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Old 05-15-2004, 04:38 PM
Shade Shade is offline
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Origin of "Is it bigger than a breadbox?"

"Is it bigger than a breadbox" is always one of the questions in any humorous 20-questions list. Does anyone know where it originates? I couldn't find anything helpful searching.
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Old 05-15-2004, 05:39 PM
FatBaldGuy FatBaldGuy is offline
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Back in the early days of TV there were two game shows called I've Got a Secret and What's My Line? where celebrity panelist (often interchanged between the two shows) tried to guess either the occupation or some other fact about the "mystery challenger." Whenever they were trying to find out about some physical object that the person worked with, one of the first questions was, "Is it bigger than a breadbox?"

I'm not aware of any earlier usage, but someone else may be along with other evidence.
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Old 05-15-2004, 05:52 PM
Exapno Mapcase Exapno Mapcase is online now
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The line was Steve Allen's catchphrase on What's My Line?

From his 1960 autobiography, Mark It and Strike It:
Quote:
The one line that seems to have stuck in the public consciousness is one whose popularity has always been a puzzle to me. One evening, in trying to determine the size of an object that was manufactured by one of the guests, I said, "Is is bigger than a breadbox?" I meant this in all seriousness, but for some reason the audience laughed uproariously. Perhaps the reason is that the breadbox is an old-fashioned item to today's homemakers and so the word had the sort of connotation that surrounds phrases like high-button shoes, celluloid collar, or raccoon coat. In any event, from that day to this the phrase has been a part of the American vernacular. Dorothy, Bennett, and Arlene picked it up as a sort of running joke and there was a time when every week somebody would send me an unusual breadbox or ask me for mine or send me a song about breadboxes or something of the sort. One kitchenware manufacturer even wanted to put a Steve Allen breadbox on the market.
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Old 05-15-2004, 06:27 PM
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Old 05-15-2004, 08:12 PM
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I am reminded of the episode of "Matlock" set on a game show where the host's catchphrase was, "Put the apple pie in the oven, mother -- I'm comin' home!" or something like that. A scene later in the episode showed the host groaning loudly about all the frickin' apples that his idiot fans kept sending him (as, of course, he was eating an apple).

I wonder if Steve Allen grew to hate bread?
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Old 05-15-2004, 09:11 PM
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Kinduv off-topic, but I had to throw this in:

---------------------------------------------------------
INT. SPIKE'S CRYPT - NIGHT

Spike and Harmony sit opposite each other.

SPIKE (resigned) Okay, is it bigger than a bread box?

HARMONY (delighted) No... Four left.

SPIKE So it's smaller than a bread box?

Harmony claps with excitement.

HARMONY No-o! Only three.

SPIKE (seething calm) Harmony. Is it a sodding bread box?

HARMONY Yes! Omigod, someone's blondey bear's a twenty questions genius!
------------------------------------------------------

(From buffy the vampire slayer, "Out of my mind."
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Old 05-15-2004, 09:14 PM
pepperlandgirl pepperlandgirl is offline
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I'm reminded of one of my favorite exchanges on BtVS between Spike and Harmony.

SPIKE: Okay, is it bigger than a breadbox?
HARMONY: (smiling) No. Four left.
SPIKE: So it's smaller than a breadbox.
HARMONY: (giggling) No! Only three!
SPIKE: (quietly annoyed) Harmony ... is it a sodding breadbox?
HARMONY: (clapping and laughing) Yes! Oh my god! Someone's blondie bear is a twenty-question genius!
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Old 05-15-2004, 09:41 PM
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Whooa! Simulpost and how! Here's my favorite breadbox-scene: http://ars.userfriendly.org/cartoons...4&mode=classic
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Old 05-15-2004, 09:54 PM
Kreekurmudgeon Kreekurmudgeon is offline
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IIRC, it predates "What's My Line" and "I've Got a Secret." I first heard it on an old radio show, probably late '40s or early '50s, called -- would you beleive it -- "Twenty Questions." Among it's regular guests were Bennett Cerf and Ed Zern.
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Old 05-15-2004, 10:42 PM
CookingWithGas CookingWithGas is offline
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Why did people ever use a breadbox and why don't they anymore?
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Old 05-15-2004, 10:47 PM
Peter Morris Peter Morris is online now
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I'm reminded of one of the last episodes of Soap where Jessica Tate was playing 20 Questions with her captors. Her first question on each item was "is it bigger than a breadbox"
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Old 05-16-2004, 01:19 AM
Shalmanese Shalmanese is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by CookingWithGas
Why did people ever use a breadbox and why don't they anymore?
WAG: a breadbox was used to keep bread from going stale back when it wasn't possible to go shopping every day. Because we can now get bread much more conveniently, theres no more need for a breadbox.
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Old 05-16-2004, 02:14 AM
Derleth Derleth is online now
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Quote:
Originally Posted by CookingWithGas
Why did people ever use a breadbox and why don't they anymore?
People used breadboxes because they didn't have fridges and just leaving bread out is an open invitation to pests, mold, etc. And, yes, I still do have and use a breadbox. A nice enameled metal one that says 'Fresh Bread', no less.
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Old 05-16-2004, 03:26 AM
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I grew up in a breadbox home and that wasn't that long ago in the grander breadbox scheme of things.

I've seen dozens of episodes of the old b/w What's My Line and I've Got a Secret and for a running gag it's conspicuous in its absence. Size questions always seemed to be in the eps I've seen expressed in terms of whether it would fit in one's hand.

I'm fascinated that the simulposted BtVS quotes have different stage directions.
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Old 05-16-2004, 05:46 AM
Dunderman Dunderman is offline
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Huh? Breadboxes are outdated? I have one, my parents have one, everyone I know has one. Why wouldn't you have a breadbox?

Derleth: You keep bread in the fridge?
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Old 05-16-2004, 07:48 AM
chrisk chrisk is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Priceguy
Huh? Breadboxes are outdated? I have one, my parents have one, everyone I know has one. Why wouldn't you have a breadbox?

Derleth: You keep bread in the fridge?
Actually, I tend to keep bread in the freezer and thaw it out in the toaster or microwave when I need some. :] But then, I mostly eat bread as toast.
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Old 05-16-2004, 10:24 AM
Governor Quinn Governor Quinn is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Otto
I've seen dozens of episodes of the old b/w What's My Line and I've Got a Secret and for a running gag it's conspicuous in its absence. Size questions always seemed to be in the eps I've seen expressed in terms of whether it would fit in one's hand.
First of all, that phrase is associated solely with "WML", and not "IGAS".

Secondly, it wasn't used nearly as often as myth says. I've seen hundreds of episodes of "WML", and I've never heard anyone ask that question.

And, yes, it is highly likely that "20 Questions" used that question.
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Old 05-16-2004, 01:33 PM
dtilque dtilque is online now
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Upon reading this threa, I realized that I'd never actually seen a breadbox. Or if I have, I certainly don't remember it. So I have to ask: How large is a breadbox? Are they large enough to hold one or two loaves? And what about different shaped loaves? Can they hold both the long skinny loaves and the short fat ones?

But this line of questions quickly lead to wondering if they'd standardized the size of breadboxes. Has NIST defined how large a breadbox is? Is there a differenece between a US Customary breadbox and an Imperial breadbox? Is there a platinum-iridium breadbox kept in a vault in Paris that all other breadboxes are measured against? Inquiring minds want to know!
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Old 05-16-2004, 01:36 PM
samclem samclem is online now
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Governor Quinn
First of all, that phrase is associated solely with "WML", and not "IGAS".

Secondly, it wasn't used nearly as often as myth says. I've seen hundreds of episodes of "WML", and I've never heard anyone ask that question.

And, yes, it is highly likely that "20 Questions" used that question.
WHY is it highly likely that "20 Questions" used that question?

Did you watch the multiple-hundreds of WML shows at the time they appeared? What period of time would you have watched the shows? It was live from 1950-1967. Steve Allen was on there only on the 1953-54 seasons. If he originated the question, it probably would only have been used in the mid-late 50's, perhaps the very early 60's. It would have been a stale question at some point, and not used much.

Because it was shown at 10:30 on Sunday night for most of its life, while I think I also saw hundreds of shows, it was probably late 50's-very early 60's, when I would have been allowed to stay up that late on a school night.

