When Paul Graham was suddenly diagnosed with a serious wheat allergy at the age of thirty-six, he was forced to say goodbye to traditional pasta, pizza, sandwiches, and more. Gone, too, were some of his favorite hobbies, including brewing beer with a buddy and gorging on his wife’s homemade breads. Struggling to understand why he and so many others had become allergic to wheat, barley, rye, oats, and other dietary staples, Graham researched the production of modern wheat and learned that not only has the grain been altered from ancestral varieties but it’s also commonly added to thousands of processed foods.
In writing that is effortless and engaging, Paul explores why incidence of the disease is on the rise while also grappling with an identity crisis—given that all his favorite pastimes involved wheat in some form. His honest, unflinching, and at times humorous journey towards health and acceptance makes an inspiring read.
BAF: I guess it sounds like you encountered a triple whammy, in a sense, that you brew, you love to eat and your wife was a baker. All of a sudden that was all gone.
Paul: That’s exactly the way it happened. The brewing and the baking started right around early 2012 and it was in November of 2012 that I was diagnosed, so that by the time that I got my diagnosis my friend and I had about 25 gallons of beer put up in our house and my wife was really getting accomplished with the bread-making, so I really had the rug pulled out from under me for sure.
BAF: I don’t think anybody who’s ever been in that situation can really appreciate how devastating it is to, somebody will say, “Okay, so you just don’t eat bread,” or whatever, but it’s a whole change in lifestyle and that can be actually quite devastating.
Paul: It can be and I think that when you’re dedicating yourself to making those foods at home and you’re enjoying them regularly you really do, very quickly perceive just how much of a pale imitation gluten free really is. That was definitely what led to the withdrawal and a lot of the despair, and the angst. It was also what led to that quest to try to beat the game by any means necessary, really.
BAF: You didn’t just say, okay, I can’t eat gluten so you didn’t just write a book about being intolerant, you really delved into as to why is this happening all of a sudden.
Paul: To some degree that’s just the way my mind works. I didn’t set out to write a memoir, actually. What I really wanted to do was situate myself kind of at the nexus of a couple of different threads and one of them was the historical thread because historically no grain has rarely, if ever, meant no beer or no bread. When you fall out of that tradition of being able to eat foods made of wheat and barley, if you eat any kind of a substitution it turns out that you actually join a tradition that’s just as rich and just as long as the tradition of eating wheat and barley. That was really interesting to me and the other thing, the other thread that I found myself, kind of that intersection of, is all right, well what’s up with the wheat? Why is this happening?
I didn’t know it when I was diagnosed but I’m part of a cohort of people, I guess you could say, that has seen a 4-fold increase in the diagnosis rate since about 1950 and I really wanted to unpack some of the scholarship that was exploring that because it’s actually quite complicated. As I think you’ve probably read, the best answer that physicians, and immunologists, and researchers can come up with right now is that we don’t know what the cause is but it could be a lot of different things.
BAF: What has changed in the wheat now as compared to back then?
Paul: Well broadly speaking there’s 3 schools of thought there. One of the schools of thought says, yes, that the foods that we are eating are fundamentally different than what people were eating 50, 100, 1000, 5000 years ago. Sometimes that’s been the result of genetic modification but more often than not it’s actually just been the result of hybridization, which is a pretty natural agricultural process. The other school of thought, actually, is that our guts have changed and that especially with the advent of hygienic practices, antibiotics, sub-therapeutic antibiotic treatments for livestock, we have actually compromised our guts and have actually comprised as well the genetic encoding for gut flora and that kind of thing, and we’ve passed it on down to our children.
There’s evidence to support both of them and that’s why the third camp kind of broadly agrees that it could be a product of all of those things. That’s kind of where I fall in the book. I’m not an immunologist, I’m not a physician, I’m not a researcher. What I’m doing is I’m just synthesizing these debates and laying them out so that hopefully people can understand them a little bit better but I find that one pretty compelling and pretty grim. That actually it’s been all of these changes within the last century or so that are kind of coming home right now to have an effect on us.
