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Some Musings on Healthy Food and Diet

Musing 1 - White Flour Poison Death, and other hysteria
Musing 2 - Americans Should Stop Confusing Food With Entertainment! (Or, should they?)
Musing 3 - Meditations Upon A Soup
Musing 4 - What ever happened to bread anyway?

What ever happened to bread anyway?

My doctor, bless her heart, decided that it was "time to do something" about my weight. And in truth, I have to admit she's right. I'm not in prime "Biggest Loser" territory, but I do have some health issues that should be a lot better if there was less of me. So, I'm on a strictly controlled diet. And, believe it or not, while I've been on my diet, I spent a lot of time thinking about food. Especially bread. Good bread. Sourdough bread. MY BREAD.

My doctor told me I'd have to give up carbs for a long time. Rice, potatoes, pasta, bread. I mentioned that bread would be an issue since I'm a baker and teach baking classes. She commented, "We can't digest wheat, and then they blow it up with yeast which just blows you up!"

That's a hard blow for a baker to hear! But it just made me think. We, as a species, have been eating bread for something like 6,500 to 10,000 years! The average person around 1900 ate more than twice as much bread as we do today. Records from France and Germany indicate consumption of 10 ounces per day was far from uncommon. Yet obesity hasn't been a major issue until the last 50 to 60 years. Without trying to put too fine a point on it, bread consumption has declined steadily as obesity has increased. I have trouble believing that bread has contributed to the current obesity problem. So, what's happened?

I tend to put my deep problems on the back burner and let my subconscious work on them. Or, put another way, I had other things to do. I was at work when Maria, a sympathetic co-worker, dropped by to see how I was doing on my diet. (Quite well, thank you.) At one point, she wondered why obesity was so much ... ahhh ... bigger a problem than it used to be. The question was the catalyst and things that had been loosely connected began to come together for me. I commented that the Second World War was a sea change for the world in almost every way. Before WWII, most people engaged in physical labor. After WWII, fewer and fewer people did, so they burned fewer calories. However, serving sizes have steadily increased. At the same time, we have begun processing our foods in ways that people from an earlier generation could not have imagined. The very nature of our foods has changed. I used to think, "there's no such thing as a bad food, just bad diets." Now, I'm not so sure.

That weekend, I found an interview with Andrew Whitley, the author of "Bread Matters: The State of Modern Bread and a Definitive Guide to Baking Your Own." Andrew talks about why bread just isn't what it used to be, why it has no taste, why it isn't good for you, and why it does aggravate health conditions. Luckily, he offers answers. Answers which bread lovers and slow food aficionados should understand.

The problems start at the seed companies and farms. They are, with good reason, breeding and selecting strains of wheat that produce more wheat per acre. However, the nutritional values of these wheats has declined proportionally with the increase in production. Andrew comments that the seed companies in England don't even mention the nutritional values of the grains intended for human consumption on the product sheets, though it is listed on the product sheets for grains intended for use as animal feed.

The problems are compounded at the miller's. Historically, grain was ground and bolted (or sifted) to remove the coarsest bran. This made nice bread with good taste and nutritional qualities. Now, grain is ground and broken into what millers call "streams" which are different parts of the grain with different characteristics. The different streams are used for different purposes. Several of the streams are recombined to make baking flour. It is worth noting that one stream is used by vitamin companies to extract vitamin e. Flour has a reduced vitamin e content, and as a result the consumer has to buy vitamin e supplements - made from the same grain that made the flour! What's wrong with that picture? The nutritionally denser streams are used to make animal food.

The next problem occurs at the bakery. Historically bread was given long rises. It takes sourdough, the classic leaven, a while to work. Among other things, sourdough acts as a dough conditioner, modifies the proteins in flour so they are more digestible, reduces phytates and increases folic acid levels in the bread. Many of these things happen, though to a lesser degree, with long yeast based rises.

However, since WWII mas market bread has become much more common. To make this bread, dough is mixed at very high speed to incorporate air into the dough. Large amounts of yeast are used - between 3 and 20 times the amount of yeast per loaf that a craft or home baker would use. The bread in a modern bread factory is cooling in the delivery truck about an hour after it was mixed. To allow this high speed processing the baking industry relies on additives to dough that make it more workable. The carcinogenic chemical additives of the 1950's and 1960's have been banned. Instead we are using products derived from fungal growths, called fungal amylases. Since the amylases are destroyed in baking they are considered to be processing aids and do not need to be listed on the labels in most countries.

However, the effects they have are still obvious in the loaf. Bread that remains squishy soft for a month or more. Andrew points out, the amylases have never been tested as a cocktail, that is mixed together the way they are used. Even if one is willing to concede they are safe individually, what happens when they are combined? One of the amylases converts gluten into a form that is especially problematical for celiacs. Is this why we've seen a sudden increase in celiac disease as well as other wheat and gluten intolerance issues?

Along with this, we've seen a decline in bread consumption. Mass market bread just isn't satisfying any more. Many people complain that bread sits heavily in their gut and they don't like the way it makes them feel. And somehow the bakeries seem to think it's the customers fault. I don't know of any other industries that blame their loss of sales on their customers, ignoring fundamental issues with their products. Oh, wait - one just came to mind. Detroit car makers.

It is time to educate people about what bread was, and could be again. We need to remind people that bread was once a wholesome, enjoyable food that sustained us for thousands of years, and that it could be again.

Maybe it is time to start an American "Campaign for Real Bread" modeled after the British "Campaign for Real Ale" and the American craft brewing movement.

At the end of the bake, what really scares me is - I can see what's happening to bread, because I understand bread. But, what is happening in other food areas? Areas where I don't even know what to look for? How many formerly wholesome foods have become toxic? Is the rise in food allergies and sensitivities largely because we've been playing with our food in ways far more sinister than anything our mothers feared? Maybe we'd all be better off if the food scientists mothers had let them smear their faces with their food and stuff it into their diapers.

On a personal front, I've been making bread with long rises for a long time. Now I'm looking for bolted flours made from heirloom wheats. Heartland Mills offers one, based on the old "Turkey" wheat variety. I have 20 pounds on order. After the baking test, which will happen after I am off the first phase of the diet, I'll comment on the breads and flour here. I hope to be baking in early August.

Meditations Upon A Soup
Or, The Recipe Isn't Yours Until You Make It Yours
Or, The Chef's Job Is To Unlock The Flavors In The Ingredients
Or, It's OK To Play With Your Food - In Fact, You Should!

Some time ago, I read that it is the baker's job to unlock the flavors in the bread's ingredients. And I whole heartedly agree. However, I don't think the statement goes far enough. It applies to chefs to. Maybe most chefs already know that. However, I hope we can enlighten a few chefs and a few cooks - and maybe even a few bakers - and have them get with the program!

In a recent " Afternoon Tea With The Avery's " class we were discussing cucumber sandwiches and commented that if you want something spicier, you could substitute sliced radish for the sliced cucumber. We got four sets of blank stares in response. The idea of changing THE RECIPE seemed to bother the students. A large part of learning to be a cook, of learning how things taste, of even learning what you do and do not like comes from experimentation. When I was teaching my stepson Tommy to cook, he worried he'd poison us. I told him that the worst that could happen was we wouldn't like what he prepared, but since all his ingredients were wholesome food, the result couldn't poison us. He became more confident as time went on. So, think about your food, tinker with your food and -yes- even PLAY with it! It's OK. Really!

As I mentioned in the Breadblog, the lettuce soup at a recent Wine Squared inspired me. I'd heard of lettuce soup and I had no idea what to expect - it made me scratch my head. I couldn't imagine that there would be very much there there. However, it was a nice rich soup, topped off with an excellent Israeli olive oil and a freshly ground Egyptian pepper. It was an explosion of tastes, and I had to try to make some myself. I hit Google and found an interesting and promising recipe at a San Francisco area foodie blog. This recipe had the advantage that it used stale bread in it. With the baking test runs I do, and with the leftovers from baking classes, I wind up with more bread than Beth and I can eat before it goes stale. Yeah, we freeze some, but there is a limit even there. Do I want the side of beef or the bread to go bad?

As given this is a nice recipe. I made it the way it was written in the food blog and decided it was time to change it. First, the recipe suggested peeling the potatoes we'd use in the soup. I feel that the peel is the deal when it comes to potatoes - that's where the flavor is concentrated. I'd rather clean a potato and eat the skin than peel it. Unless my mother is coming over, I don't even peel potatoes I'm going to mash.

Next, the potato is boiled. Boiling is a great way to extract flavors. And you can reduce a broth to concentrate the flavors, but boiling doesn't build flavors. So, I thought frying the potatoes first might be a good idea. To keep from adding to the oil in the recipe, I'd use some of the olive oil already in the recipe.

Next, the potato looked lonely, so I thought adding some leek would be a great idea. I had some leek left over from a killer roast chicken and leek pie we made for a savory pie class. Frying the leek with the potato seemed like a winner since I like sauteed onions and leeks are related to onions.

The recipe was on a page all about Acme bread, so it shouldn't be a surprise that they suggested using Acme bread. And that;'s a fine idea if you're in San Francisco and have some left over stale Acme bread. I decided that it was just fine to use any sourdough loaf I had lying around. And so far, that guess has been correct.

The next thing that I noticed was the original recipe called for trimming the crust off the bread. Off of ACME BREAD! With any good bread, more than 3/4 of the taste is in the crust. Why throw it away? Why even feed it to ducks? When the bread soaks in the soup, the crust, even a stale crust will soften.

Gee - that sounds like something from Cooks Illustrated. "We cooked 456 batches of soup so you wouldn't have to!" But all joking aside, the result was better. And - there are many places you can alter the recipe as you make it. We'll mention some of them in the recipe. So, what was the result? The leek added a depth to the potato soup, as did the browning in oil. The potato peels helped. In the end, the soup was much more complex, much richer, and - to my taste - much nicer. Maybe you'd prefer the original. That'd be OK. There's no arguing with taste. My goal is to get more people to taste and to think. Oh, you want to look at the recipe? Well, for your convenience, here's a link.

Americans Should Stop Confusing Food With Entertainment!
(Or, should they?)
By Mike Avery
February 23, 2009

It's funny how different things come together to inspire one. Mary Fisher, an English friend, wrote in the Baking Fun mailing list that, "Breakfast is An Occasion in England. For most people it means a cooked breakfast: fried eggs, bacon and tomatoes. Some people add sausages, mushrooms, beans, hash brownies, fried bread and whatever other messes they can think of." I don't think she meant "messes" in a derogatory fashion, but more like a Southerner might say, "I'm gonna cook me up a mess of eggs!"

A few hours later I was at a garage reading an ancient copy of Newsweek while the staff changed my car's oil. In an earlier issue, Newsweek had run an article about the obesity epidemic in America. At this point about 2/3 of Americans are overweight or beyond. (Disclaimer - I'm one of them, but I am slowly making less of myself. I got derailed in the move and in my new job, but I'm back on track.) Someone wrote in to the magazine opining "The real problem is Americans confuse food with entertainment!"

I had two epiphanies. One was that I was pretty certain whose table I'd prefer to share. The other was, "Sorry, but I beg to differ."

I am convinced that far too many people in the USA rarely enjoy food at all. They'll drive through McDonald's and get a double double cheese++ burger (740 calories) with large fries (500 calories), a baked hot apple pie (250 calories) and a large chocolate triple thick chocolate shake (1160 calories) (for a grand total of 2650 calories) and have two reactions. "I'd really like something to eat" and "I don't know why I can't lose weight!"

I once prepared a classic Macaroni and Cheese for a church potluck. Home made noodles, home made cheese sauce, baked in the oven, browned cheese on top, it was a pure delight. And the most common reaction was, "What is it?" People are so used to the stuff that comes out of a box, they didn't even recognize the real thing. Far too often, people don't even recognize good food. But, I digress.

Because so much food is totally devoid of taste and satisfaction, people eat more, looking for some elusive satisfaction. I want *MORE*. Not because I'm hungry, not really, but because something is still missing. It seems that the fast food joints make sure - somehow - that their food won't satisfy.

People eat for taste. And when they don't get it, they eat more. And more and more. In reading my early musings on this topic, Mary commented that she'd had a brain tumor that greatly diminished her sense of smell and taste, and until it was removed she overate because she was hunting for taste. She - to coin a phrase - hungered for it.

I think to no small extent that people should embrace food as entertainment. There is joy in preparing good food. There is love in sharing it. And that love is felt by both the cook and those who enjoy the food. Yes, food IS entertaining. Sublimely so. And we should embrace that. Deeply. Fervently. Religiously. We should cherish our food, celebrate our food, and celebrate the sources of our food - the cooks, the bakers, the millers, the farmers, the ranchers, the hunters, the plants and the animals that made our meals possible. The plains Indians are said to have apologized to the spirit of the buffalo they killed, explaining that they needed to feed their family, and that to honor the buffalo they would cherish and use every scrap of the animal.

But we should also remember that not every meal has to be the Indianapolis 500, not every meal has to be the Superbowl, not every meal has to be Janet Jackson having her top ripped off (now THAT'S entertainment!), not every meal has to be The Three Tenors singing their greatest arias. There is great entertainment and joy in simpler things, in watching one's child take his first steps. Simple pleasures are no less deep!

There is entertainment in a well made pot of coffee or tea - and why would one make less than a good pot of coffee or tea? It's no harder to make a good pot than a bad one! There is entertainment in a simple sugar cookie. There is entertainment in a simple container of flying fish roe. (I got a few questions on that one. Flying fish roe, or eggs, are used in some sushi. Some roe are flavored with wasabi or mint, others are unflavored. It's a lovely mild caviar, and at around $20 a pound in oriental markets, it's also a great buy. Omelette's with some caviar in them or on them are a true delight.)

Whether you believe in God, evolution or some mix of the two, we are clearly intended, designed or evolved to truly enjoy food. It's our birthright. Mary chimed in, "Our birthright begins at birth - the sheer pleasure and satisfaction of a baby at the breast can't be duplicated with a bottle - nor of course the delight and satisfaction of the mother."

When one patronizes fast food joints, one loses sight of entertainment altogether and instead views food as fuel. Simple fuel. Not very appetizing or uplifting fuel.

Is it any wonder that one of my parent's neighbors is well on his way to weighing 600 pounds? Is it a coincidence that my parents front yard seems to be strewn with fast food wrappers?

I think not.

Still, when I reflect on the cultures where food is eaten reverently, among others, the French, the Italians, the Japanese, I see that obesity is far less a problem than it is in the United States. Not absent, but significantly less than in the United States.

For me, the take home message is probably, enjoy your food, be entertained by your food. And once you've enjoyed enough, STOP EATING!

Mike



White Flour Poison Death, and other hysteria
By Mike Avery
Around June, 2007

Last weekend, Friday and Saturday June 9th and 10th, I was fortunate enough to be able to teach a class on sourdough baking in Evergreen Colorado for Mountain Tops Milling. Mountain Tops Milling sells a wide range of excellent grain mills, mixers and other baking supplies. Gisele Hall, the owner, is a delightful lady and dedicated to better baking and better health.

During the course, I have students make two or three breads (depending on the time available), and a pizza for lunch. I want the students to know what dough should feel like when it is developed, and how it feels as it is developing, so I have the students knead by hand. This knowledge transfers very well to using a mixer.

I also had the students make their first bread with white flour. This is because white flour is much easier to handle than whole wheat, which reduces the learning curve dramatically. Several students didn't even want to touch the white flour. It's not healthy you know.

Which prompted me to think about what is healthy food and what is a healthy diet? It can be argued that I've enjoyed too much of a diet over the years. However, I am working on that and I am losing weight. About 25 pounds in the last 3 months... right on track to where I want to be in about a year.

The Greek Philosopher Epicurus preached moderation in all things, a teaching modern Epicureans have really corrupted. Mark Twain weighed in on the subject saying, "Moderation in all things - including moderation!" and "Too much of anything is bad, but too much whiskey is just enough!"

Over the years, I've been exposed to a lifetime of dietetic advice. And all of it seems to be contraindicated a few years later when the next study comes out. I can't tell you how many "health food books" I've looked at only to be amused by the portrait of the author on the back cover. Some of my friends were upset when I asked, "Do you want to look like THAT ?" My favorite was a book on a low-mucous diet. The author suggested that foods that produce mucous are bad for us. Never mind that mucous is our bodies lubricant which keeps things in your body slippin' 'n' slidin' the way they should. The author looked ancient and, well, dessicated. I often joked that he was actually 35 when the picture was taken.

And then there's Julia Child. She was an unabashed lover of good things - cream, red meat, white breads. She'd rather have a nice small steak with good marbling and a rich taste than a big lean tasteless one one. She died three days short of her 92nd birthday. She reminds us you can enjoy life on your own terms and still live a long, healthy life. (Yes, I know she had several bouts with cancer. So did Euell Gibbons and Adelle Davis.)

The two things that bother me about the people who have discovered "the truth" are that they never seem to discover the same truth. Of course, given the nature of biochemical individuality, it's not too surprising that different people have discovered different truths. ( Dr. Roger Williams, the discoverer of pantothenic acid and several other vitamins, wrote extensively about biochemical individuality.) But that also means that the truths they discover aren't universal. The other thing is that the people who have found the truth all too often seem determined that other people WILL do what they have found best. Years ago in a co-op where my then girlfriend lived, Frank, the guy in charge of the coke machine decided that sugared soft drinks are bad, and artificially sweetened soft drinks are worse. So, he replaced all the soft drinks with beer. Never mind the diabetics in the co-op who couldn't drink beer, or the people who had religious or moral reasons to not drink beer. And that doesn't get into the meat wars at the co-op. Let's not go there.... though, I could also talk about democracy run amok in this context as well.

Perhaps my favorite story about health food is one told by Dr. Andrew Weil. He had a speaking engagement in Germany, and as soon as he set foot in Germany his hosts whisked him off to a Gasthaus. Before he had a chance to blink, they had served him a Wienerschnitzel (a breaded and fried piece of veal that is a delicacy in Germany, or anywhere else for that matter), and a liter of beer. He was in somewhat of a bind. He is mostly a vegetarian and there was more meat on the plate than he would normally eat in a month. And he had largely given up alcohol. But, he didn't want to be rude. He tried the Wienerschnitzel and found it delightful. And the beer was a wonderful accompaniment.

The conversation was wonderful and the time flew by. In due course, he finished his beer, and before he could say a word, he was served another one. And another.

Dr. Weil knew that he was in trouble. He was going to pay a heavy price the next day. Meat, fried meat at that, fried potatoes, and lots and lots of beer. And jet lag. And he had to speak the next day.

Much to his surprise, he felt great the next day. He concluded that any food that is prepared with love and shared with friends is health food. Or as Delbert McClinton once sang, "it ain't what you eat, but the way that you chew it!"

Professor Raymond Calvel, the person who was largely responsible for the revival of good bread in France felt that unless you are having digestive problems, there is no reason to eat whole grains. His view is very typical of French people. They see whole grain breads as being coarse and revolting. Still, if you look at mortality rates in France, you'll see that they do tend to live longer, and with better health than we Americans do. And they drink too much too!

A lot of people who feel that white flour is devoid of nutritional value don't understand a few things. There are many grades of white flour, ranging from patent flour, to bread flour, to all-purpose flour to commercial white flour. It isn't all the same. While all-purpose flour is lower in nutritive value than whole wheat flour, it's far from being a nutritional disaster. The only area where the flour is significantly different from whole wheat is with regards to fiber. Commercial white flour, the sort used by mass market bakeries to make Wonder type bread is essentially useless.

For most of us, there really isn't a problem with eating home made or artisanal bread made with good quality white flour. These breads aren't bad by themselves, and in the context of an overall healthy diet, there certainly isn't an issue. Of course, far too many Americans don't have a diet that is healthy overall. We tend to not have enough diversity in our diets, we eat too many processed foods, we eat too much red meat and too few vegetables and fruit. Treating whole grain bread as some sort of silver bullet is unrealistic.

What is important in our diets, beyond balance and diversity, is not just what is in our food but also what is not. By using unbleached, unbromated flour you have avoided a lot of toxins. If you move one step further and use organic flour, that's even better.

Please understand, I enjoy whole grain breads and bake them often. I don't have anything against whole grain breads. I do think they've been oversold. However, whole grain breads aren't a religious icon or a crusade for me. Good bread is my crusade, and good bread, like good people, come in all colors.