I THINK I have a memory of hearing the phrase used, but memories are tricky things. Just ask your MOM. You remember things as a kid, but your Mom can supply the straightdope in many cases.
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Old 05-16-2004, 01:49 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by dtilque
Upon reading this threa, I realized that I'd never actually seen a breadbox. Or if I have, I certainly don't remember it. So I have to ask: How large is a breadbox? Are they large enough to hold one or two loaves? And what about different shaped loaves? Can they hold both the long skinny loaves and the short fat ones?!
A breadbox was a vented, metal cabinet about 18-24 inches long, 12 inches high, and 12-18 inches wide. About the size of a very modern, average microwave oven.
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Old 05-16-2004, 02:07 PM
Exapno Mapcase Exapno Mapcase is online now
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I have a memory of reading somewhere sometime that "Is it bigger than a breadbox" was asked on a quiz show before Steve Allen used it.

I don't care. For me, the interesting sociological fact is that the phrase caught on with the public after Allen said it on WML. I don't know how often he actually used it, and from the quote I gave it appears that others may have used it teasingly to him even more than he used it himself. But there's no doubt that the phrase attached to him like a leech (a book, Bigger Than a Breadbox: The Wit and Humor of Steve Allen came out in 1967) and the phrase still works forty years later.

It's a bit like Bart Simpson's "Don't have a cow, man." I have no idea if that was original to The Simpsons, and I know that they soon stopped using it except to make fun of the phrase later on, but it will always be a part of the culture.

I'm sure it would be of interest to samclem if the phrase had been used on a quiz show earlier. And I'm glad there are obsessive people who look into the origins of such things; that's a valuable addition to our understanding of our language and our culture. It's just not my obsession.

What interests me is that the IMDB says that Allen was a guest panelist on WML dozens of times through 1967, and he may have used the phrase more in the 1960s than earlier, especially if he was promoting his book. Those appearances could play a role in keeping the connection alive, just like 60s rock stars have to play their hit over and over.
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Old 05-16-2004, 02:08 PM
barbitu8 barbitu8 is offline
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I remember hearing that question on "20 Questions." It could have been used, or even originated, in other quiz shows, but that's my recollections. It was one of the early questions, to narrow down the size of the object. They couldn't ask "Whether it is animal, vegetable, or mineral?" since the answer had to be Yes or No. So the first 3 questions (or 2) usually narrowed that down. Next came the size question.

The breadbox that I have (see a related thread) is plastic and is not vented. It is airtight. It can hold only one standard-size loaf. One night I saw a "Palmetto bug" trying to get in it, but even that obnoxious, despicable animal (well-known to squeeze as thin as a microbe, by which it can enter even closed screens) could not get in.
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Old 05-16-2004, 08:50 PM
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I remember thinking, "Why are people attaching the 'Don't have a cow' phrase to Bart Simpson so much? I've heard that for years."
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Old 05-16-2004, 09:40 PM
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And then to square the circle, What's My Line had on a breadbox manufacturer, with the celebrity panel trying to guess what product he made. Sure enough, someone on the panel asked if it was bigger than a breadbox, and the audience roared with laughter. His answer, of course, was that it was not bigger than a breadbox.
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Old 05-16-2004, 11:14 PM
Derleth Derleth is online now
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Priceguy
Derleth: You keep bread in the fridge?
Yes, I do. When I have extra, or little room in the fridge, I keep it in the breadbox.

To store bread long-term, I use the freezer. Where do I thaw it? The breadbox.
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Old 05-16-2004, 11:35 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Walloon
And then to square the circle, What's My Line had on a breadbox manufacturer, with the celebrity panel trying to guess what product he made. Sure enough, someone on the panel asked if it was bigger than a breadbox, and the audience roared with laughter. His answer, of course, was that it was not bigger than a breadbox.
<Dorothy> Then it's smaller than a breadbox?
<Guest> No.
<John> 3 left.
<Bennet> John, is it a sodding breadbox?

.

.

.

