I just finished reading Paul Graham’s memoir In Memory of Bread. I read this book because I was perplexed at the explosion of gluten-free products everywhere. I’m a diabetic and it used to be that shelves in supermarkets were filled with sugar-free items but now those have been overtaken by gluten-free. Now I know that for most people, this is just another trend, a way to lose weight or get healthy. And one day, another trend will come along and dethrone it. But I was curious about the underlying reason why these products were developed.
I first heard about celiac disease in church when the priest said that in the news there was this issue of a girl who couldn’t receive communion because the church didn’t have gluten-free communion wafers. Recently, at a professional association conference, I saw people eschew what was supposed to be their “gluten-free” lunch option because of the way it was prepared. And I thought that must be awful because by the time we ate, I was starving and ate all the courses including the cheesecake, which I shouldn’t have because I’m lactose intolerant.
Seriously, though, Paul Graham has recounted his experience from pre-diagnoses until the present. He is now healed from an almost mortal attack of the disease. I’m not even sure if it is right to classify it as a disease but more of an autoimmune response to gluten. Autoimmune “disease” is the body’s over-reaction that triggers the antibodies to destroy the body itself. Lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, celiac – there are about 80 types of them. There are theories that bacteria, viruses, drugs, chemical and environmental irritants can trigger them. In one study I read, stress was also suggested as a cause.
Celiac is unique though because having it cuts through the very heart of our sustenance – bread and other grain products. Like Oprah said in her Weight Watchers commercial: “I love bread. I eat bread every day. But now I just manage it.” If only it were that simple for celiacs. Paul Graham had a reaction so bad that he cannot even tolerate a whiff of anything that has gluten. In his memoir, he recounts how he and his friend Dave had to give up their home brewery because beer also contains gluten from the barley used to make it. Paul’s wife Bec decided to go gluten-free as well because they had to eliminate all sources of gluten in the house and she wanted to show solidarity out of love for Paul.
Together they experimented and tried to recreate foodstuff they once loved. For the most part they failed because (and Paul only realized this much later on) cooking and baking without gluten requires one to throw everything you know and create food in a totally different way. Cooking is a science, a series of chemical reactions. One cannot expect the different materials to require the same processes. Paul and Bec persevered but they also sought out other people who have succeeded in creating food that celiacs can eat.
Paul has done extensive research on how bread and other glutinous food have become our staple and why so many people are now made sick by it. I have to say his research is impressive. But most of all I found his book to be delightful to read. Don’t let the research scare you. He has a wonderful way of writing that makes you feel like you are just on the porch talking to each other. Paul Graham must be a wonderful teacher. He is an associate profession of English at St. Lawrence University. He has written essays for Best Food Writing anthology. His book In Memory of Bread can be found on Amazon and other bookstores.