August 4, 2012

I often find the direction of my life changed on the spur of a moment. Reading about this, experiencing that…some previously unknown information or pursuit that lights the path forward. A friend and CSA member supplied the latest lightning strike by sharing an article with me. But before I cite it, I have to note that this is the second major shift initiated by my friend. After suffering a really stupendous bout of health problems, she and her two children finally found out something very, very important…they have celiac disease.

Never heard of it? It is beginning to come on the radar because it is an autoimmune disease in which the consumption of gluten, found in some cereal grains as well as a zillion processed foods, causes a cascade of serious reactions and illness in the body. Surely if nothing else, you have noticed the proliferation of “gluten-free” items in the grocery stores. I became intrigued as I read about celiac disease, as we grow some gluten-free items here that can be milled into flour. Namely, chestnuts, almonds, and dry beans (standard and garbanzo). I purchased a book in order to learn more, Called “Flour Power: A Guide to Modern Home Grain Milling” by Marleeta Basey. I hoped the book would steer me toward a mill that we could afford to purchase, and use to supply ourselves and our CSA members with diverse flours. But then the goal twisted a little…my farming partner is skilled at growing winter wheat, and as the years have gone by I have absorbed some of that know-how, though the learning curve would be steep if I tried to raise acres of it on my own. This book, largely about how to make and bake grain-based food from scratch, led to me taking a fork in the road I’ll describe as follows.

Modern milling is designed to provide the end users of wheat with a wide array of stable, uniform flour products that can be used in a range of settings, from home use, to bakeries/restaurants, to large commercial food processors. However the price of this stability [long shelf life, not needing refrigeration] is that the flour is nutritionally bankrupt. Wheat kernels, on their own, are loaded with protein, vitamins and minerals. About 85% of that is taken away by the time you consume the flour, and it doesn’t matter whether you choose bleached white or what you believe is whole wheat….it’s ALL crap. Learning this sobering truth created the determination to beat the system….grow a dedicated plot of wheat, harvest it, and retain roughly 600lbs. We have a quality small borrowed grain mill; so stage two involved using this ground wheat we grew ourselves (properly referred to as “wholemeal”) to make bread for home consumption, thereby bypassing all store-bought breads to the extent that we chose. And, in the last two years, we did it. It was a lot of work. Growing and harvesting dryland wheat is always a gamble of time and money. Then after harvest, one doesn’t just toss wheat that came out of the combine bin straight into a mill…it has to be laboriously hand-sifted, picking out debris and seeds and chaff before it can be milled. Care has to be taken that the mill doesn’t heat up; heat destroys the nutrients.¬†Once milled, the nutrients are highly perishable; it has to be used or frozen right away. Then there is the skill required to make bread worth eating as opposed to a doorstop. I made well over a dozen “crater loaves”, because of having an improper balance of ingredients. Trial, error, and detailed notes led to the solution over time….but what a pain that was!

So this is all great, right? Mission accomplished! Well, no, because I just came to another fork in the road, and I took it (thank you, Yogi). And this was the article I read yesterday, Three Hidden Ways Wheat Makes You Fat. Except, it really needs to be titled Three Hidden Ways Wheat Makes You SICK. I’ll sum up the article for those who can’t spare the time: wheat has been bred over the last half-century to feed the world, but in doing so, plant breeders have altered the grain to the point where it barely resembles its ancestors. A growing body of research indicates that our bodies react very poorly when the modern wheat is consumed, causing health problems ranging from full blown celiac disease to diabetes and chronic cardiac disease. Why? Because we are all allergic to it in varying degrees, and these allergic responses express themselves as diverse inflammation, in random bodily systems. Almost all of us consume wheat products nearly as much as water, and so we are all continually inflaming various bodily systems…it doesn’t take a genius to realize that this is an undesirable state of affairs.

But the doctor who wrote the wheat article glossed over something that to me is very important. He notes: “This is not the wheat your great-grandmother used to bake her bread.” And, “The Bible says, ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ Eating bread is nearly a religious commandment. But the Einkorn, heirloom, Biblical wheat of our ancestors is something modern humans never eat.” Well, that isn’t exactly true. There are small farms and farmers that HAVE kept Einkorn alive. As well as other ancient kinds of wheat like emmer, and strains that fall under the description of “heritage wheat”. Isn’t it a no-brainer that if modern wheat is the problem, ancient wheat can be the solution? I’m not suggesting that individuals suffering from serious gluten related illness can go scarfing down products made from these grains of antiquity, they can’t. Wheat contains gluten, whether ancestral or hybridized. But for those of us who are not visibly sickened by wheat, it can only lead to better health to turn back to grains that once were the dietary staple of so many civilizations. Do you want this for yourself? You don’t have to wait on Nevermore Farm. There are already farms that sell ancient grains, and they will grind it into flour just before sending it to you if you wish. Simply search Buying Heritage Grains online. I strongly encourage NOT buying any processed product already made from these grains. If you’re going to do it, do it right.

It will take some years to achieve this, but the new goal is: Learn to grow ancient cultivars of wheat. Find out what can do the best in our climate and soil. Gain a seed supply large enough to grow an acre or two….and later on, maybe more. Harvest and retain it, and then learn to bake with THAT. Ironically, this isn’t a return to Yucky. Everything I have read indicates that emmer and einkorn offer superior nutrition, flavor and texture in a loaf of bread compared to modern wheats. Artisan breadmakers seek it out and treat it like gold. What the ancient grains do not offer are the high yields of modern wheat, so it will take more land to grown less grain. But if there is one thing I’ve learned about farming, Bigger is NEVER Better; old varieties always taste better than modern ones and are prone to poorer yields and sometimes reduced resistance to cultural problems. There is always a trade-off. After the Great Depression, the goal of agriculture was that of Scarlett O’Hara: “I will never go hungry again!!” Nobody said anything about quality on the way to quantity….and that is a lot of why we have arrived at this sad condition.

I find myself travelling an odyssey of learning how we eat now, versus how we ate a few centuries ago. It has changed more than I could ever have imagined, and I know that these kinds of discoveries about “what’s wrong with our food” will go on and on. It is truly sad that a person almost has to become a recluse homesteader or a bit of an extremist in order to ensure the consumption of foodstuffs that are not harmful; but it really has come down to that. We have been so carefully deceived into thinking that we are being sold good food in our stores. Information like this should be in the headline of every paper, Oprah should devote a week of episodes to the problem, but I rest secure in the knowledge that the silence will be deafening. Don’t forget, the processed foods that most folks eat is a billion dollar industry, and there is another billion dollar industry selling the drugs and healthcare needed to treat all these mysterious modern ailments. Who knew?