Leavening the psyche

Michelle's mish-mosh

The scent permeates the household in a fit of yeasty seduction. That sweet, heavy flavor conjures memories of mornings in the kitchen, picnics with gingham tablecloths and evenings flowing with wine and cheese. Bread is the simplest form of sustenance, enjoyed by the poor man and the king alike, and I find nothing stirs my romantic sensibilities quite like a freshly baked loaf.

Bread is a sentimental and cultural affair. Break into a crusty baguette, smother it in chevre, and suddenly you become a snooty Frenchman dining on the Riviera. Drizzle olive oil on ciabatta, and rows of Tuscan vineyards unfurl before you. Serve your chili with a chunk of cornbread, and feel the heat radiating from the banks of the Mississippi. You get the picture. Bread dominates the cuisine of every region, similar to the way its aroma seeps into the crevices of the house during those final minutes in the oven.

Reveling in the boring days of summer, I’ve taken to bread baking. And, as in everything in my life, irony abounds. When I began my bread-scapades, I actually hadn’t eaten any bread, not a bite, in over four months. I blamed bread — and all starches, for that matter — for my body’s ailments, from my flabby arms to my weak midsection. That’s quite a lot of blame for a chunk of flour, water and yeast to bear.

Carbs are derided and bedeviled everywhere, not just by fad diets, with bread often portrayed as the most despicable of all. Remember when grain products were the biggest chunk of the food pyramid? Now, they are allocated to just a corner of the government-sponsored MyPlate. Even the government spurns carbs.

Doctors and health professionals give us what we want from these sorts of diets: quick weight loss. A diet’s effectiveness is often judged solely by its efficiency in getting off the pounds. Exchanging one’s overall health for speedy weight loss is ludicrous, and eliminating food groups in pursuit of a godlike physique is as unsustainable as it is unfair to ourselves.

With this endless stream of anti-carb rhetoric, I thought the only viable solution was cutting the spongy goodness out of my diet. But a bread-free existence, although arguably easier on the waistline, proved mentally damaging.

According to a recent study by MIT researcher Judith Wurtman, carbohydrates spur the gradual release of serotonin in the body. Simply put, carbs make you happy, and the happier you are, the fewer the cravings you have. My friends can attest to this phenomenon all too well; four months sans bread and I had a constant case of the grumps.

Naturally, everything must be consumed in moderation. Refined sugars and starches have contributed to America’s obesity pandemic just as much as they have my mood swings. But we must not let the inferior nutrition of Wonder Bread and chocolate bagels tarnish the reputation of all carbs, just as we shouldn’t judge a single religion by its zealots. Talk about carb-icism.

We too often rely on the elimination or limited intake of a single food group, namely carbohydrates in the case of fad diets, as a means for healthy living. Depriving our bodies of the things we crave may save us some calories, but mentally, it traps us in self-discipline. You might live longer with your low-carb eating plan, but it’s simply not satisfying, for the belly or the psyche. Those cravings appear for a reason, and I fear that systematically limiting our intake of certain foods in the name of health — foods that have acted as major nutritional sources for the past 30,000 years — will have drastic consequences on our bodies in the long run.

In fact, bread was once humans’ primary source of sustenance. If the Jews made a point of grabbing their unleavened dough before hitching out of Egypt and Jesus put it on the table for his Last Supper, bread must be more than tasty — perhaps it’s even holy.

I once baked bread for everyone but myself to enjoy. Not allowing myself to indulge in my creations was utterly demoralizing; while others were worthy of my masterpieces, I was not.

With images of haloed biscuits and cherubic Kaiser rolls, I overrode the roadblocks of my self-discipline and indulged in a fresh loaf of honey whole wheat. My heart soared — possibly from the elevated levels of serotonin — and I feared not the calories but the many days I had spent without this substance that transcends all other foods in taste, texture and history.

I baked a loaf of bread in a fit of writer’s block while writing this column, hoping that its steaming presence on my countertop would inspire my creative juices. Within an hour, the loaf mysteriously disappeared, and my column was written. Too much bread may bloat the body, but as British journalist William Cobbett once said, “Without bread, all is misery.” Take that, Dr. Atkins.