Our Lady of the Gluten

I found this painting in a Church and was given express permission to photograph it, but this is not about copyright rules, this is about wheat.

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Over the last few years, something almost laughable in its absurdity has infiltrated the minds of dieters and other folks interested in nutrition, and that is that grains, in particular the gluten containing grains (Wheat, Barley, Triticale, and Rye), are “bad” for you.

Some particularly egregious blogs exist on the topic, and there are books written about it. Let me the first to tell you I’ve eaten wheat pretty much following infancy and will continue to eat it until I die, and with no apparent ill effects. Like perhaps 99% of other people in the world, I am NOT allergic to gluten or grain, in which case avoidance would make sense. Wheat is actually remarkable among staple foods in how well tolerated and nutritionally balanced it is. Wheat, in fact, is SUPERIOR nutritionally to all other true grains (which are all grasses). It has a better balance of essential amino acids, and more amino acids per calorie, than every other grain: more than Corn (Maize), more than Rice, more than Sorghum, more than Oats, more than its kin Spelt, Barley and Rye (Rye is so closely related to wheat that it can artificially hybridize, producing Triticale). As John Seymour, whose travels and travails exposed him to all manner of people throughout the world, remarked: gluten is an unmatched vegetable protein. Wheat has the most gluten, which also provides good rising characteristics to bread. Barley and Rye have less gluten, and so do not rise nearly as well, yielding dense and often hard breads. Wherever Wheat could be grown well, it was preferred over all other staple crops, both because it produces the best tasting and textured food and because it has been observed to keep people in good health.

Anthropologists have long know how certain nutritional deficiencies have arising among non-wheat eating people. Knowledge of how to treat corn (Maize) with lime to make nutrients in it absorbable is what allowed for certain Mesoamerican civilizations to sustain and flourish while ones ignorant of lime treatment gradually perished along with their tooth enamel. Rice eating cultures are known for bouts of disease related to nutrient deficiency, even into the 20th century.

Choosing wheat as the substance which becomes the Body of Christ in Christian ritual was not arbitrary, and the 1st century middle east is one of the few places in the world where many grains are all grown in significant degree. Barley and Spelt were both widely eaten, and Barely probably more widespread in its consumption. Make no mistake in thinking that 1st century folk where indiscriminate in such matters. To them, bread was very important, so calling it the “bread of life” was particularly rich in meaning, and in the Lord’s Prayer where we ask for “our daily bread” really meant something. The selection of wheat as THE grain for this bread is rich in meaning.

Now, one may ask, wasn’t that 1st century wheat different from today’s? Well, it is a bit of yes and a bit of no. Wheat, in a certain sense, is wheat. I doubt there are signigicant differences from modern wheat compared to old in reference to non-wheat grians. Today’s wheat is more like yesterday’s than it is like Rye or Barley, etc. In fact, “ancient wheats” like emmer are still available from seed catalogs, and I’ve grown them. They don’t seem all that different to me except for a few features. Most old wheat vairieties grow to be much taller, and produce more straw, but less grain (on a per acre basis). Dwarfing genetics form the basis of modern wheat yield increases; this work is basically what Norman Bourlag earned a nobel prize for. But wheat is still wheat. And wheat is still the best grain for human consumption.

I had a friend in high school who had bonafide Celiac disease, and I, and almost everyone else, pitied him. He could never eat cake, most sugary cereals, almost no breads, and so couldn’t eat hamburgers, which form the basis of most high school boys’ diets. Today claiming gluten sensitivity is part a demand for attention and sympathy, but more often has much more to do with status display. If you can afford to abstain from wheat, which has by far the most nutrients per dollar of any common food, then you must be rich. If you can afford to substitute almond or cauliflower flours (which both taste awful) for wheat, then you are very rich. If you can afford to buy loaves of bread made out of buckwheat, sorghum, and potato flour then you have more money that the peasant wheat-eaters. I suppose many of these folks consider themselves to be environmentalists, too. Of course they really know little of the matter, and do not understand that wheat is among the most benign of the grains.

The three gluten containing grains–Wheat, Barley, and Rye–are the only staple foods which can overwinter in a temperate or cold weather climate (there are Spring planted Barleys and Wheats, too). Historically, these grains along with hay and pastures, are what have prevented erosion on farmland, and erosion is the prime agricultural villain–not weeds or pests. Once the topsoil is out to sea, not only will it NEVER return, but it also causes all sorts of problems in the sea. Corn, Soybeans, Sorghum, Buckwheat, Oats, and Rice–they all are planted in the spring, complete their reproductive cycles in summer, and are harvested. They are not alive during the winter with its wasting rains or spring snow melt. While their dead roots do provide limited protection, particularly summer planted Oats, they are not anywhere near as effective at absorbing excess nutrients, preventing erosion, or drying out overly wet fields as the living gluten-grains are. In fact, all the gluten containing grains (particularly Rye) can reseed themselves, and are effective in a no-tillage regime. One of my neighbors planted Crimson Clover and Rye a few years ago in the fall, these plants grew and set their seed in the late spring after he no-till-drilled his corn in, and they sprout and come up after his corn harvest in September or October, providing a perpetual winter cover and nitrogen pump at almost no cost. Sure, his corn didn’t get off to a flying start because the nitrogenous residues in the Crimson clover and Rye were are just starting to break down in June when corn grows fast, but he doesn’t pay to spray his nitrogen on, and by the end of the summer his corn catches up and looks just as good as others’, and will yield as well.


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