Who Needs Wheat?
How hard would it be for you to give up wheat?
I faced up to this question about a month ago when I was struggling with post-jet lag tummy troubles. It’s such a luxury to feel truly well, and when I don’t, I’m willing to do just about anything to set things right. I begin to eye all the ingredients in my kitchen with suspicion – not a nice state of mind for a food writer!
We had spent some time over the summer with a teenage boy recently diagnosed with celiac disease, who had to give up all gluten – a complex protein found in wheat, barley and rye. This change in diet had completely changed his life, and his experience came back to me as I surveyed my kitchen for tummy-plaguing culprits.
I decided to pretend it was Lent and gave up wheat.
It’s almost impossible to get a straight answer as to whether or not wheat is bad for you. There are those who are positively evangelical on the subject, putting gluten right up there with crack cocaine as an addictive and lethal substance. There are experts who blame any problems with wheat on the gradual genetic modification in the 1960s and 1970s of the plant to make it taller, hardier, more productive. There are others who believe that wheat, like any other ingredient in our diets, is healthful in moderation.
There is no doubt that wheat is very easy to consume. It’s the main ingredient in two foods that can live on our shelves or in our refrigerators for a long time: bread and pasta. Nothing is easier than to reach for two slices of bread and use them as the envelope for what are arguably the more nutritious parts of the meal: a slice of turkey, of Provolone, of avocado, red onion and a pile of arugula. Ditto for pasta: my daughter sees spaghetti as merely a convenient way to convey Bolognese sauce – chock-full of lovely lamb, carrots, celery, mushrooms and tomatoes – to her mouth. And there is nothing like a piece of toast or a bowl of penne rigate to soak up a slathering of Normandy butter… even I would shrink at consuming a tablespoon of butter straight, no chaser.
So my family embarked on what turned out to be a month-long experiment in avoiding wheat. It was surprisingly easy, although I’m sure it helped that I wasn’t necessarily dealing with an outright food allergy.
Bread and pasta, while lovely vehicles for many dishes, are bland, after all. There is generally little color, texture or flavor to the breads and noodles we commonly buy. They are meant to accompany more exciting foods, standing aside for the other ingredients to get all the attention.
Instead of two pieces of buttered toast to accompany my smoked salmon mousse, I reached for a pile of snappy Japanese rice crackers – supremely salty, crunchy and 8 calories each. Instead of tossing my Bolognese sauce with De Cecco, I spread it in a baking dish, covered it with mashed potatoes and baked it, reveling in that most comforting of comfort foods: shepherd’s pie.
When my family tucked into crispy Peking duck, the meltingly rich meat piled with cucumber batons, scallions and plum sauce, we wrapped it all in crisp leaves of Bibb lettuce instead of Chinese pancakes and no one complained one bit – and we got our daily ration of vitamins A and K into the bargain. Lettuce also makes a perfect container for a spoonful of rich turkey and three-bean chili.
Americans, especially Midwestern ones like my husband and me, expect every plate of supper to contain a recognizable protein, a vegetable or two, and a nice portion of carbohydrates. With garlic bread and noodles off the menu for a bit, we rediscovered Basmati rice fried with a handful of chopped broccoli and a pepper or two. We reached into our memories for a wonderful dish of grated potatoes baked with garlic, Emmental cheese and cream.
Many of our family’s favorite dishes (deep-fried haddock, bison meatballs, herb-crusted chicken) involve homemade breadcrumbs. I threw out the bag I had in the freezer and got to work instead with a box of admittedly dull wheat-free crackers, a dash of reviving Fox Point Seasoning and my food processor.
Even the traditional cheese board that finishes every British dinner party did not have to suffer. Leave aside the Carr’s Water Biscuits and instead help yourself to slices of fresh apple or pear for aged cheeses, or slices of fresh cucumber for a softer, fresh cheese.
When we felt that we really wanted something bread-like and no substitute would do – a bun to hold my chicken burger – we headed to the “free-from” aisle in our shop and came home with a variety of buns made from rice and tapioca flour. Perfectly good, served the purpose, indistinguishable from a “real” bun. I don’t think I would ever buy a wheat bun again. Our foray into gluten-free pasta, however, was met with a resounding “no.” Again, the wheat substitute was rice and tapioca, and we bought the best organic brand we could find. It was, ironically, off-puttingly floury, and when cooked for macaroni and cheese, very sticky and heavy. No more wheat-free pasta for us… so for the time being, no pasta at all.
I began to feel better, and then I felt wonderful. Normal. Of course the problem with any non-scientific experiment is that it’s virtually impossible to explain the results. Had I had a little bug that ran its course? Was it the stress of starting up the school-year routine that got me down? Or was it the effect of our grain-free lives that made me feel better?
Finally, Avery began to hallucinate at the thought of a piece of decent toast to go with her scrambled eggs. I bought a nice organic “bloomer loaf” as they’re called here in England and she was in heaven. As the great British food writer Nigel Slater will tell you, there is nothing like the smell of fresh toast to send anyone into paroxysms of nostalgic comfort.
That evening, reveling in feeling truly well for the first time in too long, I slipped down to the kitchen for my usual midnight snack: perhaps a piece of celery with peanut butter, or a scrambled egg of my own? And then I spied the loaf of bread. Toast. I popped a slice into my cherished Aga oven, waited five minutes, drew it out, perfectly golden and slightly crunchy. I spread a good blob of warm butter over it and sprinkled it with sea salt. I bit in. Pure happiness. I waited for something dire to happen, but nothing did.
In the morning I felt perfectly well, so my husband and I splurged on a loaf of gorgeous potato-rosemary-garlic delight from the incomparable Gail’s Bread. We piled our sandwiches high with roast chicken, creamy mozzarella, homemade pesto and plum tomatoes. And I felt wonderful.
I have come to the happy conclusion that I can live without wheat, quite without effort. Our family will continue to replace wheat with lots of other varied ingredients that probably contain more nutrition, and far fewer calories. But sometimes, nothing other than bread or pasta will do. And in those cases, I want my wheat to count, and to be special. I want to buy only bread with real ingredients, bread that goes stale in a day because that is what bread should do. I want my linguini carbonara to be a treat, made with the best Italian pasta, the freshest bacon, and cream from cows that people treat with love.
I can live without wheat, but I’m also glad I don’t have to.
Could you live without wheat?
Photo Credit: Avery Curran
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