Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Book Review: In Memory of Bread, a Memoir

“Give us this day our daily bread.”

In the Our Father, “bread” becomes the representative not only of all nourishment on earth, but our surpassing nourishment in the Eucharist. Unless we eat this bread, we will not only go hungry, we will “not have life” (see John 6:53). For a while, 16th and 17th century missionaries in Asia translated this petition of the Lord's prayer as “give us this day our daily rice.” That didn't go over well with the authorities back in Rome. It may have communicated the aspect of earthly nourishment accurately enough, but it lost the Eucharistic connection with the Bread of Eternal Life. And so the Church still prays three times every day (Morning Prayer, Mass and Evening Prayer) for “daily bread.”

Yet by now all of us know someone for whom bread, whether the limp white sandwich bread of our childhood PBJs or the crusty artisanal loaves in a high-end bakery, is not nourishing at all. Bread, the simplest of culinary delights, is for persons with celiac disease, not food but life-sapping poison. Those who are “merely” gluten intolerant may not suffer the same degree of physical damage from eating grain-based foods, but they know there is a price to pay if they indulge in a bagel or a cupcake.

Paul Graham knows what that is like, and in In Memory of Bread: A Memoir he shares the experience of being cut off not only from bread as food, but from the culture of bread (and of beer!). There is a special poignancy to Graham's narrative of coming back, literally, from death's door only to discover that he had to give up two of his favorite hobbies, two crafts that had brought him immense pleasure not only in the eating (or imbibing, as the case may be) but in the fellowship built around the products of grain: home bread making and beer brewing.

With Graham's book those of us whose daily bread can be, in fact, bread learn what it is like to
suddenly be deprived of such a common and seemingly harmless food. Graham's struggle to find food that was (a) like bread and (b) still worth eating highlights an important dimension of culture: the common table. To lose bread is to be cut off from your fellows, as well as from a vital connection with 10,000 years of tradition.

When something as basic as bread (and in Graham's case, even the generally-tolerated oats) is off the table, relationships—and not just menus—have to be renegotiated, rediscovered, relearned. But the first of the relationships affected by Graham's sudden illness (and its almost equally drastic “cure”) was his relationship with his wife, Bec. From the very first, Bec decided that she and Paul would bear this burden together. Paul's inability to tolerate ordinary grains (and products made with grain) would not create a division at their common table with the “haves” (Bec) and the “have nots” (Paul). She would scrutinize labels and clear the house of anything unsafe for Paul to eat. She would experience the same loss, and the same, almost desperate search for bread that was at the same time gluten-free and real, as in real, identifiable bread. She would adopt a gluten-free diet with him.

Graham found that relearning his life after celiac disease included finding a tolerable gluten-free beer that he could drink with his softball buddies after a game. It meant neighbors and friends going out of their way to provide gluten-free canapes at cocktail parties, and the disappointment of many imitations of bread (the saddest of all: imitation pizza). The Grahams had long adopted a “locavore” ethos, supporting local farms and limiting their food choices to produce, meats and cheeses that had been raised in the vicinity. Until Paul's diagnosis, this included local wheat with which to bake the fragrant loaves that were now out of the picture. It became necessary to purchase items that could not be produced locally: psyllium, xantham gum, tapioca starch.

With so few restaurants in their rural New York town offering gluten-free options at the time, he had to rely more and more on the exotic. As wonderful as those Asian (hold the soy sauce, please) or African or Latino meals were, they were not the food he grew up with: they did not satisfy his human hunger. They were not bread.

Accompanying Graham and his wife on their search for satisfying bread, we learn about grain production and the culture that took root when grains were first domesticated. With him, we learn the forms of bread in various parts of the world. I had no idea that buckwheat blini  are a traditional (and gluten-free) French crepe (buckwheat is not really “wheat”), or that chickpea flatbread is a (gluten-free) tradition in Nice as well as in India.

Did the Grahams finally find a bread that was both safe to eat and a real connection to the memories and cultures that were woven into their lives? Would they ever be able to bake real bread at home again? Did Paul find a decent beer for his ballgames? No spoilers here.

In Memory of Bread was an engaging read from first to last, with some laugh-out-loud lines in just about every chapter. It disabuses the reader of any notion of a fashionable gluten-free “lifestyle” while giving us a little clue about just what we are asking for, simply on the level of this good earth, when we pray “give us this day our daily bread.”

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a free review copy of the book mentioned above with the expectation that I would mention it on my blog. I am committed to giving as honest a review as possible as part of my community's mission of putting media at the service of the truth. In addition, some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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