And what was interesting in my case was that because we’re right on top of so many great farmers here and because we’re on top of so much great livestock, people who have small farms is about 50 acres and they sell largely through CSA’s to the local community or they do mail-order. I actually have been eating off of the industrial food chain for quite a while, so it’s not as though within the last 5, 10 years I was really pumping a lot of this stuff into my system. I was pumping a lot of gluten into my system so that might’ve had something to do with it. There is a theory that says you can basically bring an onset of celiac disease if you have the proper genetics by bombarding your system, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
It’s a really difficult thing to hear because when you lose the cornerstone of the Western diet the first thing you want to know is why and then basically all anybody can do is say, well, we think it might be some of these things, and then shrug and send you off with some rice.
BAF: You started, this new lifestyle, for lack of a better word, and then from there you were able to delve more into the history of everything and how things developed.
Paul: I really did become curious about the alternate eating history, I guess you could say, in grain-heavy countries because what I perceived was that a lot of the fake imitation glutenous foods, like gluten-free bread, just about anything gluten-free that is imitating it it was just not very good. I began hauling out my culinary encyclopedias and just looking at places where there were not grain-heavy traditions or substitutions. That was where I discovered one food, for instance, the bread from Nice and also sections of Italy called socca, which turns out to be quite delicious.
BAF: From the chickpea.
Paul: It’s equal parts chickpea flour, and water, and very often some olive oil, and sometimes some herbs, and sometimes some cheese. It’s a flatbread. These unleavened flatbreads were the go-to when people either A, couldn’t afford wheat or barley, or the crops crashed and they couldn’t get it because peas, and beans, and pulses, they all grew pretty readily. I began to look into a lot of those flatbread traditions and also, of course, corn tortillas and that kind of thing. You know, the more that I ate out of those traditions the more that I said this is the way that I should really be doing it rather than buying a loaf of gluten-free bread. Yet at the same time I remain kind of haunted by bread. I still wanted to see it on the table, I still wanted to eat it.
I continued to investigate and that was how I found the America’s Test Kitchen and everything that they were doing. When I talked to Jack Bishop he confirmed a lot of my suspicions, which is that you take a lot of hard work, it’s not cheap, and it takes a lot of time to make a good loaf of gluten-free bread. It seems like some people are getting better at it. I’ve since met some bakers from across the country after the book went to press who said, “Well, this is what I do and it turns out that they’re pretty good,” but it’s difficult to make it in volume, and it’s difficult to ship it, and it’s very expensive.
BAF: Do you find that it is getting better over the years?
Paul: I do find that it’s getting better and it’s difficult for me to say why. I think that people are experimenting with flour blends and they’re also experimenting with processes a little better. I think that really the secret lies in percentages. Anything that’s too heavy on white rice flour is going to be gritty, or brown rice flour. Anything that leans too heavily on tapioca, which actually can get you a nice chew, kind of like I remember from a good baguette, anything that has too much of that is going to taste kind of fake and maybe even just a little bit greasy on the palette.
What you have are people who are working with all kinds of different grains, like I just had one the other day that had chia seeds and teff in it. That was in addition to some of the other usual gluten-free suspects. The woman who came up with this loaf, it took her a long time and she invested a lot of money in experimentation. Those are the people, I think, who are really going to be making breads that are worth eating if they can stay afloat.
BAF: That’s interesting about the mixtures.
Paul: It really is. I mean, I can kind of understand the chia seeds because chia seeds, when they get wet they get gelatinous and that seems to be the challenge, providing something that imitates those really strong protein chains so that when the bread rises it can actually expand, which was what we had a problem with when we started doing gluten-free baking. What we’ve since done is we’ve discovered psyllium husk, which bonds to the rice and creates good strong protein chains. That works pretty well. Then I guess on the other side I would say that brewers are doing essentially the same thing. You know, early on the beers were pretty terrible. They were relying almost exclusively on sorghum, which is a really cloying distinctive taste to me.
BAF: It’s very sweet, isn’t it?
