Southerners Know the Best Kind of Bread for an Everyday Sandwich

Soft, spongy, and always reliable.

White Bread in a Basket
Photo: Getty Images

Okay, we Southerners like all sorts of bread, from biscuits to yeast rolls to crusty whole-grain loaves, and most everything in between. But we can hold special affection for store-bought loaves of uniformly sliced, soft, absorbent, perfectly flimsy, white bread for certain sandwiches and as accompaniments to classic recipes.

Humans have been baking bread for about 30,000 years, but sliced commercial loaves have been around for less than 100 of those years. The first automatically sliced commercial loaves came from a machine invented by Otto Rohwedder on July 6, 1928 in Chillicothe, Missouri. The local paper enthusiastically reported that "So neat and precise are the slices, and so definitely better than anyone could possibly slice by hand with a bread knife that one realizes instantly that here is a refinement that will receive a hearty and permanent welcome." And it has. By the 1930s, sliced bread could be found in most towns across the country and soon replaced most homemade loaves as convenience foods surged into popularity.

Despite a well-deserved and delicious resurgence in the popularity of whole-grain loaves of myriad shapes, textures, and types of flour other than bleached wheat flour, what some of us continue to appreciate about a loaf of white sandwich bread isn't the uniformity of the slices so much as their texture, or more precisely, the lack of it.

Spongy white bread is what most Southerners prefer for summertime tomato sandwiches, even if they rarely eat it otherwise. A tomato sandwich is a simple thing that is simply perfect. To make one, we need fully sun-ripened, flavorful tomatoes, our mayonnaise of choice, salt, and pepper. (One? Who are we kidding? During the fever pitch of local tomato season, it's easy to eat two before we step away from the sink we're leaning over the catch the drips.) And we need bread that is tender, yielding, and so neutral that it doesn't compete with or detract from the tomato. A tomato sandwich is all about the tomato, yet without the right kind of bread, it's not a classic Southern tomato sandwich.

In some Southern meat-and-threes and barbecue joints, orders of sizzling fried chicken and juicy barbecue come with a slice of white sandwich bread, either underneath or atop the main attraction. The bread is an easy, edible way to collect every crumb of golden crust and drop of delicious fatty drippings and sauce, ensuring not a bite goes to waste. It's inexpensive and ready to use right out of the bag, which matters to restaurant cooks with little time and tight margins. It's also traditional, and some customers get antsy or testy when someone messes with tradition.

In some communities that make Brunswick Stew and other big-batch stews for fundraisers and other large gatherings, cooks don't stop at serving white bread with the stew. They stir white bread into the pot to thicken the stew and make it go farther. It's a bit like crumbling crackers into a bowl of soup, but on a much larger scale. There are photos of cooks emptying entire plastic sleeves of sliced bread into cauldrons of Brunswick stew and then stirring with a clean boat oar.

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White sandwich bread doesn't fight with the foods it accompanies, it gives in and cooperates. It shows up, just enough, in reliable ways. That's why there will always be a special place for sliced white sandwich bread in our proverbial Southern breadboxes, as least when duty calls.

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