Sorry, my brain works in odd ways.
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Old 05-16-2004, 11:41 PM
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I've been watching What's My Line for the past few years on The Game Show Network, and have seen several different panelists say "Is it bigger than Steve Allen's Breadbox?", or "Is it bigger than a breadbox?" on several occasions...
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Old 05-16-2004, 11:43 PM
samclem samclem is online now
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[QUOTE=Exapno Mapcase]

I'm sure it would be of interest to samclem if the phrase had been used on a quiz show earlier. And I'm glad there are obsessive people who look into the origins of such things;
QUOTE]
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Old 05-17-2004, 01:22 AM
Dunderman Dunderman is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Derleth
Yes, I do. When I have extra, or little room in the fridge, I keep it in the breadbox.
But why? Why would you want cold bread? Or do you take it out of the fridge some time prior to eating and keep it in the breadbox until then?
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Old 05-17-2004, 10:46 AM
OxyMoron OxyMoron is offline
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See, bread actually stales faster in the refrigerator than it does at room temperature - apparently, the key chemical process in staling (something called "starch retrogradation") accelerates as temperature decreases. But refrigeration's very effective at retarding mold growth. So in a humid climate, that results in an unpleasant choice on bread storage: less stale, but moldy, or more stale, but not moldy.
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Old 05-17-2004, 11:43 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Otto
Size questions always seemed to be in the eps I've seen expressed in terms of whether it would fit in one's hand.
Porn Starlet: "Is it bigger than Ron Jeremy's?"
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Old 01-30-2017, 01:35 PM
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Art Linkletter

While the phrase caught on and was undoubtedly used on other shows, as noted by other respondents here, I'm pretty sure it originated on the Art Linkletter House Party show, which started out on radio and then switched to TV. An actual bread box was brought out into the audience and audience members would win what was in it if they guessed what it was. The object could be small enough to actually fit inside the bread box, or if it was bigger there would be a model, a certificate, or the like inside. They would start out be telling the audience if what was inside was actual size or "bigger than the bread box".
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Old 01-30-2017, 03:42 PM
CookingWithGas CookingWithGas is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by ferics View Post
While the phrase caught on and was undoubtedly used on other shows, as noted by other respondents here, I'm pretty sure it originated on the Art Linkletter House Party show[...]
Do you have a cite for this? Please see post #3 which is backed up by documentation.
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Old 01-30-2017, 03:54 PM
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Originally Posted by samclem View Post
A breadbox was a vented, metal cabinet about 18-24 inches long, 12 inches high, and 12-18 inches wide. About the size of a very modern, average microwave oven.
Wow, the only breadboxes I have seen looked like upscale mail boxes. A bit larger than a standard loaf with a rounded top and a door that swings down. I'll have to check with Martha on this.

Dennis
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Old 01-30-2017, 04:36 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by OxyMoron View Post
See, bread actually stales faster in the refrigerator than it does at room temperature - apparently, the key chemical process in staling (something called "starch retrogradation") accelerates as temperature decreases. But refrigeration's very effective at retarding mold growth. So in a humid climate, that results in an unpleasant choice on bread storage: less stale, but moldy, or more stale, but not moldy.
Then refrigeration is ideal for someone using bread as toast.
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Old 01-30-2017, 04:43 PM
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After being forgotten for 13 years the bread in the box is rather moldy and full of ants.
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Old 01-30-2017, 07:50 PM
Exapno Mapcase Exapno Mapcase is online now
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Quote:
Originally Posted by ferics View Post
While the phrase caught on and was undoubtedly used on other shows, as noted by other respondents here, I'm pretty sure it originated on the Art Linkletter House Party show, which started out on radio and then switched to TV. An actual bread box was brought out into the audience and audience members would win what was in it if they guessed what it was. The object could be small enough to actually fit inside the bread box, or if it was bigger there would be a model, a certificate, or the like inside. They would start out be telling the audience if what was inside was actual size or "bigger than the bread box".
I searched and found no hits for a connection between Art Linkletter and the phrase. I also searched Google Books and a couple of newspaper archives and found zero hits for anyone at all using the phrase in any way before 1953, which we know to be the year Allen did it on WML. (It's on YouTube.)

The phrase "bigger than a breadbox" appears a couple of times but not as a question and not in a similar context.

Sixty-year-old memories are not very reliable. I should know.
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Old 02-04-2017, 09:21 PM
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Originally Posted by LSLGuy View Post
After being forgotten for 13 years the bread in the box is rather moldy and full of ants.
And thirteen years ago, I almost posted my bewilderment at the very concept of a breadbox.