Paul: It is. It actually, if you try a Bard’s beer, for instance, which is like the original gluten-free sorghum beer, if you’re especially used to hophead IPAs or something like that, or even if you’re just used to a clean, crisp, light beer, you’re going to get something that’s a little bit like aspartame on your palette when you drink that. It’s quite unpleasant. Now what you have, though, is you have brewers like the Harvester Brewing Company out in Portland, they’re using red lentils, and they’re using peas, and they’re using coffee. They’re throwing everything into the work pot and the result is something that is actually highly complex and highly drinkable, so it’s good that the interest is there.
BAF: That’s good for the brewer in you
Paul: The thing that I’ve started doing that’s replaced my brewing of beer is I’ve started making my own hard cider. In the fall what I’ll do is I’ll go out to my friend’s house. He’s got an orchard and we take a couple hundred pounds of apples. All day long we press them by hand. We get a good quantity of juice and then he also grows hops, so what I do is I dry-hop the cider and that’s a great way of scratching that itch for the bitter floral notes of hops. I did that for the first time last year and I’m going to do it again this
BAF: It sounds like you’re back on track eating wise in the sense that you’re not just saying ‘I’ve got eat gluten-free’. You realize that there’s a lot of good food out there that isn’t, that never had anything to do with gluten.
Paul: Absolutely. If there’s 1 gift that celiac disease did give me, say it gave me a couple of gifts but one of them is that it absolutely made me a better cook. I expanded my repertoire into food cultures and traditions that I probably would’ve been slow to experiment with. Might never have experimented with them. Right now I’m working my way through David Thompson’s book on Thai food, which is wonderful. Simultaneous to that I’m reading Diana Kennedy’s book on Mexican food. These are 2 traditions that are almost completely gluten-free and they’re inherently gluten-free so you don’t have to rejigger any recipes. You don’t have to make any approximations. You can follow them to the letter and really teach yourself some things.
That’s become my biggest piece of advice for anybody who’s suffered a major hole in their kitchen from some kind of a food allergy. It’s just go out there, get a good cookbook and dig into a tradition that doesn’t use a whole lot of those foods because it makes you a better cook and it makes eating fun again.
BAF: It almost seems if one is diagnosed with celiac disease or some sort of intolerance that it’s almost, it’s as if you’re being punished, that it just seems you’re doomed to eat bad food but when you realize, if you just turn around, look around a bit, there’s a whole heck of a lot out there.
Paul: I think it says something about us that our first instinct when we get a diagnosis like that is to head to the grocery store and get all the substitutions, which are expensive, more expensive much of the time and not nearly as delicious. You know, you really do have to rewire your brain and give yourself permission to step outside of that comfort zone in the very habitual patterns that make up our eating preferences if you think about it. A lot of people don’t range very far. I always did range far it’s just that I was going to cling to the very last to be able to get those foods in my diet and keep them there. I do still have them there but I cook with buckwheat, and I cook with rice noodles, and lentils, and flours that are basically indigenous to Indian cuisine. Corn, and tortillas, and masa, and I make arepas and those kinds of foods now, and I like them just as much.
And Blinis. Blinis. Buckwheat blinis. Oh my gosh. From Normandy, basically.
BAF: I’m thinking about Dan Barber’s Third Plate, I don’t know if you’ve read that or not.
Paul: I have read that book.
BAF: He talks about you have the wheat but then you have all these other plants that you can use besides it that you can do just the same or more interesting things that people don’t know about. Then he talked more about how it helps the farmer, helps the land to use these other plants. It ties in with, here you are talking about these same products in a different sense, so I find that a very interesting connection there.
Paul: What I felt when I moved away from wheat and I started to think about why I had become so basically hardwired to want it, you really do begin to see just how historically-based our food preferences are. People used to be paid in bread. People used to be paid in wheat. Revolutions were launched and governments were toppled for want of wheat and want of bread. We’re not organizing our politics or our economies like that anymore but I do think that there’s a lot of inertia that just carries straight through in the form of things like commodity grains. People love wheat because it’s highly bankable and you can store great quantities of it and know that you can ride out periods of shortage. Now we’re making so much of it that shortage is basically now so rare, but it used to be the rule and not the exception.
