It wasn’t a waste of time for me, a gluten-free woman in her 40’s, to attend a few hours of a two-day baking workshop with Dave Miller. Why, when wheat jumpstarts an inflammatory cascade inside me that ultimately triggers a slog through asthma attacks? (More on this later.) Sure, Miller is considered one of the finest master bakers of whole wheat bread in the country. But even if his bread elevates the humble loaf into a realm filled with phrases like “wheat terroir” and “heritage levain” what is the point if I can’t enjoy it?
Because it’s not wheat’s fault. And for that knowledge, I’m grateful.
Along with being a master baker, Miller is a passionate historian. And in addition to helping a class of over 20 students understand whole wheat baking, he tracked wheat’s evolution from humankind’s first cultivated wheat, Einkorn, to a loosely defined group of modern grains that we eat today. Those early ancient grains, very closely connected to their wild cousins, all presented challenges for farmers. They had thick hulls that would cling tenaciously to their grains, making them difficult to process. When ripe, a good wind through a field would knock your harvest into the dirt – a great attribute for a wild, self-seeding plant. Not so great for a farmer who depends on quantity to achieve a workable product and feed his/her community.
There were good points too. Einkorn and other wild wheats did well in poor soil. They also survived on minimal water. Hardiness made them simple to grow. But as the ability to select and preserve desirable mutations arose, compromises had to be made. A new wheat could have a thinner hull that easily separated from its grain, and/or the ability to stay connected to its stalk when ripe, or have a fatter, denser grain. But it also might demand more water, better soil, and improved processing. We’ve had to evolve alongside it.
Controversy and speculation about wheat and whether or not it is or isn’t good for you runs wild both on the Internets and off. And for a while I’ve thought that maybe my lifelong absorption of modern wheat breads had caught up to my aging body. I blamed it for triggering some of the worst asthma flare ups of my adult life and worse, actually causing the asthma in the first place. These thoughts made me angry and resentful. Stupid humans. Polluted, over manipulated, over processed wheat was our own fault. And I blamed it for killing my wellness.
But I’ve had asthma for a long time. It’s an auto-immune disease that tells my immune system to attack one of my most vital organs when it even gets a sniff of irritation or inflammation. It’s a pain in the ass and sometimes requires heavy steroids to knock it into submission. It was also awakened not by wheat, but by my own genetics and environment. The soup that is Felicia includes it in both parental lines. Luck of the gamete draw.
This body has a more than a few kinks in its miles of genetic chain. And being sensitive to gluten – and other things – is part of my genetic make up, my own evolution. A gluten elimination diet suggested by my doctor revealed I did indeed have a sensitivity to it and with great sadness I kissed my last croissant goodbye. But I also haven’t had an asthma attack since. And I like breathing.
In an age of wildy unfounded anecdotal clap trap, I feel I have to say that your own mileage may vary and I’m not interested in hearing about the latest, non-scientific blog post that says that wheat is a slow poison designed to undo the human race. I also realize it sounds like I’m joining the clap trap when I say it’s really not.
Miller’s lecture, his knowledge and research, and his careful explanations, backed up by science, revealed that there is no less or more gluten in so-called heritage grains. Turns out most of those heritage grains are actually (eep!) modern grains, or vice versa since the definitions are pretty fluid. It’s not poisoning you. The bottom line is this: Know your body. Know the grain. And know how to process it.
That was my take away. That and forgiveness. I forgive you, wheat. Even though you don’t really need it. I do, though.
The point Miller so succinctly made to me, and hopefully to others in the room, was that we all make some pretty stupid decisions when given very little information. Fear is a horrible component of any decision making process and Miller did an excellent job of dispelling a lot of my own.
I still can’t eat bread without courting inflammation. That’s just my body’s lot in this life and I accept it. But I don’t look at a loaf with bitterness, suspicion, or dread anymore. And I’ve reignited a love of baking bread that began in my teens (Thank you, James Beard!). I can appreciate the elasticity of perfectly kneaded dough under my palm. I love flipping up the towel and seeing a living, growing thing. I speak kindly to it and praise its rise. Forming perfect rosettes and rolls by folding and pinching and braiding holds a special delight for me. Steaming the oven, making a moist, hot place for a perfect crust feels like ancient magic as I toss a cup of water onto the hot oven floor and swiftly close the door.
Steve eats it and it makes me happy again. I’m making bread as I write this, or rather it’s making itself. I’m trying the same recipe I did last week in order to better understand the process and master the details. No two loaves are the same. The dough responds to myriad variables and it’s the baker’s job to recognize and respond to them. It’s a relationship I’m eager to repair.
This two day class was organized by the Los Angeles Bread Bakers and hosted by Mariposa Creamery in Altadena. Mariposa is also one of the teaching homes of the Institute of Domestic Technology which organizes many equally inspiring foodcraft series, helping to cement Altadena’s long standing tradition of supporting and growing local knowledge of urban homesteading and small-scale farming. Also, the creamery is housed in the historic Zane Grey Estate, and I will always be grateful that Gloria Putnam and Stephen Rudicel saw fit to open up their home and share this gorgeous treasure with the community. Full Disclosure: I have taught at the annual Nocino Festival at Mariposa Creamery for two years now. And I spend a lot of time with the goats at Mariposa, most recently with my love muffin, Biscuit. Here’s a window on our relationship: