Monday, June 6, 2016

When Bread Could Kill You

Paul Graham, In Memory of Bread: a Memoir

Paul Graham, an upstate New York English professor and gastronome, established elaborate rules for himself: Cook your own food. Use local ingredients. Keep fat, sugar, and glycemic index low. Cooking for his wife, eating the bread she baked, and home-brewing beer with his best friend were staples of building a sustainable, locovore lifestyle. Everything food hipsters say will keep us, and the land, healthy. So he couldn’t understand the sudden, shooting bursts of abdominal pain.

Diagnosed with celiac disease at age 36, Graham found himself in an increasingly common situation. Diagnosis rates worldwide have skyrocketed. But are celiac, and other gluten intolerance disorders, really more common today? Or have people previously misdiagnosed now being recognized? (This isn’t academic. I have two gluten-intolerant friends, one who was tested for everything from cancer to lupus for over a decade.) Graham resolved to do what scholars everywhere do: research the situation, and report.

This volume starts with Graham’s own situation. It’s a memoir primarily, of Graham’s own struggle as he goes wholly gluten-free. Fortunately, his wife joins him on the journey. I wish I’d been that brave; when my then-girlfriend was diagnosed gluten-intolerant, I selfishly hoarded coffee cakes and cinnamon rolls. But Graham and his wife, Bec, find they’re not just giving up one ingredient. They’re walking away from buffet spreads, pub nights, and food’s historic social implications.

Wheat agriculture, it appears, helped form Western civilization. As Graham’s investigation expands into the history and science of gluten, he finds wheat so basic to Western history that to abjure eating bread (Graham loves the phrase “wheaten loaf”) means to not participate in our culture. Food-sharing rituals, from pot-luck brunches to Catholic communion, underpin Euro-American culture, and eating bread looms large. Maybe that’s why humorists and hipsters treat gluten-free dieters as mere figures of ridicule.

Since Graham, an award-winning food writer besides his professorship, cooked for himself, and his wife baked, food wasn’t just bodily sustenance; it bolstered the intimacy of his marriage. Thus, for him, the macro-scale and the micro intertwined. Many recipes, and many prepared ingredients, involve wheat where you’d never look for it, especially as a stabilizer. As he abandoned the cultural history of eating wheat, he also lost the personal history of preparing his own dinner.

Our isolated, private society today often loses the community aspect of food. But the simple act of sharing conversation around the table has historically underpinned our society. When he had to walk away from that history—not just the cultural history of shared food, but the personal history of knowing how to prepare his own dinner—Graham had to relearn everything he knew. Not just about food, but about himself, and his place in society.

For one, he has to rediscover how to be Paul Graham, in a world where hobbies like baking and brewing were now off-limits. He needed to relearn cooking. Many store-bought gluten-free (GF) foods simply substitute rice, tapioca, or sorghum flours for wheat, assuming the process remains unchanged. Not so, as Graham discovers in actually preparing edible GF bread. His mentors, though meaning well, taught him concepts that no longer apply. Cooking is an adventure again.

Is bread even really necessary? Graham suggests many deeply ingrained expectations regarding food are learned, not innate, though impossible to discard, the centrality of bread among them. With time, he internalizes the systems necessary for understanding the new world he found himself thrust into. Though by the end, he returns to home-baking his own GF bread, he acknowledges that even then, it means unlearning habits he’s previously mastered. Embrace everything teachers told you to avoid.

By his own admission, Graham set himself many food-related rules well before onset of celiac disease. His “locovore” proselytizing sometimes gets intrusive, and his quest for celiac-friendly foods at farmers’ markets seems quixotic. But everything he says sounds familiar to anyone forced, by health or circumstance, to abandon wheat. The discomfort at public food gatherings (can I eat off this buffet? How do I know what’s safe for me?). The mockery one faces for eating.

If it’s true that only the intimately personal is truly universal, Graham achieves that here. No two gluten-sensitivity sufferers have identical symptoms; that’s what makes diagnosis so difficult. However, everyone who abandons gluten endures the same isolation: the same withdrawal from easy carbohydrates, the same alienation from bread-eating friends, the same journey through dietary blandness. His memoir of struggle can inform all readers, and offer hope that leaving gluten doesn’t mean leaving good food forever.

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