A winter several years ago will forever be the time when I discovered the intense yet simple pleasures of great homemade bread.
As with most transformative experiences, the timing was everything. My wife started baking in January, after one of our friends introduced her to Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. Its basic recipe, as Artisan devotees know, makes baking bread with a chewy crumb and shattering crust tantalizingly easy: you mix up a mess of dough, let it age in the fridge, and pull out handfuls to shape, let rise, and bake whenever the urge for a fresh loaf strikes. I often stepped inside—from walking the dog or carrying firewood, leaving behind a blanched sky and snow that literally blew sideways—to hot bread waiting on the wire rack. The windows were steamed over; the whole house bloomed with heat. What I felt was beyond anticipation or joy—it was a sense of wealth and gratitude that humans have known for a long, long time. I couldn’t have contrived this feeling if I tried, and it had everything to do with the smell and taste of baked grains against northern New York’s cold, sparse background.
As she explored the cookbook, Bec made whole-wheat loaves, white loaves, cheddar cheese bread, dinner rolls, cinnamon buns, and my favorite, limpa, a Swedish rye seasoned with orange peel, star anise, cumin, and sugar. At first she baked one or two a week. I tore off chunks while they still steamed from the oven. In the afternoons, I made a cup of tea with toast and chose a jar from “The Vault,” a hutch in our dining room stacked with homemade preserves like brandied melon jam and crab-apple jelly. Every summer and into the fall, Bec puts up seasonal fruits and vegetables she gets from the market and our farm share, and (in the case of the crab apples, anyway) that we forage on the college campus where I teach English. By most estimates, you only have a year or two to eat that stuff. I was doing my part in the race against spoilage.
Sometimes, I ate a loaf in a day.
Once or twice, I may have eaten almost two loaves in a day—most of ours, and then most of our friends’ when we went over to their place for dinner, where the talk, which always turned to food, inevitably gravitated to our helplessness around this bread.
Geography was a factor in our raptures. We live in a rural place, and at the time the sole good nearby bakery was attached to our local food co-op. We had been enjoying the co-op’s loaves for years, but the Artisan bread was even better, and more fun. We loved the ingenious substitution for the steam jets in professional ovens, which involved pouring a cup of boiling water into a preheated sauté pan, creating a dramatic hiss. When we took the bread out and it hit the cooler air, we bent close to the counter and listened as the crust tightened with a series of crackles. But most of all, we loved the sweet, comforting smell of bread baking away as the temperature dropped and we turned local root vegetables into soups and stews.
If we and our friends were conscious of the symbolism of “breaking bread” at these meals, nobody ever mentioned it. And yet, I think if you’d asked any of us whether the experience would have been diminished without my friend David’s triumphant soda bread, or without my friends Sarah and Mere’s perfect airy, white loaves, or without whatever fifty-times-better-than-supermarket bread anyone else had made, we would have said, Yes, of course. Now I know that to be the truth. You can have fellowship over any meal, but sharing bread seems to deliver an especially high emotional return for a simple food. Bread has always inspired such excitement, even reverence, in those who have so much as stood near a fresh loaf.
In those days I had no reason to feel guilty or wary about my bread consumption. I did not obsess over calories or carbs, preferring to believe that if you’re eating good food, whole food, and frequently moving your body, the math all works out in the end. I’ll immediately add, however, that until genetics came calling, I had been one of those annoying types who never had to think about what they ate—or did not eat. In retrospect I see that I was consuming a ton of gluten. But I didn’t know then that gluten could be a problem for me. I didn’t think that gluten could be a problem for anyone, actually, until one day when I heard someone, a student of mine or a colleague, mention her dietary restrictions. I registered this person’s pain distantly. (As a friend would later say to me, “All I know is that I’m glad I don’t have what you’ve got.”) I certainly did not yet understand that those who cannot tolerate wheat struggle against a tradition so long and so deep that some anthropologists believe that by now, the desire for grain in general, and bread in particular, is all but “hardwired” into people of European and Middle Eastern ancestry.
Bec registered the staggering speed at which I was consuming her bread. It took her time to make, she said, and it’d be nice if now and then a loaf could hang around the house longer than a day and a half. In response, I might have pointed out that ancient Egyptian temple officials, instead of being paid in cash, received a share of 900 fine wheat breads, 36,000 flatbreads roasted in coals, and 900 jugs of beer per year, if the archaeological records are to be believed. (That’s 3,000 flatbreads a month, and you haven’t even drunk the beer yet.) Surely these officials were feeding their huge families, servants, and slaves. But they still had a few flatbreads left over for themselves. Against such impressive consumption, my own looked modest, even pitiful.
Speaking of 900 jugs of beer: At about the same time as the Artisan Bread discoveries, my friend David and I began brewing beer. In this way, our homes were not unlike those of the ancients, who baked their bread and brewed their beer in adjacent rooms, often using the yeast in the beer scum (known in some places as “barm”) to inoculate their bread dough.
That’s not how our beer project came about, though. David is a volcanologist, schooled in the geology of small-scale environmental apocalypses, and thus concerned with living in a way that is as gentle on the environment as possible. He believed that home-brewed beer could be as good as most commercial brews, and also more ecologically sound: less gasoline used in transport, less refrigeration at the store, less packaging in the recycling bin. We set out to start our own school of sustainability—green hedonism. Our goal was to become completely self-sufficient in the beer department. The challenge was that David could drink a lot of beer. I had a lower tolerance but still put in a respectable effort.
We started in March by putting up five gallons of American-style amber ale from a kit. We boiled the wort and added hops, cooled it, pitched our yeast, and left our beer to ferment in a sterile and air-locked five-gallon bucket. After a week we added two ounces of Cascade hops, a common American varietal, and let it continue to ferment. Then we bottled our ale and waited for it to age. Finally, in May, we sat on David’s “deck”—the flat roof of the porch below his second-story duplex, which we accessed by climbing through a window—and watched the sun set over the trees as we emptied the bottles over two or three weekends. Quite often we accompanied our beer with some cheese and, naturally, a fresh loaf of bread.
By midsummer, we had twenty-five gallons of beer—a couple hundred bottles—in some stage of the brewing process. The five-gallon carboys burped and fizzed with a new pale ale in fermentation, while bottles of stout and porter hibernated like black bears in the back of my walk-in pantry. We felt giddy with beer-wealth. The ATF had probably begun watching us. We could see the day coming when we would possess a mix of seasonally appropriate beers that we’d need only to go into the cellar or the pantry or the garage or the upstairs closet to retrieve.
Any home brewer will tell you that it’s tradition, and good karma, to drink beer while you make beer. For us, it was also a practical necessity; every time we bottled a batch, we needed to empty some bottles. Ordering additional bottles from the home brew company, we thought, would just be stupid. Carbon would be generated in shipping them to us, killing the ethos of our project. If we were short six bottles for the new beer, we drank beer until we had the room. If one twenty-two-ounce tallboy would get the job done, we split it. It was important to check up on the previous batches, too, measure their progress, see how much longer they had to age.
When I woke up one morning in September following one of these brew-fests feeling a little off—not hungover exactly, but slightly food-poisoned—I first thought, We didn’t sanitize those bottles right. It can get tricky, brewing when you’re a little crocked. But David’s good health suggested that the beer was not the problem. I did not know it yet, but I’d been paying attention to ABV (alcohol by volume) and IBUs (international bitterness units) when I should have been paying attention to PPM (parts per million)—of gluten.
I was in the early stages of a massive flare-up of celiac disease, an inherited autoimmune syndrome that leads the body’s innate immune response to destroy healthy tissue in the small intestine when the person ingests gluten protein (which is technically two proteins, gliadin and glutenin). We most commonly consume gluten in the form of wheat and barley, though rye and spelt also contain gluten, as can oats, via cross-contamination in processing. The bread and the beer, though delicious, constituted a carpet-bombing of my gastrointestinal tract. Estimating my gluten consumption around that time is difficult, but some days I was probably taking in 50,000 PPM. A person with celiac disease should preferably have an intake of zero PPM gluten, though the definition of “gluten-free” has for a long time been 20 PPM because that was the lowest concentration the available technology could measure. More sensitive tests now exist, but 20 PPM remains the threshold of toxicity in the FDA’s 2014 ruling on the definition of “gluten-free foods.” Recent studies have found that level to be safe for people with celiac disease.
