Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Embracing the Villain

            Here’s an axiom of American life: every  food you love will one day be proclaimed evil.

This year, the demon of choice is gluten. Yes, I know: some of us, maybe most of us, have a medically demonstrated immune reaction to gluten and get sick from it. We don’t believe gluten is evil, it is evil.
            Here’s a personal fact: If I could eat gluten I would. No hesitation.

            Now, when a drug comes along that “cures” CD, I'll have to think about it. My reasons are political, not nutritional. But sometimes non-nutritional thinking is the best thing you can do for your gut. Or not thinking at all. Enjoying sensations. Such as aesthetics.

            Gluten is good primarily for what it does aesthetically. Its elasticity is unmatched, and it is malleable too, allowing bakers to create products that have crunch, moisture, stretch, and flake – sometimes all at once. These traits add immeasurably to the “mouth feel” of foods. In other words, gluten is a media as essential to baking as paint is to art.

            In most civilizations. it is aesthetics that drive taste. Putting “mouth feel” ahead of nutrition might sound odd, but it accurately reflects the way we relate to food.

            There are problems in this way of thinking, of course. By appealing to our preference for sensation over logic, the food industry is able to dump far more calories into our mouths than we need, with predictably unfortunate results to the collective waistline (and non-so-unfortunate results to the industry’s bottom line).  But if we are to call ourselves human, we must I think acknowledge that taste, feel, smell, richness and texture of food is crucial to our sense of well-being. Food is nourishing sensually and spiritually, not just biologically.

            But when it does come to biology, There’s another reason gluten is good: It is a protein.

            In a highly developed country, proteins are not that difficult to find. You could argue that most civilized peoples consume a surplus. But the fact that most of us obtain proteins in the form of meat is environmentally  and economically problematic. From the point of view of our long-term survival, it makes more sense to develop better sources of vegetable proteins – providing of course these don’t rely on destructive cultivation practices. So, cultivating high-protein grains is a good thing – right up there with growing better beans.

            It’s been argued that the development of high-gluten wheat cultivars is responsible for an increase in celiac disease, a theory that,  if shown to be true, undermines my thesis. But so far this assertion has not been backed up with fact. It’s an opinion, as lacking in basis as the belief that all cultivated grains are indigestible. (Yes, I have actually heard that).

            Getting back to basics: we need to recall that gluten does not exist per se in grains. It is “grown” or “developed” out of two pre-gluten proteins by the addition of water.  Time, temperature, humidity, chemistry and physical effort shape the way gluten develops. This is where the chef’s creativity emerges, and perhaps an opportunity for us CD sufferers. Is there something that could be done to the gluten-forming chain of events that would create non-reactive proteins, but with the same aesthetic properties? Or, stepping back a bit further in time, could the molecular structure of the pre-glutens be altered? This would have to happen in the plant, and it raises the question: could a non-reactive gluten be bred?
I’m thinking, yes. A species that can breed today’s sweet corn from its wild ancestors is capable of just about any agricultural trick.

            I’m very happy with the GF baked goods I make. Their flavors are unique; as good as, and not at all similar to, wheat, rye, barley or oat flavors. I’m also convinced that eating whole grains, and flours that aren’t laced with dough enhancers or synthetic vitamins, and such uniquely high protein cereals as teff and amaranth, is healthier.  But it definitely is true that the colloids I use instead of gluten- Xanthan gum, Guar gum, HPMC, Zein – are problematic, expensive and inferior.

            So, gluten is good. It is cheap, aesthetically superior and an excellent nutrient. I’m looking forward to the day a variety appears that’s non-reactive. When that day comes, I’ll pick up all my GF flours ….  and use them along with the new gluten flours to make the best damned bread on the planet!

           Today's tip:

Making a pie crust? Instead of rolling your xanthan-sticky crust between two layers of expensive parchment, cut open a big plastic freezer bag, dust it with rice flour, and use that instead. You can even wash and reuse it.

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