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The Grain of Truth

What if it turns out that gluten-phobes are eliminating the wrong thing? If a dogged consortium of bakers, scientists, and wheat freaks has anything to do with it, gluten-full breads, pastas, and pizzas might just be okay to relish again.

“And that day—three years ago—was the last time that I used white flour."

In a deeply beige conference room at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco, baker Craig Ponsford, founder of Artisan Bakers in Sonoma, pauses dramatically to survey the remarkably rapt group before him. His audience is members of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) attending a panel discussion called “The Revolution in Local Grains,” and he’s talking about the ingredients he uses at his two-year-old San Rafael bakery, Ponsford’s Place. But he could just as well be testifying at an AA meeting, so passionate is his fervor for a new, but actually very old, flour-processing technique. “Now I get energy from what I’m baking, instead of a sugar rush and crash,” he continues, sounding for all the world like he’s talking about that other addictive white powder.

The attendees bite into buttery, toasty-tasting shortbread cookies from Ponsford’s homey smidge of a bakery, which has become cultish because it’s open only on Fridays and Saturdays. The room vibrates with a collective mmmmm. From the back, Corby Kummer, the famous food writer for the Atlantic, shouts out, “How much white flour is in this?” Ponsford proudly proclaims it white-flour free. “No way!” exclaims Kummer incredulously, as if he’s just tasted a miracle. And in some ways, maybe he has.

But before we get to that, let’s first say that this is not another fear-mongering story about wheat. To assume otherwise would be understandable, given that we’re living in a time when the word “gluten” makes parents cover their children’s ears, and the bread aisle—still smarting from the Zone and Atkins diets of yore—is avoided like the plague. Self-diagnosed, self-sacrificing gluten-intolerants are everywhere: It’s estimated that nearly one in three Americans is currently trying to eliminate or reduce dietary gluten. They gallantly order their burger with lettuce instead of a bun. They profess their love for quinoa tagliatelle. The pizza delivery guy? Persona non grata.

The public outcry against gluten has been heard loud and clear by the food industry. For eating in, there are about 1,000 gluten-free cookbooks available on Amazon, including the charmingly titled new release Gluten Is My Bitch. And chefs—even the high priests and priestesses of the Bay Area’s culinary world—have become sensitive to (or at least opportunistic about) diners’ demands. Thomas Keller has attached his name to a gluten-free flour called Cup4Cup; Delfina offers gluten-free pasta; pastry chef Elisabeth Prueitt of Tartine Bakery is launching a gluten-free blog; and Josey Baker of the Mill will soon be offering a gluten-free bread.

Suffice it to say that the G-word is definitely the elephant in this particular Hyatt conference room. But actually, gluten is not the topic of the panel in which Ponsford is participating. In fact, the baker has a hunch that it’s not gluten that causes the cramps, the rashes, the momentary desire to kick one’s cat, and all the other maladies—psychosomatic or not—that have become identified as gluten sensitivities. Rather, Ponsford thinks that people are reacting negatively to the how, not the what, of modern wheat flour. He blames, first and foremost, the processing method, wherein the wheat berry is moistened and then ground on a roller mill that pops off the outer coating, leaving the white flour, or endosperm, devoid of the germ and bran—the very parts that contain essential nutrients and vitamins. (As a result, white flour must be fortified with B vitamins to prevent nutritional deficiencies such as beriberi. There’s a reason that calling someone “white bread” implies that he’s lacking in substance.)

To make what is commonly called “whole wheat flour”—usually considered the healthy choice—the bran and germ are simply recombined with the white flour, essentially reconstituting the grain. How much has to be added back in order for a flour to be labeled “whole wheat” is apparently loosely regulated by the FDA—and a topic for another day. But whether you’re talking whole wheat flour or white flour, Ponsford thinks that there are negative outcomes to the roller-milling process. “A seed is a miracle,” he tells the audience at the Hyatt. “And when you take apart a wheat berry, it seems to kill it.”

The answer to the problem, as Ponsford sees it, is stone milling—also known as whole-grain milling. This old-world method grinds the wheat grain without separating the germ, bran, and endosperm, thus keeping the wheat berries truly “whole.” If Ponsford is right, it means that bread and pasta—for many gluten warriors, public enemies numbers one and two—made with what he calls “whole-milled whole-grain flour” might actually be good for you.

Ponsford is no scientist, nor is the whole-milling theory his alone. His credibility is bolstered by the fact that he is aligned with an unofficial, gourmet-leaning, Bay Area–based whole-grain think tank led by Bob Klein, the longtime owner of Oakland’s Oliveto restaurant. Functioning as the pied piper of the whole-grain movement, Klein has assembled a like-minded cohort of highly respected people, including author Michael Pollan, food scientist Harold McGee, bakers Ponsford and Chad Robertson of Tartine, distiller Lance Winters of St. George Spirits, former Spago pastry chef Sherry Yard, and Nancy Silverton of Mozza, the latter two based in L.A. Needless to say, these are hardly a bunch of back-to-the-landers. They are the culinary equivalent of the Marvel Avengers, dedicated to bringing bread back to prominence. In contrast to the early-’70s Diet for a Small Planet era—when a loaf of bread that weighed as much as a toaster was the trade-off you made for wholesome living—it’s possible that these luminaries could indeed turn the nouveau whole-grain movement into something that’s not just palatable but actually delicious. That, at least, is the dream.

Page two: Are most gluten allergies just in your head?