My GI symptoms—the bloating, gurgling, and diarrhea—came and went without any pattern until Thanksgiving, when they came to stay, and became uncontrollable. I felt as if something were rotting inside me, just below my navel. I was grateful that the university was on Thanksgiving break so I could focus on recuperating from what I thought was a stomach flu. I was feverish, my temples throbbed, and at times my blood pressure seemed to be so high that I could hear a whirring in my ears. One day I remembered that I had experienced the same symptoms a few years earlier, and a course of antibiotics had cleared it up. My doctor couldn’t see me until after Thanksgiving, though. Until then, I would try to stay hydrated, eat gentle foods like toast and saltines, scale back on my activities, and ride out the infection.
The Sunday after Thanksgiving, I ate what I now think of as the first of my last meals. It’s probably more accurate to call them “meals of lasts,” but that phrasing is awkward, and it undercuts what was to come—which, for a person who loves food, was a type of death.
With our family obligations for the holiday over, Bec, my co-brewer David, his wife Mere, and I sat down to a dinner of Thanksgiving leftovers and special cheese—Rogue Creamery’s Caveman Blue—that David and Mere had brought back from a recent trip. I did not feel well at all, but the spread was too fabulous to pass up. Bec made a loaf of limpa, and there was a white loaf and table water crackers to go with the cheese, and plenty of homemade cranberry chutney, applesauce, turkey, dressing, roasted Brussels sprouts, and pumpkin pie. I also seem to remember some cinnamon rolls left over from breakfast. The best part of this feast was that we didn’t eat in the traditional order. We just put all of the dishes in the middle of the table and took whatever we wanted as the Stones blared from the kitchen and the smell of wood smoke wafted from the stove in the living room. We accompanied it with some ales David and I had recently brewed. For me, this was the real Thanksgiving: a casual meal of good food with friends, no traditional holiday script or menu to follow, and no stress. My gut was enraged, but I tried to ignore it.
Later in the evening, David and I took down two tallboys of Irish stout. When we pulled the cap off, we received our first good sign, that fsst which means the priming sugar took and the beer isn’t flat. I needed only one sniff to know we’d nailed the brewing and the aging. The body was rich and malty, the head looked creamy and thick, and there wasn’t a trace of greenness in the finish. We passed the tallboys around and everyone poured a glass, admiring our greatest brewing triumph yet.
I struggled through half of mine, then pushed the glass aside.
“Stomach’s a little farked,” I said to David, borrowing one of his Australianisms.
The stout was the last I ever drank. The bread stuffing, the crackers, the salty, pungent blue cheese (which often contains gluten because the inoculation of bacteria comes from moldy bread that is grated into a fine powder and then sprinkled on or injected into the cheese)—these, too, were lasts.
I had one more crack at piecrust and bread a few days later, because our friends Sarah and Cory had been away from town and missed the feed; so we did Thanksgiving a third time, as brunch at Sarah’s house. Even though by that point my body seemed to be in a full-scale revolt—I’d stopped running and working out, stopped cooking, and had to struggle through my work and chores—the food on Sarah’s table forced me, once again, to rise to the occasion. I also didn’t want anyone to think anything was seriously wrong, though two weeks of GI trouble were beginning to show on my face as a combination of pallor and a blank stare. I tried to enjoy the quiche Lorraine, frittata, crêpes filled with preserves and cheese, and what must have been about three pounds of bacon and sausage from our friends at 8 O’clock Ranch, who supplied our meat. I shared in the mimosas and coffee. I avoided the bacon and the sausage because I was wary of the meat on my delicate stomach. Instead, I ate more bread.