Today in Tedium: With apologies to those on a ketogenic diet, I have bread on my mind this morning. Despite the fact that there is something massive happening in the news right now that I probably could find an angle on, I feel compelled to talk about the nature of bread, particularly about the fact that the ends of bread, which are perfectly fine, are often seen as undesirable. Think about this. If you’re at an airport and you buy a pre-packaged sandwich built around sliced bread (which I have no idea why you’d do, but sure) you never see the end of a loaf. It’s always somewhere in the middle. It’s an inefficiency built into one of the most widely consumed products on earth, and it stares me in the face every time I’m near the end of my loaf. Why are bread heels often the least desirable pieces of bread? Today’s Tedium goes end to end. — Ernie @ Tedium
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The number of items on President Harry Truman’s 1946 list of recommendations for saving food for hungry people abroad in the days after World War II. Making the list at number 17 was an item specifically about using bread ends: “Develop methods for saving and use of bread ends, many of which are wasted at present time.”
Understanding the nature of bread ends, heels, butts, or whatever you want to call them
Things we use on a daily basis come with natural byproducts of their use which can sometimes have limited value—or, at least, less value relative to other parts. For example, the stem on a strawberry isn’t something that people usually eat, but it comes with the package deal. Same with the rind on a block of cheese, which is edible, but often avoided.
In the case of bread, though, the soft innards have always gotten far more attention than the outer shell, which often is, well, uglier, and not as desirable as what you can find on the edges.
Bread is not a new product, and it’s always had an outer shell of sorts. And the concept of the “heel of the loaf” seems to date to at least the 14th century, per the Oxford English Dictionary. But the industrial revolution changed the overall design of bread loaves, and made what was once a secondary element, the ends, into a more central feature. Thanks to his invention of a bread slicing machine, Otto Frederick Rohwedder ensured that the world‘s relationship with bread would change significantly in the 20th century.
If you look online, you’ll find tons of examples of prior art, of bread cutting machines that efficiently cut consistent slices. In many ways, Rohwedder’s innovation was in the packaging department, not the slicing department. Effectively, Rohwedder allowed loaves of sliced bread to be purchased in stores just as the toaster was taking off in popularity.
“Demand climbed swiftly; within a year, Rohwedder found himself scrambling to keep up with the pace of requests he was getting from bakeries to supply his slicing machines,” the MIT site Lemelson-MIT explains.
Rohwedder eventually sold his invention, setting the stage for the release of Wonder Bread, which really kicked off the public’s infatuation with sliced bread—the way that it had a general consistency in design and size.
But despite this, there often was little consideration given to the ends, which don’t look as good nor as consistent. In a world of order and consistency, they represented a reminder that chaos was just around the corner. If Apple were to start developing its own loaves of bread, the end pieces would be first to go.
The problem of heel pieces is particularly notable in commercial contexts, where the need for appearances takes on a bigger role. This has been a longstanding problem for the field, though there are individual cases where some have turned this disadvantage into an advantage. In a 1922 piece for Cafeteria Management, a manager for a Chicago cafeteria of Alfred Weeghman Corp. noted that his company saved money by treating the end pieces as special. Per the mononymously named Kramer:
Most cafeterias use the heel of loaves of bread as discards. They usually turn them into puddings or something where the value is less. In this cafeteria, we sell the heel to certain patrons and make a speciality out of it. We have a dozen or so patrons who ask for the heels of bread and we get 3 cents per each of them too. Last year I took in 52 dollars on bread ends alone. Our bread cutters are instructed to save these and to cut them carefully. Much of the waste in bakery goods comes through careless cutting of bread.
In some circles—especially for young children—the crust is a controversial element, and the end pieces, if nothing else, are all crust. As a result, there’s always been something of an interest in some circles of making the crusts of bread less prominent. For the 8-year-olds in your world who won’t eat anything, sandwich cutters are easy to find.
One prominent Texas grocery store chain, H-E-B, even sells a crustless white bread, because we like order and nothing screams order like bread without any crust attached.
But for crust haters, it’s worth asking: Are they missing out? As far back as 1763, a writer named Nicholas Robinson felt compelled to write an unusual text discussing the health benefits of eating “a crust of bread” first thing in the morning—rather than in the evening. I wanted to quote from it, but the run-on sentences were so aggressive that I didn’t know where to start, so I’ll just say you should read it.
From a more contemporary basis, a 2002 study published by the American Chemical Society notes that the crusts of bread, which are notably more dense than the fluffy innards, often have more in the way of antioxidants than the insides do. (On the plus side, if you use those parts in, say, stuffing, there’s always an alternative for those end pieces.)
Discussion of heel pieces has often gotten heated. In 2018, a British actor named Stephan Mangan drummed up a ton of digital debate because he called them “heels,” the most common term, despite the fact that lots of other terms existed, which the global Twitter community helpfully pointed out to him. In an informal poll of my Twitter audience this evening, I largely found a mix of end-haters and those who felt that heels, just as in wrestling, got a bad rap.
Davis Cox, a fellow writer, properly described The Way To Do It, in my view.
“I leave the first heel the entire way through the loaf, then make a sandwich with the two heels,” he tweeted.
Embrace the ends.
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“Such being the case, it is not too much to assert that a fortune awaits the person who first invents the loaf of bread without a heel.”
— Mr. Billopp, a pseudonymous humorist for the Baltimore Sun created by Francis F. Beirnie, discussing the nature of the heel of a loaf of bread, and who will be willing to eat it, in a 1953 column for the newspaper. Billopp describes the people who are willing to volunteer to eat the heels as having “sly and crafty motives,” and that they’re “setting themselves up as martyrs.” (Magnan, the controversy-starter on the bread front, certainly played into this, writing on his Twitter feed, “This quiet and selfless act of heroism goes completely unnoticed.”)
In Japan, bread crusts are considered so undesirable that they’re sold separately
So, we have these elements of bread loaves that are considered undesirable by some, less attractive than other parts of the loaf.
Yet, despite this, they’re perfectly good as sustenance, the bruised banana of the bread world, even though people generally throw them away.
So what’s the solution to this problem? It’s somewhat complicated, but Japan may have a useful strategy for making crusts slightly more desirable. For years, bakeries have taken to cutting the crusts way from their sandwich bread and then selling the scraps separately.
As The Japan Times noted in a 2010 article, these scraps of bread even have a name: “pan no mimi,” which means “bread ears” in English. For years, people who wanted some bread ears often found even being allowed to purchase them was often frowned upon. Per one anecdote cited in the piece:
In a chat room discussion on the subject from 2005, one man said he always asks for crusts whenever he goes to a bakery and is often told that the store “is not supposed to sell” them, since they are considered unsanitary for some reason. This might be understandable if the crusts are cut off of prepared sandwiches, since the crusts might be contaminated with mayo, tuna salad or whatever. The man said he started wearing a suit whenever he made a request, obviously thinking the bakeries would be more agreeable, but he said their reaction was the same.
On the other hand, there are a lot of reasons why noshing on some ears of bread is desirable.
First of all, it’s very cheap. As a YouTube user named Kathryn Spoor noted in a 2015 clip, it was actually fairly cheap, the equivalent of 50 cents, to buy bread ends in Japan. The lack of desirability makes bread ends into something people might actually go out of their way to buy.
And second, the Japanese culture has found ways to work around the natural weaknesses built into this approach. As author Sarah Marx Feldner wrote in her book A Cook’s Journey to Japan: 100 Homestyle Recipes from Japanese Kitchens, Japanese homes and bakeries have taken to frying up these bread chunks into something akin to a donut or French toast.
“It’s nothing more than deep-fried sandwich bread sprinkled with sugar,” she explained. “And trust me, you will be amazed at how good deep-fried sandwich bread can taste.”
Just as Americans might take bread ends and turn them into croutons, Japanese households pull out the powdered sugar and go to town on the cheap. Which honestly, we should do because it sounds delicious.
Maybe the solution to reducing bread waste is by making it into something people wouldn’t waste
Look, there’s clearly evidence that some people love the end pieces, and other people don’t.
But the real problem is that those who don’t love it are throwing it away, and companies that use sliced bread in commercial contexts often favor those who don’t like the ends. After all, why sell something that people aren’t going to buy, right?
But all that wasted bread, whether on the ends or cut off the sides, adds up. Last year, when announcing a campaign from the North London Waste Authority encouraging consumers to reuse crusts, The Guardian noted that an estimated 1.2 billion edible bread crusts are thrown out each year in the UK alone. If you were to sell those as loaves, along the lines of what they do in Japan, that would be the equivalent of 50 million loaves of bread each year. This isn’t even bad bread! Just less-loved bread.
Which brings me to an interesting product that I think deserves mention here. Toast Ale, a microbrew brand, effectively exists because of the fact so many pieces of bread are thrown away in commercial use cases that there needs to be a way to reuse those products. So why not make beer from bread? After all, they’re made from the same stuff, right?
Tristram Stuart, an advocate for fighting food waste, launched his ale in London in 2016, then expanded it to the United States in 2017. The benefit of converting the ends of bread into craft beer are many. Beyond the fact that most people would consider a spilled beer a serious crime deserving of maximum prosecution by local authorities, craft beer has an impressively long shelf life, which is something that cannot be said about sliced bread. He was inspired by a similar project in Belgium, the Brussels Beer Project, and has used his knowledge of the food industry and existing networks to expand the approach to other parts of the world.
“That is a killer of an idea, because I know bread was being wasted all over the world in industrial quantities while it is still absolutely fresh,” Stuart said of the idea in Bloomberg in 2017. “I know that there is a distributed global network of craft brewers with whom there is culture of collaboration, talent, real openness, and interest in cracking problems.”
While mostly sold around New York at the moment, one could see this idea spreading, especially considering bread is produced and distributed basically everywhere. In fact, the brand is looking for new bread-makers all the time.
In 30 years, may we be drinking more beer made from bread. Cheers.
When I think about bread, I always go back to the tale of the “Uncrustable,” the J.M. Smucker Company-produced frozen object that effectively tried to call a giant piece of ravioli a sandwich. By enclosing it in bread, it was effectively saying that the crust was too much work. It was a Hot Pocket sold frozen, but served at room temperature.
When I was in college, these lumps of bread, peanut butter, and jelly became perfect dorm fodder ahead of long nights of studying. But the story behind these devices, which very much exist to take the guesswork out of sliced bread, one of the easiest-to-use objects in the world, is fascinating—a saga of an attempt to patent something that already existed on the market for decades in various forms.
In 1999, J.M. Smucker was granted the patent for the sealed crustless sandwich, which immediately stirred up debate after a grocery store chain started selling its own version of the product. Almost instantly, the sandwich became a point of contention, because all it truly did, when broken down, was combine one thing that was common (the combination of peanut butter and jelly in a sandwich) with something else that was common (the sealing of a filling inside of two layers of bread, a common tactic used in ravioli, pot stickers, calzones, you name it).
Eventually, the legal battle with the grocery store was dismissed, but attempts by Smucker to expand the patents on these lumps of bread proved a challenge, with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejecting efforts to add additional patents to this process.
The things people will do to avoid eating a dang crust.
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