I live down the block from Blackbird, the best bakery in Toronto. As I make coffee in the morning, I open the window and the scent of baking bread sneaks into my home, the warm air rising up four flights, luring me to crash against the rocks of its siren's call.
But although I want bread all the time, I hardly eat it. Because the idea that it's bad for me is lodged in my head.
I am, by most standards, a thin guy. I try to stay that way by swimming, lifting weights and, since my wife bought a used treadmill on Craigslist, running in one spot, a maple-scented candle lit to cover the musk of stale cigarette smoke inexplicably locked into the plastic and metal contraption. I cook every day, eating a balanced diet, with lots of fresh vegetables and protein from a variety of sources.
Despite all that, I feel terrible about my body. When I pass a mirror, I see my tummy hanging out. When I pass the bakery, I think of the mirror. My wife tells me I'm handsome, sometimes patting my belly, as if to add, "just the way you are." But she was also the one who bought Old Smokey, so her testimony does not stand up to cross-examination.
So I get that the turn-of-the-century Atkins Diet craze, when carbs became the new tobacco, are in the rear view. But even after the zealots turned their sights on sugar, bread has remained on the wanted list of semi-forbidden bad-boy foods.
Lately, though, the bread evangelists – author Michael Pollan, Noma Founder Claus Meyer, chef Adam Leonti of Sessanta at the Sixty SoHo hotel in New York – have come out of hiding, to tell us that bread is okay again and always was. Especially Pollan, the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food and Food Rules: An Eater's Manifesto, and who occupies an exalted status in the food world, equal parts sagely guru and radical disruptor.
Although he writes and speaks with bountiful detail and nuance, over the past decade Pollan's message has consistently been new permutations on the theme: eat better food. He homes in on what makes better bread in his Netflix series, Cooked.
The series starts with an episode called Air, which positions the popular gas that you and I breath every day at the centre of bread's identity. "Air is one of the reasons we love bread," says Pollan, showing us micro-lensed close-ups of sourdough interior, air pockets as craterous as the moon's surface.
He cuts to a food scientist named Nathan Myhrvold, who crushes loaves of bread on camera to demonstrate how, removed of air, bread is quickly compacted from the size of a laptop to an iPad. The stunt only makes you think that eating a loaf of bread, when you flatten it, doesn't sound like so much bread. Myhrvold's folksy, television-ready science lesson describes the process of bread rising as gas expanding within the dough by bacteria "farting into balloons" called gluten.
Did that cause you to gasp in fright? As a reason-slash-scapegoat for why we shouldn't eat bread, gluten has been a phenomenal target. But this is actually the show's Keyser Soze moment, when an antagonist is introduced with the suggestion our arch-villain's power may be an exaggeration of mythical proportions, a boogeyman to scare kids.
That's not to say gluten is without its issues – for the 1 per cent of people who suffer from celiac disease and 0.4 per cent who have real wheat allergies (my numbers are from the Celiac Disease Foundation). That's a real problem, but for a pretty small number of people.
"Gluten sensitivity," on the other hand, as promoted by the anti-gluten bible, cardiologist William Davis's 2011 Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health, has become as easy to diagnose as chocoholism. And a generation of fad-dieters, believing they've found that one simple trick, have made bread the enemy while generating consumer demand for gluten-free options of nearly everything in the supermarket – including foods that never contained it in the first place.
"Bananas are gluten-free, too," says Bryn Rawlyk, owner of the Night Oven Bakery in Saskatoon. "I remember being a kid in a grocery store and asking, what's cholesterol and why are bananas cholesterol-free? Because they had stickers in the eighties, when everyone was worried about cholesterol. It's all happened before and this is just elaborate marketing."
Rawlyk says he regularly gets customers who tell him they are gluten-sensitive, only to discover they are fine eating his bread. He believes that while some bakeries did take a sales hit at the height of anti-gluten hysteria, public opinion is shifting back.
"The point that people missed was that it was about the industrialization of flour and bread," he says. "If you're taking grain and milling it to make sourdough, it's a lot different than Wonderbread, which is hardly even bread in my opinion."
In a mill he built himself, Rawlyk grinds whole grains from Saskatchewan farmers – Red Fife, Marquis, carberry, einkorn, spelt, buckwheat, rye – into flour as needed to bake about 100 loaves a day in a wood-fired oven.
"We just put grain in the top and flour comes out the bottom," he says. So his breads contain 100-per-cent whole-grain wheat flour, which retains all the nutrition of the grain's three main components; bran, germ and endosperm. This is distinct from whole-wheat flour that you might buy at the grocery: in Canada, up to 5 per cent of the whole grain can be removed, usually the bran and most of the germ, to help reduce rancidity and prolong the flour's shelf life. But with the germ goes all its nutrients, including iron, zinc, potassium and calcium.
Grocery-store white bread is made with white flour, which is itself made from commodity wheat that is milled to a powder after the nutrient-rich germ and bran are removed entirely to make it shelf-stable. Instead of the gradual fermentation process of sourdough, the rising of the dough is stimulated by active dry yeast. And yeast, argues Marc-André Cyr of Automne bakery in Montreal, is not the enemy either.
"Yeast gets a bad rap … I think it's about the amount," he says. "You can get some beautiful results with a small amount of yeast and long rising times." The case for (and against) bread then is that white bread, or "supermarket bread" is the real villain.
"Industrialization is not inherently evil," Pollan says. "But often in the rush to make something cheaper, we overlook the reason why it was done in the somewhat more painstaking way. And in the case of bread, what we may have overlooked is the importance of a long, slow, sourdough fermentation."
For Automne (and Blackbird), such effort yields lineups every weekend. "From 8 a.m., as soon as we open, until midday, sometimes out the door," says kitchen manager Cyr of Automne, which produces about 500 loaves a day.
Another harbinger of bread's return to a key position in our lifestyle is the fancy-toast craze: While it hasn't caught on in Canada as much as the United States, if you're a hip urbanite, you or someone you know has Everything I Want to Eat on coffee-table display. The luscious book, based on Jessica Koslow's popular Los Angeles restaurant Sqirl, has 10 pages of bread-related recipes that are pretty much just "toast bread and put stuff on it."
A final update: I have bought a loaf of whole-grain sourdough from my neighbour. After two slices, I can report feeling as if I've reunited with my college roommate. Having spent a day and evening reliving old times, I have completely forgotten why we ever stopped being best friends.