Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Why wheat?

Wheat field, near Walla Walla, Washington, June 2015 [Photo by Hanna Nelson].

Why Wheat? 

      That's what people frown and say when I tell them I've been working on a book about wheat. Writing about wheat, they seem to feel, is like being in a museum full of Picassos and Rembrandts, and Giottos, and talking about canvas rather than the paintings. You could write about so many wonderful and delicious foods made from wheat – Bread. Or cakes. Or flatbreads. But . . .  wheat?

I’m writing about wheat, because the canvas has its own intrigue. Wheat seduced us into building villages, then cities, then empires. It enticed us into settling down, promising the glories of bread and beer. It made its way into our graves, our temples, our altars, becoming for Christians the very body of their God. For something that appears to be a heap of brown seeds, a cup full of bland powder, it has profoundly shaped the world in which we live.

Wheat field in Hungary (July 2009).

From the standpoint of humans (other creatures have their own views), wheat is one of the most versatile plants. Beyond its varied uses as a food, it appears in paints, cosmetics, fuel, animal food, buildings, and dozens of other guises. Wheat is a sacred object and food in religions. It is the substance of hundreds of metaphors, the focus of dozens of superstitions, the cause of wars, and when made into bread, is a symbol of food itself.

                                                    Dog in wheat field, Italy.

         Because we grow wheat, we have dogs as companions --  their digestive systems adapted to eating grains early in the history of agriculture.

Cat and mouse, Arabic.

      Because we grow wheat, we have cats as sort-of companions -- they eat the rodents that come for the grain.

        Because we have grains, we have all sorts of other domesticated animals -- cows, horses -- all of which eat grains, and serve our needs for butter, bacon, beauty, and brute labor.

Wheat, the 2015 version

Back room at Tartine, Guerro Street, San Francisco, March 8, 2013 [Photo, TWCarns].

These days, wheat has come from the unnoticed background to front and center, by turns praised, vilified, and feared. The names of bread bakers -- Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Pruett at Tartine in San Francisco, Pierre and Lionel Poilane in Paris, Peter Reinhart, James Beard –  rank with the best-known chefs in the world. Artisan bread is considered a sacred calling by some, and as one of the highest forms of food by others.

A gluten-free loaf of bread.

Yet, driven by a belief that our bodies are poisoned by gluten, 30% of Americans in 2013 said that they were eating (or thinking about eating) gluten-free foods. Some thought that they should go wheat free because humans were not designed to digest grains, or they believed that current varieties of wheat were inedible. Some were concerned that they might have an allergy or disease related to wheat, or thought that a wheat-free diet was healthier, or that they would lose weight.

        It is true that about 1% of people worldwide have celiac disease (an immune system condition caused by gluten), and another 6% might have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. For those people, eating wheat or other grains with gluten, or any wheat (depending on the nature of their disease) can be harmful or life-threatening. For many others though, the doubts about wheat exemplify humanity’s changing relationship to food. 

Egyptian goddess Nuit offering a deceased man and his wife gifts of bread and water from the spirit world (Nuit is in the Tree of Life).

Thoughtful people from the earliest writers  until this day believed that the food we ate was related to our well-being, physical, mental, spiritual. As a result, people sanctified some foods and forbade others. As the bonds of religions loosened, concepts of culture and social class changed, and scientific knowledge increased. During the past 150 years or so, we have created a new set of reasons for promoting quinoa or kiwis or acai berries, and for demonizing wheat or milk or red meat.

US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee "Food Plate" image. Grains, including wheat, 
are the basis of a healthy diet in this model.
The tools of science have encouraged us to think about food in ways that involve objective facts (or bits and pieces of facts) instead of moral strictures, religious demands or taboos, and what is acceptable in a particular culture. We enjoy the freedom to explore all sorts of new concepts. Weekly, a new bit of stunning information comes along that is related to what we eat and how our bodies react. Genetics, the environment, the microbiome both within us and outside of us, all are candidates for science and speculation. What will we find next that influences what we eat? Sunspots? Penta-quarks? And how will that affect whether we eat salads or Tootsie Rolls or crickets , , , , or wheat?

A Wheat-o-phile

      How did I stumble into wheat-o-philia? My young life with wheat, in the 1950s and 1960s was unremarkably Midwestern -- peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches were a staple, along with macaroni-and-cheese, tunafish casserole with canned peas, and pies, cakes, and cookies for special occasions.

       Years went by. I learned to cook, tried vegetarianism, traveled, had kids, and tried a low-gluten diet for a few years in the mid-1990s. Quinoa, rice, oats, and corn became staples. Suddenly, wheat went from ordinary to a thing of mystery and intrigue, an object of desire. I pored over recipes that featured wheat, read bakery menus in steamy windows, languished over artisan bread displays in supermarkets.

 Women making flatbreads in Tamuz, Iraq.   

       A book shaped itself in my imagination. It would start with the simplest of foods -- flour and water, mixed into a dough, rolled between patient hands into a ball, flattened, slapped onto hot stones or the side of a tandoori, transformed into the staff of life. The book's recipes would add oil, then sugar, then leavenings, and finally, yeast. It would delve into the origins of noodles and the world-wide penchant for wrapping fillings into won-tons, dumplings, pasties, and pies. It would quote the Song of Solomon, Hansel and Gretel's gingerbread house, The Little Red Hen, and the story of Demeter and Persephone. I made some notes, and continued on with life.

The Greek goddess Demeter giving Triptolemus wheat, and the knowledge of agriculture; her daughter, Persephone, blessing him.

       In 1997, chemo followed by a bone marrow transplant for a slow-moving leukemia intervened, and by about 1999, when my body settled down a bit and I went off drugs, I discovered that I couldn't eat quinoa, oats, rice. Most of my go-to grains and other proteins mad e me seriously ill. But I could eat wheat. The docs, after many tests, said, "We don't know exactly what happened -- you had some damage from the chemo, and it's made you sensitive to some proteins. That's your new life."  I took that as a sign that I should get busy writing the book about wheat -- accumulating research, notes, torn-out articles, and fattening files. Over the past ten years, these are growing into a book, grains of knowledge ripening and bearing fruit. 

Biscuit dough, April 26, 2014 [Photo TWCarns].

      We think about wheat in our own lunch box, but it is important in the larger world. It may be that empires are built today on the price of oil, not wheat, but the grain is still one of the three top crops grown, along with corn and rice. The price of wheat in Russia or Kansas is as important in many ways as it ever was. Wheatavore searches out answers to all of the questions about how good wheat is for you, its future as a crop, and more, and provides the answers that are available today. If, when tomorrow arrives, and new facts change how we look at  the questions, or how we answer them, Wheatavore will be there to help write the on-going history of wheat. In these pages, you will also find recipes, mythology and fairy tales, jokes and riddles, haiku, photos and paintings -- all facets of wheat's long relationship with us.

wheat-field-tntiseverwhere-flickr.jpg (500×367)

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