As a cultural icon, Wonder Bread has always been pretty tiresome. Occupying that dismal, overhyped semiotic space between authentic Americana and ironic pop artifact, its one of those products (see also Spam and Pez) that's been usurped by its own kitsch factor. For every middle-aged cornball who tries to capture his lost youth with mawkish allusions to Wonder Bread, there's a tattooed hipster ironically wearing a Wonder Bread T-shirt. And you kind of want to kill both of them.
Still, as a food item, Wonder Bread, which became a national brand in 1925 and was one of the first packaged breads to be sold in slices, is darn tasty. That's why the announcement that it will no longer be made or distributed in Southern California as of Oct. 29 is a bummer of considerable proportions.
OK, maybe "tasty" isn't the best word for Wonder Bread. As anyone who's ever had the pleasure of twisting a peanut butter sandwich into the shape of a dachshund knows,the bread's best attribute is its texture. Like chewing gum that just happens to go great with mayonnaise, Wonder is more of an epoxy than a simple carbohydrate. However, in organic-obsessed Southern California, eating sealant is apparently outré, and Wonder Bread's manufacturer, Interstate Bakeries Corp., found it was no longer cost effective to keep it on our shelves (Ho Hos and Twinkies, which the company also makes, will not be affected).
In a bizarre coincidence, Wonder Bread's departure from the Southland was reported in this paper the same day that another article informed us of a similarly heartbreaking denouement. Starting in September, Southern Californians will no longer be able to call 853-1212 and find out what time it is. According to an AT&T spokesman, the service was deemed no longer necessary because people could more easily look at their cellphones or check the Internet to see what time it is.
I know, I know. It's not just a double whammy, it's the final nail in the coffin of better, simpler times. After all, nothing says "the good life" like being able to devour a tuna melt on Wonder Bread while being told by an officious female voice that at the tone Pacific Daylight Time will be 3:54 a.m. Moreover, nothing says "idyllic childhood" like being screamed at by your parents because you and your siblings held a contest to see who could call the time the most times in one day, and the phone was tied up for 12 hours.
Here's the thing about collective nostalgia: Not only is it viral (it's a lot easier to romanticize, say, the Ford administration when, suddenly, everyone's doing it), it's vulnerable to an insidious kind of falseness. In the case of Wonder Bread, its sentimental value far outweighs its nutritional or retail value. Therefore, limiting the product's availability -- the nearest place to get it will be Las Vegas -- only adds to its mystique, though presumably not to the 1,300 Southern California workers who will lose their jobs. Compared with the effects of phasing out Wonder Bread, the end of time is practically negligible.
Our outsized nostalgia for these long-lived relics highlights the degree to which a lot of other stuff in our lives is disposable. After all, we can buy cashmere camisoles from Target for $39 and bedsteads from IKEA for $49, and just about any computer, TV set or piece of stereo equipment seems to be rendered obsolete by the time we get it home and plug it in. As a result, we've developed a willful indifference to our possessions. Instead of fixing something that's broken, we buy a new one. Instead of saving, selling or giving away unwanted items, we throw them out.
As deplorable as this is, it's getting to be unavoidable. It so happens that I spent much of the summer in a largely unsuccessful effort to unload some perfectly good pieces of furniture. After making only one paltry sale on Craigslist (even the "free" category was a bust) and discovering that the Salvation Army can be as picky as Sotheby's, I came to the conclusion that there's just way too much stuff in the world -- at least in our affluent, mercurial corner of it -- for us to ascribe much value to anything.
By the time I gave in and set my apparently worthless stuff on the curb (hoping that some enterprising or needy person would get to it before the bulky item pickup service), I was overcome not by sentimentality or regret but by anger that they existed in the first place and shame that I'd bothered to acquire them.
And that is why we need nostalgia -- even the false or campy kind. In a world in which objects are increasingly disposable, it's nice to know that there is still something out there whose passing is worth mourning. I may still have mattresses lying outside my house (that's right, no one has picked them up), but I'm keeping my last loaf of Wonder Bread forever.
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