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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

KaiOctober 14, 2018

Wake up, New Zealand: sandwich bread may be on the verge of extinction

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

A huge-if-true newspaper report this week has raised the possibility that sandwich bread could soon be a thing of the past. Calum Henderson investigates.

It’s the New Zealand food story of the year, and it broke last Thursday on page 5 of Dunedin community newspaper The Star. Under the extremely emotive-to-southerners headline “Thin ‘cheese roll’ bread in peril”, reporter Shawn McAvinue wrote of a noticable decline of sandwich bread on Dunedin supermarket shelves. Sensationally, the story seemed to suggest the thin-sliced loaf could even be phased out altogether.

If true, this is a seriously huge scoop. Like, Seven Sharp huge. Julian Lee or even Tim Wilson standing in front of the trays in the bread aisle of a Countdown Metro, asking punters what they think huge. Hilary Barry and Jeremy Wells debating it in the studio for a good five minutes afterwards huge.

Huge if true (Photo: Calum Henderson)

How did such a massive story instead fall to a Dunedin community newspaper? And could it possibly be that sandwich bread is on the verge of extinction?

Breaking bread

The original story is a masterpiece of community newspaper journalism. Just look at that lede: “Sandwich bread sales in Dunedin could soon be toast.” The claim is backed up with comment from a Foodstuffs spokeswoman, who confirmed consumers preferred toast bread (“a thicker, more generous slice”) to sandwich bread, before seemingly trying to shift the blame onto the rise of artisanal bakers.

Another outstanding sentence: “The first five shoppers approached by The Star slammed sandwich bread.” The reporter has managed to find five of the most fed-up people in Dunedin and they don’t hold back, describing sandwich bread as a “measly”, “plain” product that “no one wants”. The story is accompanied by a photo, taken by the reporter, showing a local man proudly holding two loaves of the superior toast bread.

I emailed McAvinue demanding he reveal his sources, assuming the story to be a crafty write-off of a press release put out by representatives of Big Wheat. He replied that the idea for the story in fact came when his wife sent him to the supermarket to get a loaf of sandwich bread, but all he could find was toast. This story was an exclusive – and a bloody good one at that.

The horror (Photo: Getty Images)

Why we need sandwich bread

Obviously the implication that bread companies might be secretly phasing out sandwich bread is completely outrageous. Sandwich bread is an essential part of many classic New Zealand recipes. To a southern audience the most important of these is the cheese roll – you simply can’t make a proper one with any other slice of bread. An Auckland subeditor might have changed the headline to “asparagus roll” – the same underlying theory applies.

Sandwich bread is the first item on your shopping list if you’re making those delicious little sandwiches they always have at catered morning or afternoon teas. Likewise, if you’re buying a snarler from a sausage sizzle and they hand it to you on a slice of toast bread, you should chuck that bad boy straight in the bin – these fundraising jokers clearly don’t know what they’re doing. Remember on Married At First Sight the other week, when Ksenia was feeding the ducks? Pretty sure that was sandwich bread too.

Nope, definitely not sandwich bread (Photo: Three)

The problem, and the solution

There is, however, one purpose for which sandwich bread does not seem fit: sandwiches. To make a proper sandwich – one with tomato or any other moist ingredient – using sandwich bread means taking an enormous risk. The thinner slice can quickly become soggy, its structural integrity compromised. For most of us, it’s just not worth it.

Could this be the reason behind sandwich bread’s apparent decline? Why would you buy a product called sandwich bread when it’s bad for making sandwiches? Consumers are confused, and who can blame them.

It’s true that toast bread is the more versatile slice – better for making sandwiches, more absorbent. But there is still a place for both on the market. What I’m suggesting is this: bread companies should drop the “toast” and “sandwich” labels altogether. Toast bread should just be known as “bread”. Sandwich bread should be marketed as “thin-slice bread”, and what we now think of as extra-thick bread should be rebranded “thick-slice bread”.

Confusion reigns in the bread aisle (Photo: Pam Neville)

The end of sandwich bread?

Bread companies would usually expect to pay tens of thousands of dollars for the kind of branding advice dished out above. I have offered it to them for free. In exchange, I sought just one thing: assurance that they would never stop making the product we currently know as sandwich bread.

When asked to guarantee the continued existence of sandwich bread on their shelves, a representative from Countdown ominously told The Spinoff, “We’ll have a chat to the team and come back to you.” They later suggested contacting manufacturers GWF (Tip Top) and Goodman Fielder (Nature’s Fresh, Molenberg, Freya’s, Vogel’s and other popular bread brands) directly. So far neither company has responded to The Spinoff’s media enquiries.

So, the future of sandwich bread remains uncertain. It’s probably fine, but we can’t be too complacent. When was the last time you bought a loaf? Why not sizzle some sausages for tea tonight and nestle them in a soft, thin blanket of sandwich bread. Invite friends around and surprise them with a plate of asparagus or cheese rolls the way they were meant to be made. Feed the ducks. Feed your dog (maybe just a little bit). Sandwich bread is a gift to all – it’s time we stopped taking it for granted.

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