Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Kneading ... er, Needing Wheat?

Back in the 1940's, the US government published a set of guidelines for healthy eating. It was based on the early twentieth century "food guide" developed by an early nutritionist to outline the kinds of things (and amounts) that children should be eating. It has gone through many modifications over the years, and most of us learned all about these wonderful recommendations when we were in school. The "USDA Food Pyramid" has permeated our culture.

The problem, according to Harvard scientist, Dr. Walter Willett, is that the original food pyramid is flawed and misleading. Much research regarding nutritional recommendations has been accomplished over the past hundred years, but the original recommendations haven't kept up with the new information. Additionally, it has been shown in some cases that a diet high in carbohydrates, as recommended by the food pyramid, may actually be the culprit in our current problems with obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

In short, according to some significant research, it's the wheat in the cake, and not the sugar. In fact, if we believe Dr. Atkins we can have our cake and eat the whole thing by ourselves, as long as it's half cake (Deus Ex Machina calls it "half cake", because it uses a half-pound of butter, a half bag of chocolate chips, and a half dozen eggs ;).

Working like I do, kind of in the medical field, I spend a lot of time thinking about and hearing about medical issues, and on the forefront, right now, is the whole gluten argument. Like fat in the 1970s gluten has been implicated in all manner of diseases (see above), and really, the evidence seems pretty neatly stacked against our daily bread.

The issue (and the unfortunate fact) is that American food is drenched in wheat-based products. I challenge anyone to come up with a meal plan that does not include a wheat-based carb, either as a side dish or an entree. It's not easy, and many of the "quicky go-to" meals (like pasta) are out if one is trying to eliminate wheat. Compound it with trying to eat local, which means that most quick-cooking grains (like rice) are out, and the dilemma becomes more clear.

Still, I was (and am) determined to make wheat-based products something other than the base of our meals, and so I refused to buy flour ... and then, we ran out.


For a week, my pickiest eater in the world ate nothing but the granola (which is little more than a flour-less oatmeal cookie, which is why she likes it so much ;) I make ... with yogurt, though, and so that was better, in my opinion than a bunch of bread.

And while there was no grumbling, I could see that my family wasn't happy. I came up with some creative solutions to our usual wheat-based choice (like adding pumpkin seeds to soup instead of crackers - which I actually, now, prefer), but they really would have preferred the bread ... or pasta.

One of my goals for this year is to eliminate wheat from our diet, and I still want to do it, because I think we're too dependent on a thing that might be difficult to find in the coming years. Perhaps, though, there's some wiggle room, and maybe I don't strive to "eliminate", but rather put it where it belongs, as a supplement to, and not a base of our daily intake. If we truly get wheat products into the supplemental category (at the top of the pyramid rather than the bottom), then, if/when we actually do find that we don't have wheat to enjoy, it won't be such a hardship on us, and we'll have discovered a plethora of alternatives.

This weekend was one of those experimental moments. Deus Ex Machina made, what Big Little Sister said tastes like "bread pudding" (a favorite of hers) without even a crumb. We've been wanting to make half cake with something that is locally available for a long time, and finally, this weekend, we did. Deus Ex Machina made it with blueberries. It was delicious! It didn't have the texture of half cake (which has a fudgy, cake-like consistency), which didn't surprise me. It was more like a souffle or a quiche. The important thing is now we know that we can make a bread pudding-like substitute using a half pound of butter, a half dozen eggs, a half cup of sweetner (we used raw sugar) and some blueberries and it bakes up quite nicely.

We kept the experiments going. I caved in and bought more flour, but I still R-E-F-U-S-E to bring home any store-bought bread product. Forget it, people. No more Hannaford brand English muffins for you!

But it's okay, because I'm learning that just about anything bread has six basic ingredients (flour, water/milk, yeast, salt, sweetner, oil/butter/lard), and the difference, most often, lies not in what's in it, but how it is cooked. Regular loaf bread goes through a couple of rises (one in an oiled bowl and one in the bread pan), and then is baked a low-temp oven - around 350°F. My favorite French bread (because it only takes an hour from start to finish, including baking time) takes only one rise, but bakes at a much higher temperature.

I've even made flat bread, and the first time I made Pitas, and they actually rose up like pita bread and we could actually cut them in half and stuff them, I thought I was in Disney land! It was like magic!. Naan is one of the coolest breads I've ever made, and it cooks on the grill (bread? on the grill? Oh, yeah, baby!), which is awesome during the summer or during a power outage, when the kids want bread, but we don't have time to wait for a regular loaf to bake.

My favorite new bread discovery is English muffins. The basic recipe is the same as for other breads (the recipe called for shortening, and I substituted lard, because I don't use shortening). I actually liked rolling out the dough and cutting them like biscuits (it's the southern girl in me ;). To make it that much better, though, they aren't baked or grilled. It's fried bread. Awesome!

I cooked them in our iron skillet on the woodstove.

Deus Ex Machina tells me they're as good as (the girls say better) than the store-bought ones, and at this point, I guess I'm not as concerned with the taste as I am with ... *I* did it!

I'm still working on lowering our wheat consumption, but if I can't get the pack to go cold turkey, at least I can limit how much they put into their bodies by how often I knead.


