Work with students helped inspire professor’s hot new book, “White Bread”

Originally posted: March 22, 2012

Aaron Bobrow-Strain, associate professor of politics, says classroom interactions helped pave the way for his most recent publication, the critically acclaimed “White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf.”

“One of things I love most about teaching at Whitman is the way my interactions with students shape my research—and vice versa,” he said. “The book was very much shaped by engaging with my students.”

“White Bread,” which hit the shelves this month, tells the story of how the sliced supermarket loaf went from being an icon of American progress in the early twentieth century to an object of scorn in a society increasingly concerned with eating local and organic.

“The best part of writing the book was getting to combine my own geeky love of bread baking with my scholarly interests in food politics,” said Bobrow-Strain, an artisan bread-baker himself and a staple in the Whitman politics department for almost eight years.

“As dean of faculty, I’ve been duly impressed by all the different and exciting ways faculty engage in scholarship and other professional activities,” said Timothy Kaufman-Osborn. “Aaron’s book seems like a great example of the kind of cutting-edge work Whitman faculty produce on a regular basis.”

In researching the book, Bobrow-Strain drew on classroom discussions with Whitman students who took his “Whitman in the Global Food System” course.

“I’m always bringing new sources and ideas from my research into the classroom,” he said. “Students really like engaging with this cutting-edge material, and working through it with them pushes me a lot.”

And thanks to Whitman’s funding for faculty-student research collaborations, three former students in particular were able to assist with the research process: Justine Pope ’07, DeeDee McCormick ’10 and Robin Lewis ’11.

“I owe a big debt to them,” he said.

For Lewis, who teamed up with Bobrow-Strain through an Abshire Award, the challenge of researching the alternative food movement made a big impact on her academic career.

“I feel lucky to have had the privilege of conducting research for ‘White Bread’ during my time at Whitman,” she said. “The experience strengthened my research and analytical skills considerably, contextualized the modern-day food movement for me and taught me how to piece together broader trends and bigger stories from independent sources.”

This is Bobrow-Strain’s first publication aimed at a larger, non-academic audience. In 2007, he published “Intimate Enemies: Landowners, Power, and Violence in Chiapas.” He says part of his motivation to write “White Bread” was a desire to expand the conversation about “why our food system looks the way it does and how it could change” beyond scholarly circles, connecting American dietary trends to issues of race, class, gender and immigration.

“There are all these amazing scholars right now doing cutting-edge research on food politics who aren’t getting their voices heard much outside of academia,” he said. “I thought that I could use the epic story of America’s most iconic industrial food to communicate some of our ideas to a larger audience.”

So far, that’s exactly what he’s succeeded in doing. “White Bread” was recently featured on NPR’s Sunday Edition and Bobrow-Strain just completed a blog tour to promote the book, writing guest posts for a number of popular food blogs like Four Pounds Flour.  He has also contributed articles to The Believer , The Chronicle of Higher Education, Salon and The Huffington Post, among others.

“During the past nine days, I’ve done eight different radio interviews,” he said. “This is a new thing for me—not something most academics are accustomed to! But it comes with the territory of trying to reach a larger audience.”

“White Bread” is available for purchase now in the Whitman Bookstore.

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