BAF: People say ‘do you have the bread’ or ‘I don’t have the dough to buy the new car.’
Paul: You break bread or companions. Literally the etymology of the word companion is someone that you share pan or bread with. It is really at the center of our eating traditions and so much of our identity. That was why my mind went in that direction when I was writing the book.
BAF: Celiac disease, is it predominant in North America or Europe? I assume it’s mostly Western wheat-based cultures that have it but it is more prevalent in the US or in North America?
Paul: The places where it’s most prevalent include Ireland, Finland and Sweden. Proportionally those countries have the highest diagnosis rates per capita but they’re also not sparsely populated. I mean, there’s healthy populations there but it’s not like the United States. The United States is somewhere in the middle. People of European ancestry, and of Northern African, and Middle Eastern ancestry, they have the HLA immune markers in the greatest proportion. African descent and people of African descent, Mesopotamiadescent tend not to have the HLA markers that put them at risk for celiac disease.
One of the interesting things that’s beginning to emerge is that people are seeing celiac disease in places where they didn’t think they would see it for a long time, if ever. Diagnosis rates are rising in China, which, depending upon where they live is either a highly wheat-based or rice-based culture. Rice is being displaced by wheat in China right now because wheat is seen as the grain of ascendancy there. It’s a Western grain so Chinese people, especially rural Chinese people, want to eat.
BAF: Is it because it is a sign of wealth? I guess, going back to what you were talking about before.
Paul: It’s a sign of wealth. We’re seeing some interesting diagnosis patterns there as well as in India and Central America. While you do need to have the genetics for it it turns out that it’s not just people of European ancestry who are showing it.
BAF: A while back I was talking to somebody who had celiac. She said it’s really annoying because one of the problems with celiac is that it’s almost trendy not to eat gluten now and she said that’s really frustrating. She said it’s that people are, viewing her health issue as a trendy.
Paul: I went through a whole cycle of emotions. At first it really ticked me off because, I don’t know, it made no sense to me that people would be leaving behind a tradition that I loved when I had been forced out of it. That bothered me. Then it baffled me because I couldn’t really understand it. Then I began to think, okay, well if they’re fueling this industry, which is worth about $15 billion a year and a lot of innovation is being prompted by their dollars that can’t be a terrible thing.
Then ultimately I began to think, okay, well a lot of us have foods that don’t agree with us. We just feel better when we don’t ingest something, for whatever reason. What I began to see was, okay, well if people feel better not ingesting it, that’s fine. It really becomes problematic when they bend the rules and they say that a little bit of gluten doesn’t bother them when most celiacs will be knocked sideways by it for a full week, so that’s where I draw the line.
I ran into other versions of that when I was researching the book because, again, it’s this misinformation that’s out there. People were saying that sorghum has gluten in it or you can’t have this because it has gluten in it. It just becomes very difficult for people to sort through things when there’s so much noise out there.
BAF: Yeah, and it does get a little complicated. When you get a bag of potato chips that says gluten-free or Cheerios thing when it said, “Now gluten free.” Well, weren’t you always gluten-free?
Paul: Yeah, I’ve seen it on bananas. You’ve got to be kidding me, right?
BAF: I guess it just shows people, either they’re trying to cash in on a trend or they realize that people don’t know where gluten comes from so they’re just trying to let people know.
Paul: I think they’re trying to cash in on a trend, personally. If they’re a food producer they’re trying to claim part of that market share. I’ve kind of come to peace with people who are gluten-free by choice. You can’t fight it, so you may as well just wish them well.
BAF: You’re a professor.
Paul: I am. I teach writing and literature at St. Lawrence.
BAF: Do you think your natural inquisitiveness, your professorial inquisitiveness set you on this track?
