ROBERT ST. JOHN: The beauty of wheat



Gluten-free diets, books and food products are hot.

The gluten-free menu at our Italian concept, Tabella, has steadily grown in popularity since we added it a few years ago. Gluten-free products continue to take up more grocery shelf space. Books such as “Wheat Belly,” about the evils of 21st century breads and cereals, are becoming best sellers, and doctors are steering patients towards heirloom wheat such as Einkorn.

An older woman I know was having vertigo, and on a whim, committed to a gluten-free diet. She is 100 percent healthy today. A young lady I know was having terrible migraines. She started a gluten-free diet and is perfectly well.

I was doing fine, a few dozen pounds overweight maybe, but I was relatively healthy for a guy who consumes the amount of food and types of food I inhale on a daily basis. Then Lent came along, and I gave up wheat.

I was fresh from a doctor visit from a very educated and dedicated woman who preached the evils of wheat. She explained how wheat has been genetically modified several times since the 1970s and how the breads and cereals of our youth are vastly different to those we are eating today. I believe that. I did the research and know to my core there is a huge difference in today’s wheat – and how our bodies react to it – versus the wheat of our ancestors.

So armed with just enough knowledge to be dangerous – and with Ash Wednesday approaching – I decided to go wheat-free for Lent.

I love bread. Seriously I really, really love bread. People who know me well know how much I love bread. Years ago I gave up drinking and partying, a few years after that I gave up cigarettes, then I got married and gave up sex. My vice these days: food. And on the Robert St. John personal food pyramid chart, bread holds a pretty lofty place in the hierarchy of things that taste good.

Some of you might be thinking, so what did you do? How did you live without wheat? Actually, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. Hundreds of items in our restaurants are gluten-free. Not just items on the gluten-free menu but regular every-day entrees and appetizers, and since everything is prepared to order we can alter dishes to specific diets. That was my saving grace.

We use 100 percent corn flour to fry our shrimp. There is no wheat involved anywhere in the process. Fried shrimp: check. Fresh fish: check. Steak: check. Rice: check. Sautéed seafood over rice: check. Hamburger without the bun: check. There are dozens and dozens of items on our restaurant’s menus – and I am sure other restaurant’s menus as well – that don’t contain wheat.

The grocery store was a big help, too. Before Ash Wednesday I was making regular grocery runs to Whole Foods to pick up a few gourmet items I couldn’t purchase at home, and to buy a few gluten-free items for my mom. She liked a certain gluten-free frozen pizza, Udi’s, and so I started purchasing those for myself. King Arthur Flour makes a gluten-free brownie mix that is as good as my homemade brownie recipe.

I have eaten my weight in oatmeal and have broadened my consumption of fruits and vegetables. I’ve grown to love strawberries with a splash of half and half and a sprinkling of sugar for dessert, and a side of pineapple instead of wheat toast alongside my morning omelet.

With Easter morning approaching I find myself answering the oft-asked question, “Will you stay wheat-free after Lent?” The answer is “No,” but not a resounding or emphatic “No.” I plan to still eat many of the gluten-free items I’ve grown to love over the past few weeks. I rarely feel bloated and miserable after a meal, which must be a result of being off wheat and wheat by-products.

There are three packages of orange sweet rolls my friend Mary Virginia McKenzie delivered to my home several weeks ago. They are stored in my freezer and are filled with wheat and sugar and everything that tastes good in life. Those will be gone in short order on Easter morning. But after that, I plan to modify my eating habits.

My New York editor once told me his secret to staying trim. He said, “I only eat meat, bread and cheese that is ‘good.’” It wasn’t a snobby statement, just a way of life. Fast food hamburger? No. Braised beef shanks or sliced strip steak? Yes. Packaged dinner rolls? No. Artisan bread? Yes. Processed cheese? No. Fresh Pecorino Romano? Yes. It makes perfect sense to me.


Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.

Click video to hear audio