Tuesday, May 4, 2010


I am an unapologetic modernist.

I believe that each expressive medium has unique and innate traits that set it apart from all other mediums. These traits are what must by exploited if one wishes to make the strongest and truest art with that medium.

Some examples: Photography is innately precise of focus and two-dimensional in print. The canon of photographic art is strongly weighted toward those who’ve realized and used these traits (Henri Cartier-Bresson; Diane Arbus; Barbara Morgan).

Paint, on the other hand, is notably plastic and innately colored. Although painting existed for thousands of years before the “invention” of modernism, embracing this philosophy allowed painters to discover whole new ways of making art (Mark Rothko; Jackson Pollock).

To use a medium in a way that mimics another is anathema to modernism. Thus painters should not attempt to be representational (that’s photography’s task) nor should photography dress itself in “effects” such as fuzzy focus or hopped-up color.

Today, modernism has a bit of a bad name. It has been called reactionary, sexist, anti-political, limiting and just plain old-fashioned. Nonetheless I tap the modernism in my heart whenever I look at art – and whenever I fire up my oven.

Foods, being a creative medium, have innate and unique traits. A carrot has a particular and immediately recognizable taste and texture. To shred up a carrot, alter it with chemicals that make it taste like chicken, and remold it into the shape of a drumstick is absurd – as well as being wasteful and pointless. (Unless you happen to be a food corporation and discover that altering foods is more profitable than selling unaltered foods).

To be a modernist with food is an honorable thing. And, as the slow food and honest food movements have demonstrated, it is a practice that’s politically progressive, anti-sexist, new-fashioned and limitlessly expressive.

Unfortunately, much of gluten-free baking is anti-modernist in that too many of us try to make things that are “just like” wheat-based foods. What we often end up with are overly complicated and not-necessarily-healthy concoctions. Yes, some are quite yummy – but that’s not the point. My complaint is the flavors and textures that are being overlooked in the process.

Gluten-free grains are greater in number and far more varied in taste and texture than the dominant gluten-grain – wheat. For example: amaranth tastes like grass, buckwheat has a hint of rhubarb and teff is indescribably smoky. The best ways to cook and combine these grains is not to treat them just like wheat, or to try and make them taste just like wheat, but to pick out and exploit their unique characteristics. Mix amaranth with banana and coconut to see what I mean, or blend a buckwheat pancake batter with walnut oil.

As if the repertoire of flavors wasn’t big enough just cooking grains or milling and baking with them, still more complexity awaits when natural leavens are made from them. All GF leavens have a beery scent, but buckwheat tastes meaty, teff is redolent of rye, oats has the rhubarb-y sharpness and millet carries hints of cheese.

Natural leavens made from GF grains are, I think, the largest new flavor arena for GF bakers to explore. Now as never before bakers have access to all the world’s grains as well as the motivational knowledge to use them. By this I mean a growing understanding of celiac disease.

I think the best GF baked products that appear in the future will be developed out of modernist principles. Figuring out ways to enhance, celebrate and deepen the flavor traits that GF flours come with is a creative project that will last many lifetimes.

If we GF bakers follow modernist principles we will develop a food culture that outlives the pharmaceutical intervention in celiac disease, which is inevitable. I’d like to believe that a comprehensive GF food culture is just as inevitable, but it probably is not. Still, I think it is my mission to help it arrive.

So tonight I’m baking teff rolls with pecans, golden raisins, sesame seeds, brown sugar and walnut oil. The leaven is dark teff, which I’ve figured out how to sweeten and still do it's thing. 

These you have to taste to believe.

No comments: