“So I have good news and bad news,” the gastroenterologist told Paul Graham, sounding as if he were telling an unoriginal joke. “Your condition is entirely curable. But you’re not going to like the cure.”
Graham, a 36-year-old English professor in Upstate New York, had exhibited an increasingly severe range of symptoms — diarrhea, bloating, anemia, drastic weight loss, twitches, tremors. The GI doctor told him he had a serious case of celiac disease. If he cut out wheat, rye, barley, spelt and oats, he’d be fine, probably, in a few years. If he didn’t, the agony would get worse, and more serious complications, such as lymphoma, could occur.
It wasn’t just that a lot of Graham’s favorite things involved gluten in some form, from his wife’s wonderful homemade bread (he could eat a loaf a day) to his after-softball beer (and he was learning to home-brew!). He soon realized that he would have to abandon “Western civilization’s most important culinary and agricultural tradition,” a heritage so wheat-centric that “breaking bread” means having a meal.
Overnight, he writes, everything changed: “In a sense, I was not the same person.”
The basic structure of Graham’s new memoir, “In Memory of Bread” is the sometimes funny, sometimes poignant chronology of how he cured himself. Taking his “farewell tour-du-wheat,” he let himself have a final Reuben sandwich and a beer, which made him sick and then rueful: “I was ashamed: of my stupidity, of my weakness, of the fact that I couldn’t handle what I had just been told by my doctor, and it wasn’t even that bad. I didn’t have cancer; I didn’t have Crohn’s . . . .” Later, he could hardly face his first birthday with no birthday cake. And he recalls the moment he felt his health returning: He listened to a Miles Davis recording of “Bye-Bye Blackbird” and realized it was the first time music had sounded good in six months. “Something in my mind and in my body had cleared, recovered, been cleansed.”
His story is broadened and made far more interesting with a wide-ranging, well-researched dissertation on wheat, involving history, culture, chemistry and agriculture. (The epigraph is a quote from George Orwell: “I think it could plausibly be argued that changes of diet are more important than changes of dynasty or even of religion.”)
The true hero of the book may be Graham’s wife, Bec. As soon as the gastroenterologist pronounced his verdict and sentence, she promised her husband, “Of course, I will do this with you.” And she did, voluntarily, meal by gluten-free meal. Greater love hath . . . nobody.