I grew up in their heyday, and they were NOT airtight. The ones my mom and grandma had were much larger than a loaf of bread (maybe 20" wide, 12" tall and 12-18" deep), enameled metal with an angled, ill-fitting door that may have closed, but with plenty of gaps. Oh, I forgot, they even had holes in the ends of the box.

So how exactly would they keep bread from going stale or moldy?

As I looked up one like granny's, I was struck by how many different sizes they came in, which makes the "bigger than a breadbox?" idiom even more absurdist.
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Old 02-04-2017, 09:42 PM
LSLGuy LSLGuy is offline
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Wiki offers a poorly sourced but sensible-sounding opinion on how they were intended to work: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breadbox

Remember that back in the Olden Dayes bread was baked daily. So the idea was to delay crunchy staleness in a preservative-free bread for a few hours. Not to protect a preservative-laden bread against mold for a few weeks.

Last edited by LSLGuy; 02-04-2017 at 09:43 PM.
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Old 02-04-2017, 10:46 PM
Francis Vaughan Francis Vaughan is offline
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Oh well, since the thread has been revived. I have a nice stainless steel breadbox. They are useful for keeping all sorts of things in. Curiously the expression about "bigger than a breadbox" has some limited circulation down here in Oz. I have no idea how or why, but I first encountered it in the late 70's.

The point about bread and staling was mentioned by OxyMoron 13 years ago. When bread goes stale it is nothing to do with either drying out or microbial action. The starch grains begin to aggregate together to form larger grains. So the bread starts to become stiffer and loses the nice elastic and soft texture it had. As noted, this reaction is temperature dependant. And it works fastest at lower temperatures. If you want your bread to go stale as fast as possible, put it in the ordinary part of the refrigerator. Room temperature will slow the reaction down significantly, as will freezing the bread. Also, you can mostly reverse the reaction once by heating the bread. But you tend to end up with bread that will stale again very quickly and has a harder crust. My mother used to thaw frozen bread in a bag in the sun, and that would produce a fabulous result, getting to a perfect temperature to yield a near "just baked" bread again.

Modern mass produced breads tend to contain anti-staling agents. These slow the starch grain aggregation, and seem to produce breads that will retain a goodly proportion of their texture and elasticity for many days - even to the point where mould becomes the dominant issue. But they never seem to quite match a freshly baked traditional loaf, even when fresh themselves.
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Old 02-04-2017, 11:17 PM
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I'm rather sure that the question is it bigger than a breadbox goes back to the era when people would sit around the living room playing Twenty Question with voice alone, decades before TV and maybe before radio.
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Old 02-05-2017, 10:13 AM
Exapno Mapcase Exapno Mapcase is online now
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I'm rather sure that the question is it bigger than a breadbox goes back to the era when people would sit around the living room playing Twenty Question with voice alone, decades before TV and maybe before radio.
How do you know this? "I've got a feeling" doesn't count.
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Old 02-05-2017, 04:58 PM
D.E.S.K.Top668 D.E.S.K.Top668 is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by samclem View Post
A breadbox was a vented, metal cabinet about 18-24 inches long, 12 inches high, and 12-18 inches wide. About the size of a very modern, average microwave oven.
My mum has a breadbox that she's had for30+ years, made of wood with a glass window in the door. It was unvented and was the same width as a microwave, but was shorter and skinnier then that.
Funny story (to me) about it She got it at a flea market for ten dollars when the exact same ones were twenty-five dollars. The others had "BREAD" etched into the glass in Old English and the one she got had what looked like a foreign language etched into it. We had it two years before we realized the glass said "BREAD" in Old English but had been installed upside down and backwards.
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Old 02-05-2017, 06:47 PM
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My breadbox is a modern one. Completely plasticwith a tight seal and smaller than the old ones.
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Old 02-05-2017, 07:29 PM
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Steve Allen's first reference to a breadbox on What's My Line, January 18th 1953.

Is it a large product if you accepted the norm, something the size of a breadbox let's say?

The fact that he put the question in this form suggests that he did indeed originate it, amending it in later shows to the familiar shortened version.
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