I Miss White Bread

The staff of life is vanishing from local tables, banished by science. Maybe science can bring it back.

Photo | Shutterstock.com

Photo | Shutterstock.com

Poor bread.

Nobody wants to eat it anymore. It’s full of carbs. And gluten. It’s made from wheat.

I’m not talking fancy-ass bread, the kind that comes in the extra-cost “bread service” at elite restaurants these days, made from spelt and oats and black rice and seaweed, served with anchovy-tamarind-apricot spread. I’m talking white bread, the fluffy stuff that used to be a given at the start of any meal out and a staple of the home dinner table. That you ate with butter, not a plate of extra virgin olive oil pocked with herbs.

I miss white bread.

I don’t eat it anymore, either. Who can buy a bag of Wonder or Grandpa Stroehmann’s nowadays without feeling racked by guilt? Even though I know it’s what peanut butter and jelly taste best on … what bacon, lettuce, and tomato cry out for … I can’t do it. I opt instead for something dense and grainy and brown, preferably with flax seeds that I’ll spend the rest of the day picking out of my teeth.

For centuries, human beings survived on bread. Thirty thousand years ago, Europeans were pounding starchy plants on rocks; 10,000 years ago, we stopped wandering around from place to place, settled into villages, and grew wheat — thus initiating the rise of civilizations. Bread has wormed its way deep into our languages and cultures; we break bread with friends, ask God for our daily portion, envy the “upper crust,” call money “dough” and “bread.” The Body of Christ doesn’t transubstantiate into porridge, yo.

And yet. A century ago, your average Frenchman ate three baguettes a day; now, he consumes less than half a loaf. In America, 56 percent of consumers today say they’re buying less white bread. Concerns about obesity, allergies, celiac disease and carbs have made the once-ubiquitous bread basket on restaurant tables increasingly obsolete, or have morphed it into a separate course you choose to pay for and consume. This is no doubt a good thing in a society where a third of us are overweight. Yet I remember how, when my kids were small, the arrival of that gratis basket on the table seemed like such a blessing. Finally, a distraction! Something to keep them occupied!

That complimentary baked dough was also a nicety, an acknowledgment that you were coming to “break bread” with your fellow community of diners, a millennia-old sign of hospitality. An amuse-bouche doesn’t quite signify the same thing.

Those dense, dark breads we now celebrate were once the fodder of peasants; refined white flour cost more and was a sign of class. That it’s now spurned as a source of allergens is a little peculiar; the fourth-century B.C. Greek poet Diphilus (I know; it sounds like a venereal disease) declared wheat bread “more nourishing, more digestible, and in every way superior” to bread made from barley or other grains.

And now — son of a bitch! It turns out Diphilus may have been right. Despite white bread’s dark rap, a recent study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry showed a surprising benefit to its consumption: It boosts the levels of Lactobacillus bacteria in the gut. Lactobacillus are the same bacteria that give us cheese, beer, wine, yogurt, pickles and cider, among other foods. It’s one of those newfangled probiotics. Talk about your staves of life! Strains of Lactobacillus have been shown to protect against tumors and cancers and to have anti-inflammatory properties.

So maybe white bread is ready to join the list of once-scientifically scorned foods that are now being rehabilitated by science, among them coffeebutter, coconut and dark chocolate, which has the same salutary effects on gut bacteria as white bread. Which makes me wonder: Does science have any idea what it’s doing? Especially when the scientist who once told us gluten was the root of all evil just came out and announced he, um, had been completely wrong?

I think I’ll make a BLT and chew on it.

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