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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.

How liberating would it be to discover that gluten, the magical protein found in wheat, barley, and rye—the one that allows bread to rise and gives pasta its chew—hasn’t been the culprit all along? Mark Shigenaga, a biochemist focused on nutrition at the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute and one of Klein’s counselors, believes that gluten is too easily scapegoated and that the strength of the whole immune system—specifically as it affects the gut—needs to be considered. “I think there’s something else going on. It’s about the way the Western population eats,” he says. “And that is—crappy.”

Pollan, who devotes a chapter of his latest book, Cooked, to bread, much of it whole grain, concurs. “It’s part of our habitual obsession with individual nutrients—we focus on one molecule,” he says. “That’s not to say that there’s not some basis to it. But gluten is just protein, for heaven’s sake.” Even among experts such as Dr. Stefano Guandalini, medical director of the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, the consensus on what’s behind the gluten hysteria is that there is no consensus. “We have absolutely no clue at this point [about this illness],” said Guandalini in a recent New York Times article about “non-celiac gluten sensitivity”—a new, rather sweeping diagnosis for everyone who complains about gluten except those who actually have celiac disease.

With the medical experts still scratching their heads, the reported 29 percent of Americans who are attempting to avoid gluten have been searching out their own solutions. Witness the avalanche of gluten-free products that replace glutinous ingredients with natural—though not always particularly nutritious—substitutes like cornstarch, potato starch, rice flour, milk powder, tapioca flour, and xanthan gum (all of the above, in fact, make up Keller’s Cup4Cup). But a growing number of people—including celebrated pastry chef Michelle Polzine of the soon-to-open 20th Century Café in Hayes Valley, who finds that gluten gives her a “head rush” and mood swings—are stopping short of the gluten-free section. As Polzine says, much of the “gluten-free stuff has lots of chemicals in it, and chemicals shouldn’t be part of the ultimate solution.”

This is the view that Ponsford has taken at Ponsford’s Place—where everything, from the croissants to the baguettes, is made with whole-milled whole-grain flour. The result is a selection of pastries that are more rustic, and less pretty, than what you’d find in a Parisian patisserie, but that Ponsford’s acolytes—including customers with diabetes and a host of allergies—gobble without trepidation.

On the other side of the Bay in the neighborhood of Rockridge, Oliveto’s Klein is working tirelessly to spread the word about wheat. With the kind of maniacal enthusiasm you’d more often find in a twentysomething small-batch brewer, the 66-year-old has devoted what could be his early retirement years to Community Grains, a business that he founded four years ago. With a hearing aid, a rotund build, and a penchant for sweater vests, he looks the professorial part. When he talks about wheat, he pulls thoughtfully on his gray beard. In response to my interview request, he invites me to a whole grain–focused lunch with the promise that I won’t go into a carb-fueled coma afterward—and a warning that this whole-grain thing is complicated. “The subject is huge and interesting,” he warns, as if we’re about to jump into the fourth dimension. “We’re in for a wild ride.”

Today, Community Grains sells its whole-grain pastas and stone-milled flours at places like Whole Foods and Bi-Rite, but Klein has no intention of stopping there. He wants to “rebuild the local grain economy in Northern California” by supporting small farmers who grow different varieties of wheat (he currently has Rominger Brothers, Full Belly, and Front Porch farms growing for him); by helping to create protocols for growing and milling these often unreliable varieties (consistency and availability are essential); and by producing food of the highest culinary quality—not “hippie-dippie, good-for-you” food, as he puts it.

Klein’s propensity to deep dive into uncharted waters has a history. Since Oliveto’s nascent days, he has used the 26-year-old restaurant as a venue for food education— hosting such events as heirloom-tomato dinners and nose-to-tail feasts long before they were in vogue. “At Oliveto, we have a history of getting into things,” he says with mirth. “Very cool things happen when you spend time with your producer, your farmer, your fisherman. Northern California has a long history of that. And I thought we could do the same thing with grain. But I don’t know if I’d ever seen wheat grown when I started this. It was a casual idea at the beginning.” Not anymore. Boxes and boxes of Community Grains dried pastas, all made with different varieties of wheat, spill out of Klein’s small office. The company website has a blog, whole-grain recipes, and links to scientific articles.

While Americans are now almost blasé about the number of appealingly named heirloom-tomato varieties available for purchase—beefsteaks are so 20 years ago— only 1 percent of the wheat grown here goes by an actual name, like Red Fife or Masami. In many ways, the Green Revolution (the period in the mid–20th century when the Western world figured out how to increase agricultural output by using synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and hybridized seeds) is to blame for the fact that wheat has become a nameless monocrop that’s bought and sold like natural gas.

Klein intends to change this as part of his 40-year plan—which he says that he’d like to execute in 10 years. He looks forward to the day when we’ll be selecting our pasta or bread based on a varietal’s flavor profile. Like third-wave coffee, bread may eventually be sold with a little handwritten haiku—“Hard red spring wheat, 2013 Yecora Rojo: mild, pleasant, malt, earth, simple, woody, hay.” (These are actual notes from a tasting panel of 13 players in the food industry that Klein assembled.)

And here’s a potential added bonus for the bloated: Old-world grains, Klein and others are beginning to believe, not only are tastier, but could also be more easily digested. It’s a chromosome thing, they say. The Whole Grains Council cites studies showing that older wheats have lower levels of gliadins, the type of gluten protein that seems to cause most sensitivities. But Dr. Stephen S. Jones, another expert on the IACP panel (he studies 40,000 types of wheat grown every year by Washington State University’s wheat-breeding program in western Washington), disputes this. “We’ve looked at old wheats and modern wheats, and similar amounts of gluten are in both. It loses its story, I know,” he says, with a twinge of dejection. Once again, the gluten jury is out.

Page three: Bringing sexy back to bread