A Literal Crumb: An Overview of the new Ag. Sec., Commodity Crops, Wheat, Bread, & Celiac
It’s been a dynamic few weeks on the policy front, although unfortunately food and agriculture topics haven’t gotten much traction. President Trump recently announced the appointment of former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue as his Secretary of Agriculture, the last of his appointments to become official. Governor Perdue has a largely unfortunate record—a climate change skeptic who cut funding for food safety programs right before a major salmonella outbreak, and a salesman of grain seed and pesticides – An economy I take serious issue with.
Why? Many (most?) of the fruit and vegetable foods we now eat are the products of only a handful of seed companies. These companies have created what are called “terminator” seeds. In other words, they lack the ability to reproduce on their own, forcing farmers to repurchase them every year. There is a great overview of this practice here. The seed and pesticide industry (they are one and the same) is now dominated by several companies worldwide, including Monsanto, Syngenta, Dow and DuPont. Dow and Dupont (primarily chemical companies that went into the seed industry to sell more pesticides) have been trying to merge for a couple of years now but have been met with some blowback by officials concerned with antitrust violations. President Trump has indicated he is supportive of the merger and has chosen the CEO of Dow to sit on his manufacturing advisory council. Perdue, another fertilizer titan, seems unlikely to voice any concerns with the merger, although he has not apparently said anything publically.
Reading about Governor Perdue’s background in commodity grains like wheat encouraged me learn more about the evolution of wheat in this country, which has changed dramatically in the last century and how that is changing our food system—and possibly our evolution—further.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I have Celiac Disease, which means I can no longer properly digest wheat, barley, or rye. And I’m not a one-off. Some estimates put the number of Celiacs in the United States at no fewer than three million people. Gluten free diets are very popular now which has undoubtedly increased the options available for people like me. But the risk of getting contaminated food is still high and can wreck havoc for several days.
With that in mind, I spent some time digging in to the history of wheat to learn more about one of our biggest commodity crops. Here’s what I found.
First, let me note that there is a myriad of literature on wheat since it’s one of the foundational agricultural crops of human society. Thus, please be reminded that I’m not trying to be exhaustive here. What I am interested in is the changes in wheat crops and the corresponding proliferation of celiac disease (although, of course correlation does not mean causation.) More on that shortly.
Wheat has been around since about 10,000 B.C. and cultivated in the middle east since about 9000 B.C. The Egyptians first baked bread in about 3000 B.C. Wheat came to the new world with Columbus on his second voyage, but really took hold as a cultivated crop later in the 19th century. Not surprisingly, if you know anything about agriculture, until about a century ago there were hundreds –even thousands – of varieties of wheat around the world, offering an array of flavors and health benefits. As the industrial revolution swept across America, it consolidated both the breeds of wheat and also the locations it was grown. To this day the middle of the country, where wheat became the bumper crop, is referred to as the Bread Basket.
Coinciding with the post-war industrial boom that followed the Second World War was the so-called “Green Revolution,” a period of intense scientific advancement in agriculture. Among the most famous of these innovations was the creation of “dwarf wheat,” the result of years of crossbreeding different varietals. The resulting grain is resistant to fungus, consistently has high yield of at least 3x previously existing wheats, and is strong enough to remain vertical even when laden with grain. Dwarf wheat is credited with saving millions of lives around the globe, particularly in the Indian subcontinent where its introduction staved off mass famine. Dwarf wheat’s inventor, Norman Borlaug, received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work and the Green Revolution has been heralded as “tremendously successful.”
Unfortunately one side effect of this new and improved crop may be that it likely contains more of the proteins that make up what is commonly called gluten. Gluten, when combined with water, is the reason your bread and pizza crusts and bagels are chewy. It’s also what holds doughs like phyllo or croissant together when it’s rolled into such thin layers. In people like me, gluten triggers an autoimmune response that strips the villi – the intestinal apparatus that enables you to digest your food and absorb nutrients – thus leading to a whole host of unpleasant side effects that you can look up yourself if you’re so inclined. (Sincerest apologies to everyone who lived with me between 2006-2014.)
Celiac can be caused – or triggered, as is likely in my case – by any number of things but mostly it is genetic. If someone in your immediate family has it, odds are higher that you do too.
The only cure, to date, is to completely avoid wheat (and barley and rye, which have similar proteins.) This can be a bummer and makes your life less fun because eating out and getting takeout gets infinitely harder (professional kitchens are rarely good at separating food and even having someone touch something with wheat and then touch your gluten free food can cause you to react.) It’s also a bummer if you like any of the following: Beer, whiskey, pizza, bagels, spanakopita, soft pretzels, croissants, soy sauce… etc. However: Partly due to increased awareness and partly due to the nature of trendy, fad diets, gluten free food is easier than ever to come by.
There’s also an uptick in good gluten free cookbooks. My favorites, as I’ve mentioned before, come from America’s Test Kitchen. I use their flour blend and follow their recipes nine times out of ten when I want something carby.
Because good bread is hard to find commercially, I only really eat it when I’ve got the time to make it myself. It takes time and some patience to get it right and deal with stickier dough, but the results can be pretty great. ATK’s English Muffins (recipe in this earlier post) are always a hit and double as burger buns so I try to keep some in the freezer.
Last week, though, I just had to have a good, chewy, flavorful boule to go with a rich beef stew that was bubbling away, so back to ATK I went and once again I was not disappointed. I’ve adapted it ever so slightly, but it was warm and hearty and harkened back to a time when I was able to eat anything I wanted. J The final verdict – an unofficial and completely made-up scale of regular wheaty person reviews – was delicious, so I’m including it here. Perhaps it will get you through February, the year’s most dreary month.
Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen’s How Can It Be Gluten Free, Vol. 1.
Makes 1 loaf.
- 1 ¾ cups of warm water
- 2 large eggs
- 14 oz. gluten free flour blend
- 3 oz. ground flaxseeds
- 1 ½ oz. nonfat dry milk powder
- 3 T. powdered psyllium husk
- 2 T. sugar
- 1 T. yeast
- 1 ½ tsps. Salt
- ¾ tsp. baking soda
- Mix water and eggs together in a bowl. Using a mixer, blend four, flax, milk powder, psyllium, sugar, yeast, salt and baking soda.
- Add water and egg mixture slowly to dry ingredients until fully incorporated. Increase speed to medium and beat for about 6 minutes.
- Transfer dough to greased parchment paper sitting in an 8 inch, oven safe pan and shape into a boule. Make a mark on the top with a sharp knife and spray the top with water. Cover loosely in plastic wrap and let rise for about two hours.
- An hour before baking, move oven rack to lowest position and insert baking (pizza) stone. Preheat to 400 F.
- After bread has risen, remove plastic wrap and spray loaf with water again. Reduce oven temp to 350. Bake until brown, firm, and hollow sounding when you tap it (about 1 ¼ hours), rotating pan half way.
- Let cool for about 2 hours before serving.
- Enjoy with fresh butter, jam, soup, or anything else that would be improved with fresh bread (i.e. everything.)