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Bread making (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

Recently my wife and I ate at a local mexican restaurant and while there I studied their machine for making tortilla bread - oddly enough it reminded me of genetically modified food. Now compared to messing with genes a bread machine seems mundane - who doesn't have one in their home? - but in the 19th century this machine would have been as controversial as today's genetically modified food.

To someone like 19th century minister Sylvester Graham a bread machine would be a kind of heresy. To Graham the problem with bread was not technical but spiritual. Graham spoke in favor of hard mattresses, cold showers, and a special diet. His great concern was to restore man's contact with nature using flour, bread and chewing.

"Bread," Graham said, "should be baked in such a way that it will ... require and secure a full exercise of the teeth in mastication." In simple words: bread must be chewy. Small wonder Ralph Waldo Emerson called him "the prophet of bran bread and pumpkins." Graham advocated stale bread to promote chewing, but when this didn't catch on, he pushed a recipe for a coarse wheat bread.

It was whole wheat bread with a dash of doctrine. He insisted it be made by hand at home because even if a commercial baker followed Graham's recipes, the baker lacked "the moral sensibility" to make healthful bread. Graham said the baker could not grasp "the importance ... of bread, in relation to the happiness and welfare of those who consume it." Such a moral sensibility is not, thought Graham, found in commercial bakers. And he was deeply concerned about what he called "artificial chemical agents" used by bakers - the yeasts and salt we use today - and he even implied they tossed "chalk, pipe clay and plaster of paris" into their breads to increase their weight and whiteness. Not surprisingly, a mob of angry bakers once attacked him.

Graham's influence is still with us today: He invented the Graham cracker to make it convenient to chew wheat grain anytime of the day, and one of his many followers - called "Grahamites" - pressed flour into thin sheets, then ground it into bite-sized pieces, and baked it until hard. Thus inventing cold breakfast cereal.

Today we regard this 19th century minister Sylvester Graham as something of a crank, but in a sense he was right. He feared that processed soft white bread lacked all nutrition.

In 1974 a medical journal suggested that fiber could reduce all sorts of diseases, igniting a firestorm against white bread and a return to "natural" breads that were less processed. So, was Graham right? Maybe, but the coin is flipping again: Science now tells us that white bread does indeed contain fewer nutrients than whole wheat, but that those in the wheat breads cannot be digested as easily, which is fine in our nutritionally rich western world, but in poorer nations a diet purely of unprocessed grain can tip the balance from health to serious disease.

So what does this story of Reverend Sylvester Graham and his fear of white bread tell us about genetically modified food? Well, just that it isn't purely a technical question - the use of these foods will require a consensus reached by a community based on their norms, their religious views, and their needs - and as we debate scientists and engineers will weigh in, but will not necessarily have the final word.

Copyright 2000 William S. Hammack Enterprises