the region or because of refugee crises. As of 2015, Michigan was home to the largest Lebanese population in the U.S. at 60,407.

Data is from the 2015 American Community Survey 1-year estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. View the interactive graph here.

That means some of the best Middle Eastern breads can be found in otherwise unsuspecting places.

“You can get freshly made pita bread, lavash and a lot of other styles that you can’t get from the east coast,” Long said. 

Other examples of popular breads across the Midwest are the kringle from Denmark, the komachi from Japan and the Italian Easter Bread (described by Cafaro as a braided, licorice-flavored bread).

These breads, however, don’t just stay within their cultural bubbles.

“You can go to the Giant Eagle, just like the Safeway or the Albertsons, and get this stuff, and I think that this is a sign that it’s more than just a family tradition,” Cafaro said, “It’s not just the specific ethnic background […] eating these things … Irish people are eating komachi and Italian people are eating pączki and we’re all eating all different types of fried bread.”

And so perhaps the Midwest’s identity as the breadbasket of America is only becoming truer with age. And the basket is ever growing, encompassing the great diversity of the cultures coming into America, sharing their unique bread recipes and creating new connections. 

“In the Midwest, people show up from all over the place, and they bring something with them,” Lambrecht said. “And it may be confined to their family, but then they have a guest over. And they might share with that guest something that they’ve never had before and they just fall in love with it and begin to adopt it into their culinary repertoire.”


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