  1. Part of the problem, nutritionally speaking, with wheat and some other grains is that they have anti-nutrients that interfere with the absorption of minerals in the body. Different cultures used different grains, but most of them all dealt with grains by soaking them in an acidic medium such as yogurt, whey from yogurt, vinegar or lemon juice. Corn was/is soaked in lime water (nixtamalization) in South America. Beans should be soaked for similar reasons, and soy should be fermented as was traditional in asian cultures in foods such as tempeh as it is especially high in anti-nutrients. The Weston Price Foundation is an excellent resource for this kind of information. As are some other blogs focusing on traditional foodways. Wheat may not always be available to us, but grains have long been a part of our diet and will probably continue to be. Knowing how to prepare them to provide the most nutrition will help us to make the most of what little we use. Thanks for your blog, I'm a regular reader.

  2. Wheat is grown in Maine. There are many farmers around my region of Maine that grow wheat. There is a grist mill opening up in Skowhegan. Have you ever heard of the Kneading Conference in Skowhegan? It is held in the summer.

    We use buckwheat as a way to cut our wheat consumption. It too is grown in Maine and the famous ployes are made from this. We also use corn masa for making tortilla.

    If you have a grain mill you can grind dried beans into flours too.

  3. If you haven't already seen Carol Deppe's The Resilient Gardener, you *really* must check it out. She's gluten intolerant, allergic to wheat, and determined to grow her own food. She offers more detailed knowledge of corn, potatoes, and the three other crops that form the basis of her diet than any other writer I've come across. I'm definitely going to grow some flint corn this year, and see how I can incorporate it into our diet. I don't have any plan to give up wheat before I have to, but it just makes good sense to begin experimenting with the eventual replacement crop at my leisure - so to speak. Deppe was forced (by allergies) to do what we'll all be forced (by depletion) to do at some point in the future. I'm grateful that someone so meticulous and so dedicated has done that research and chosen to share it with the world.

    P.S. Sent you something last week about tea cozies. Did you get it?

  4. Thank you, Wendy, and thank you, Ing! I have baked my own bread for a couple of years now, and even have a grain mill to grind our own wheat and corn...Lately I have been experimenting with recipes, adding other grains, relying less on the wheat (even though we do grown our own). I am eager to try out the English muffins - I have stopped buying them at our local stores because of all the cr*#/ in them ;) - but I like the texture and flavour for a breakfast sandwich.

    Ing's information was very helpful..Most people don't realize that soy needs to be fermented - many of today's soy-based products have not gone through this process, and are not as good for us as people have been led to believe - because of the processing.

    I will look for more information on the Weston Price site - maybe I will find some recipes for the sorghum flour Ralph brought home from a new "locally-sourced" mill not far from us.

    Thanks again, to both of you - an enlightening (and potentially yummy!) blog .


  5. Ing - thank you for all of that great information. I didn't know most of it, although I do know that here in the US fermenting is way undervalued ;). I'll have to check out the Weston Price info more closely.

    Fleecenik - Although I haven't found a reliable source for Maine-grown wheat in my area, we do like the Maine-grown buckwheat flour (and Ployes? Oh, YUM!). It's not that I'm concerned about not finding wheat flours, but more that as oil prices continue to soar, the cost of growing wheat could make the cost of buying it prohibitively high. Back in 2008, the cost per pound for flour doubled in just a very short time. For me, it's a survival tactic to get my girls accustomed to eating something else - just in case ;).

    Kate - I'll have to check out Carol Deppe. And yes, I did get your email about tea cozies - thank you so much! With all of the various instructions I received, as soon as I get time to sew, I should be able to whip up something to go over my teapot with no trouble ;).

    Julie - I hoping that corn meal from field corn can become more of a stable in our diet. In fact, the Three Sisters will be given a prominent place in my garden this coming year as beans, corn, and pumpkin are all long-storage crops ... and famine food ;). And popcorn is my favorite snack :).

  6. I felt like I was kicking some major corporate ass when I kneaded my first loaf.
    Love it.

    Not to mention how cheap it is.

    Luckily I can buy local wheat. I wish everyone had that luxury.

  7. I'm so glad the info is useful. I get lots of great ideas from this blog so I'm happy to have something to contribute. I can give the links to some blogs that make soaking grains accessible if you like, but didn't want to do that without asking.

    Fleecenik, I've tried ground beans once in an idli along with brown rice, but haven't tried it as a flour. Something else to try, thanks! I don't think we're gluten intolerant, but do feel that we could round out our diet a little more.

    Which leads me to the recommendation for Carol Deppe's book. This is the second time I've seen reference to it and it sounds like a great resource. Thanks Kate.

  8. I don't know. "The rules" keep changing, and I think it may be because different people are hard-wired to better metabolize different foods. That could explain why the Atkins Diet (low carb, high fat) worked for some people but not others.

    I think I'm wired for less fat and more carbs, the "traditional" food pyramid diet — but Mrs. Fetched and The Boy are better suited for the opposite. Atkins would kill me, but they'd thrive on it. Gluten, lactose, all that stuff is okay for some people but not for others.

    Have you ever tried making flour from oak acorns? Red oak requires soaking to leech out the tannin, but white oak can be used right away. I'd like to try it… maybe next fall. We're lousy with red oak around the manor, and there's a creek nearby, so it would be a cheap experiment.