Hip “handmade” foods, so rarely really and truly made without the help of some sort of tool or equipment, are moving a further thin step away from being what the term advertises. Well, in California at least.
A new update to the California Retail Food Code restricts bare-handed contact with ready-to-eat foods, meaning any items that won’t be cooked (or heated again) before they're served. That means anyone from the Subway sandwich artist, whose hands are mere tools in a well-operating capitalist machine, to those of the artisan baker or master sushi maker—chefs whose hands might have cult followings—will be required to wear gloves while handling any and all foods just before they're served.
While grabbing at sandwich fillings with or without gloves isn’t likely to have much of an impact on the quality of a five-dollar foot-long, at the opposite end of the restaurant chain, where squishy concepts like “soul” and “love” and “passion” are thrown around, there’s concern that the new regulation could cramp fine-dining’s style.
It may seem like a stretch, the idea that a pair of gloves could affect restaurant culture. But a century ago the same kind of blanket approach to protecting public health and presenting an image of perfect cleanliness in food production helped to change the face of American bread. And we’ve only just begun to move past the bread prejudices that originated in that era.
The story begins with the rise of industrial bread production, which replaced the dark, misshapen homemade loaves of America’s immigrant communities with uniform, presliced loaves of bland white bread. If any lesson is to be learned from that shift, it’s that sanitation fears in food production, when wrapped up in issues of class, race, and immigration, can completely change society’s relationship with a given food.
Aaron Bobrow-Strain, a professor at Whitman College, has charted the story of this shift in many academic articles and the book White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf. In his writing he recalls that the Progressive Era, when many public health reforms were enacted, was also a time in American history of intense xenophobia and racism, when eugenics was a concept that intellectuals and politicians freely debated and publicly endorsed.
So there was nothing scandalous about New York City public health commissioner Dr. Royal Copeland believing “food-borne diseases were often associated with Eastern Europeans, Mexicans, and other ‘dirty' groups.” In his paper “Since Sliced Bread: Purity, Hygiene, and the Making of Modern Bread,” Bobrow-Strain writes, “Cholera and typhus bear down on the United States from Eastern Europe, Copeland wrote in 1923, threatening 'Indianapolis and Kansas City' as much as 'Warsaw and Vienna.'
Fears of such diseases, and the recently discovered germs that spread them, combined to create a huge push for sanitation in food production. Bread, with its bubbling, irregular fermentation, became a chief target of the campaign for purity. Just months after Upton Sinclair’s exposé of the meatpacking industry, The Jungle, was released, Chicago’s chief health inspector likened the city’s bakeries to “the worst of the packing houses.”
Kneading machines, tightly controlled fermentation, and an overall environment that spoke of clean, modern perfection was perceived as the best way to give an air of safety to the process of bread making. The hands-free bakery pushed back against fearmongering descriptions of bread like the one found in Uncooked Foods and How to Use Them, published in 1905: “Bread rises when infected with the yeast germ, because millions of these little worms have been born and have died, and from their dead and decaying bodies there rises a gas just as it does from the dead body of a hog or any other animal.”
The solution promoted by public health activists and a fast-growing and even faster consolidating baking industry was met by severe backlash, creating a movement against white flour—the unsullied alternative to dirty-looking whole grains—more fervent than anything that exists today. But the big bakers won, and the sliced loaf of white bread became the staff of life in American households. Only in recent years have the baking traditions that were once deemed threatening to public health—dark whole grains, unruly sourdough, hole-ridden loaves—been revived on a grand scale.
Sushi, widely considered to be the cuisine most threatened by the new regulation, can’t begin to approach the nutritional importance of bread for the general public. But the skill that goes into making sashimi and nigiri is not dissimilar to baking, and there’s a wealth of history behind the Japanese food tradition too—just watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
Niki Nakayama, one of the more inventive chefs cooking Japanese food in L.A., tells the Los Angeles Times, “Making sushi is incredibly hard to do with gloves on. No. 1, the rice is so sticky, the rice would stick to the gloves undoubtedly. Plus you lose that sense of feel, which is everything in sushi making. You have to know exactly the right pressure to put on ingredients. Wearing a glove would hurt the product.”
Is anything beyond the product threatened by latex gloves? Could the culture at large be altered by health regulations? Possibly not—although it probably never seemed like bread would change wholesale in the early 20th century either. But if requiring food service workers to regularly wash their hands wasn’t cutting it in terms of food safety, what’s to say that asking them to regularly change gloves is going to improve things at all?