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English Prof’s New Book Chronicles A Life Without Bread

Paul Graham did not set out to write a memoir about coming to terms with the diagnosis of celiac disease.

Instead, the St. Lawrence University associate professor of English and Class of 1999 graduate wrote In Memory of Bread (Penguin Random House, 2016) as a way of connecting his own experiences with the broader historical and cultural experiences with wheat, bread and other gluten-containing grains.

“Bread made us civilized,” he said. “In some ways, grain drove the Neolithic revolution. We are all-but hardwired to want bread.”

A self-proclaimed gourmand as well as an avid cook, home brewer, food writer, and advocate for local eating, his life completely changed in 2012 when he was diagnosed with the autoimmune disorder. The cure: stop eating bread and wheat and gluten in every possible form, including drinking beer.

“I was mad as hell and a little lost,” he recalled. “I had to learn how to cook again. What I found in the process is that there was a joy in going back in time and learning how people cooked when there was no wheat available. Wheat wasn’t a reliable staple for most of its history; it was prone to crashes due to pests and diseases. But, no wheat did not necessarily mean no bread.”

Graham’s research informed him that people would use chestnuts, peas, beans, rice and potatoes. “If they could grind it up and get yeast to bloom in it, they used it.”

The same held true for the making of beer. “It was rewarding to uncover all of the various items that people used,” he said, “like the fact people use sorghum to make beer in Africa.”

In addition to recalling the history of bread making, Graham was also interested in reframing the discussion surrounding celiac disease by telling his own story as a way to get at potential causes.

“People want to blame big agriculture, or they want to blame GMOs, when there are no genetically modified wheat products,” he said. “There’s no doubt that the number of people with celiac disease has gone up. However, it’s interesting to note that the first case of the disease goes back to the year 100 A.D. So it’s hard to point to exactly what makes this gene flip on.”

For Graham, reprogramming his body away from gluten-filled products took a real effort. Researching and writing In Memory of Bread was perhaps a therapeutic way for him to deal with this disease. Luckily, he didn’t have to do it alone.

“My wife gave up bread with me,” he said. “It’s the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me.”

Learn more about the book at www.inmemoryofbread.com and read Graham’s own account in Signature.

In the News

Paul Graham was interviewed on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “The Joy Cardin Show” on June 8, 2016.