Paul: I think so. Also, for the last couple of years partly because of hard interest in farming, and gardening, and putting up food and that kind of thing ourselves, my mind and my literary tastes had been going in a direction of people like M. F. K. Fisher, Adam Gopnik, Calvin Trillin and these are all really smart food writers who want to do a little bit more than just tell you what it tastes like. They’re interested in the culture that food comes out of, they’re interested in the history of it and I just wanted to do my own version of that. Yeah, I think I was quite consciously mapping my own story against what they were doing. I do teach studies in the literary essay here. I also teach fiction writing and I teach literary theory so I think my mind just works in that non-linear, associative way too.
BAF: Well, sitting here listen to you spout these very scientific terms, was it hard for an English professor to suddenly be talking about amino acids and these other words I can’t pronounce?
Paul: Yeah, it was difficult. I work at a liberal arts college so I was able to call up some of my friends who work in immunology and say, “Hey, can you talk this out with me? Can you check that my grasp of it is accurate?” That was a big help. Most of the sources that I got were off of Pubnet or the National Institute of Health. They were scientific papers that were published for gut health magazines, gastroenterology magazines. Articles, journals. I actually found them to be highly readable. Not as prohibitive as I expected and I think not as prohibitive as most people would think. Now I wasn’t rooting around for the true nuances and the ones that were very highly technical I kind of put into a different folder and tried to decide whether or not I would need them. I did have some really good friends helping me out on this
BAF:What’s next for you?
Paul:Well what’s next on the horizon for me, I think, you mentioned Dan Barber. I’m interested in the effect that writers like Dan Barber and others like him, Bill Buford, Adam Gopnik, Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver. It’s been about a decade now since that whole corpus of food journalism emerged and I’m really interested in whether or not that ethos about responsible eating is showing up in food literature generally. I think I want to explore that a little bit. The other thing that I’m really interested in, actually, is gender and the huge influx of men in the kitchen that we’ve seen in the last 20 years or so. Maybe a little bit more time than that but for my generation it’s very natural for men to be in the kitchen, some of them, anyway. That was not true for my father’s generation and certainly not true for my grandfather’s generation and I think I’d like to work on that a little bit. I don’t know whether I have any family stories that I can pack it in yet but it’s definitely something that I’m thinking about.
I still don’t think I’m recovered from the experience of writing this book yet. I’m still doing interviews and talks for it. Obviously one of my big goals is to get it out there as much as I possibly can because celiac disease is, really it’s very prevalent. It’s the most prevalent auto-immune disorder in the world and yet just yesterday I was going back and looking at how some facts have changed. It’s estimated that 75 to 80% of the people who have it are either undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, which is a huge, huge group of the population, when you think about it and when you think about the health risks and the sorts of things that they’re at risk for long term. It’s a serious issue. I’m still really trying to get the word about the book out there.
“Paul Graham has written an account of saying farewell to a familiar pleasure that manages to combine an intelligent survey of modern agriculture with a touching story of a small but all-too-real grief. His book is an essay that does what essays should: combine a useful idea with a poignant moral.” —Adam Gopnik
“A medical-culinary adventure story, by turns harrowing, enlightening, and thrillingly honest, In Memory of Bread is an elegy for the most elemental, essential food there is. Diagnosed with celiac disease and forced to rethink everything he’s ever known about cooking and eating, Paul Graham has written a brilliant examination of the very meaning of food, memory, and desire.”—Luke Barr, author of Provence, 1970
“Paul Graham’s adventures into the world of gluten-free eating are every bit as fascinating as those of A.J. Liebling and Julia Child into the gastronomy of Paris.”—Melissa Coleman, author of This Life Is in Your Hands
“Paul Graham’s ability to transform his relationship with food and eating and the acceptance he’s had to cultivate along the way are truly inspiring. I love how open and honest he is about his journey and know others will, too.”—Andie Mitchell, author of It Was Me All Along
“In detailed and thoughtful prose, balancing the lyrical with the scientific, Graham illustrates how his deep connection to bread was challenged, and how his body was gravely poisoned by his glutinous true love.”—Publishers Weekly