Through thick and thin

Paul Jacob

12/16/2007 12:00:00 AM - Paul Jacob

Slicing bread used to be a consumer activity. Whether the loaf was made at home or bought at the baker’s — or from the woman next door — the slicing of it was done at the table.

In the good ol’ days, sometimes one didn’t even bother slicing bread . . . you just grabbed and broke off a chunk. Hence the phrase “breaking bread.”

Pre-sliced bread sold at market is a development of later capitalism. Chillicothe Baking Company of Chillicothe, Missouri, produced the first sliced bread loaves in 1928, and two years later Wonder Bread widely touted the concept. Yes, sliced bread is pretty neat, hence that helpful expression, “better than sliced bread.”

Unfortunately, capitalism often has “help,” by which I mean “government,” by which I mean “no help at all.”

In the land that gave us the sandwich, Britain, the House of Lords has been listening to complaints about bread slice thickness. Yes, British politicians have been served up a political debate by a Conservative peer, the Baroness Gardner of Parkes. She says that bread slices are getting thicker, and insists that thicker slices lead to thicker waist lines.

And she thinks that it is the British government’s job to instruct the baking industry how to slice its bread.

The Baroness professed to speak “as a member of the All-Party Group on Obesity,” asking “Why is it that in central London you can hardly find a thinly sliced or medium-sliced loaf of bread to buy, and any sandwich you buy in any supermarket is now made with thick bread?”

Now, I don’t know about London, but I do know that I have purchased thin-sliced bread recently. And thick-sliced bread as well. Of course, this is America, where bread choices are much wider than political choices.

That this has become an actual political issue is a sign of the times. Today’s politicians just don’t know where not to stick their noses. I take it as a sign of political decay that the several centuries between the Fourth Earl of Sandwich and the current Baroness Gardner of Parkes show a politicization of the sandwich.

Way back in the 1700s, John Mantagu, the Fourth Earl, was so fond of card-playing that he offered, at his parties, what came to be known as “sandwiches,” the now-familiar multiple bread-slice mini-meals. Why? They were so easy to eat while at play.

Take this as no defense of the Earl, though. The man was no great statesman. Of him it was said that “seldom has any man held so many offices and accomplished so little.”

Worse yet, he prosecuted journalist John Wilkes for the obscenity of his parody of Pope’s “Essay on Man.” This was a very political act, for Wilkes was hated for weightier political reasons, not for his bawdy poetry. And this was a very personal act, for Wilkes had pulled a prank on Sandwich by bringing a baboon decked out in cape and horns into the ceremonies of their favorite mutual organization, the Hellfire Club. (Who says history isn’t fun?)

But at least the Earl’s politics took place on the grand stage, and about issues traditional to politics. If history repeats itself, here, with a member of the English nobility getting involved in sandwiches and suppressing liberty, this time the repetition is Marxian.

And by this I mean, of course, the only sense in which Karl Marx’s historicism is not a waste and a bother — his notion that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. The farce, here, is the very idea that sandwiches should be of any concern to politicians . . . other than when playing cards.

The Baroness — “Trixie” to her friends — may or may not be a cardshark, but she's a fish in the very brine of modern busybodism, getting along swimmingly in those waters. That she’s a Conservative and yet also a busybody will surprise some. Not me, though; I think it’s been pretty well established that busybodism is a besetting ism on both the left and the right.

If only she were just complaining about what she has to eat while working with her other high muckety-mucks. “While the House of Lords continues to use medium-sliced — and very nice — bread in its sandwiches, even the House of Commons has moved to thick bread,” she said recently, while on duty and presumably not while drunk. “Surely at a time when we want to reduce people’s consumption, there should be more pressure from the Food Standards Agency, or one of the many departments the Minister speaks about, to take us back to normal-sized bread instead of these super-sized sandwiches.”

Ah, the old government-agency-to-the-rescue ploy. We’ve got so many of ’em, why not put ’em to work?

Politicians actually think like that.

While most citizens would rather have their representatives not lording their diets over them, but, instead, slicing budgets a tad thinner, there does remain that vocal minority who just wants “something done.”

As for me, I just want something to eat. And when I think about food, I don’t want to think about politicians — I’d tend to lose my appetite.

So let’s get into the thick of it and be done with it. It is traditional to slice the tougher, mealier breads thicker than the Wonder Bread varieties. And it is known that these thicker, less-processed breads are better for you. So maybe the trend noticed by the Conservative Baroness is a good thing: people are eating a bit more of better bread, bread lower on the glycemic index and all that.

Truth is, though, we should each of us be free to have his or her opinion about the proper thickness of bread.

And, further truth, this sandwich brouhaha came to light not because it is all that big of a deal (the House of Lords being about as useful as the fourth nipple on a steer), but because the Baroness left most of her constituents incredulous. This became news because Britain’s journalists and voters realize that it would be best to keep politicians, and any raised or leftover nobility, out of the issue of bread thickness altogether.

No matter how you slice it.