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A History of Wheat

Wheat is a difficult plant to turn into food. How did it become the most produced food crop in the world? Bee Wilson reviews Catherine Zabinski’s Amber Waves: The Extraordinary Biography of Wheat in the London Review of Books:

In 2019, wheat was grown on more land than any other food crop: 538 million acres across the globe. On average, it contributes the largest amount of calories to the human diet of any foodstuff, according to data from the CIAT (the Chartered Institute of Architectural Technologists), a research group for the Food and Agriculture Association. In 2009, the average human had access to 498 calories a day from wheat compared with 349 calories from oils, 333 calories from rice and 281 calories from sugar and other sweeteners. In some countries, such as Turkey and France, per capita wheat consumption is a great deal higher and in others, such as Cameroon (where maize is the staple food) or the Philippines (rice), much lower. But it’s striking that wheat consumption has been increasing fast since the 1960s, even in traditional rice economies such as China and Japan. The supply of wheat in China rose from fewer than 200 calories per person a day in 1961 to nearly 600 in 2009. Across Asia, the gradual substitution of wheat for rice has been a near universal marker of economic development.

The human relationship with wheat is the subject of Catherine Zabinski’s short book Amber Waves, which presents itself as a ‘biography’ of the grain, although she reminds us on page three that ‘wheat isn’t a person’ in case we were liable to be confused. Zabinski, a plant and soil ecologist at Montana State University, seeks to tell ‘a story of a group of grasses whose existence became complicated by its convergence with our own species and our never-ending need for more food’. The vast consumption of wheat today is linked to the fact that it is the main ingredient in so many convenience foods. If you want to satisfy hunger quickly and cheaply, the odds are that you will turn to a wheat-based food (unless you opt for potatoes, in the form of crisps or chips). You might buy a healthy wrap or an unhealthy burger or a pie or a sandwich or a slice of pizza or a tub of instant ramen or a samosa or a slice of toast or a bowl of bran flakes. Whichever choice you make, you will end up eating the same industrial wheat. No other grain comes in such a vast range of ready-to-eat foods. Yet it must have taken great perseverance and ingenuity for our Neolithic ancestors to add wheat to their diets. The calories it contains are remarkably difficult to access compared with other items in the hunter-gatherer diet such as wild fruits and nuts and honey and meat. Wheat was originally a wild grass, as Zabinski explains, and ‘grass seeds are small and hard and impenetrable’.

In evolutionary terms, wild wheat seeds do not want to be eaten, because as soon as they are broken open, they cease to be a seed. In this, grains differ from wild fruits, which positively invite animals to eat them. Fruit is luscious and sweet in order to appeal to creatures that will eat the flesh and excrete the seeds, thus dispersing them. Wild wheat seeds, by contrast, have extremely hard hulls to deter predators. Every seed, as Thor Hanson put it in The Triumph of Seeds (2015), consists of three elements: a baby, lunch and a box. The ‘baby’ is the embryo of the new plant. The ‘lunch’ is the nutritive tissue that provides energy reserves until the seed can start to absorb nutrients from the soil. In the case of wheat seeds, this is a combination of protein and carbohydrate, while in oil seeds such as sunflower seeds the lunch is mostly fat. Finally, every seed is contained in a ‘box’: a defence mechanism to protect the germ from hungry animals. In theory, a chilli seed stops anyone from eating it by burning them. An almond kernel defends itself by being bitter, and having a slightly poisonous taste (which backfired when humans acquired a love of that curious marzipan flavour). A wheat seed protects itself with a series of viciously hard layers: first a hull, and then a layer of bran, made up of a fruit coat and a seed coat fused together. Only when both of these layers have been penetrated do you reach the wheat germ (the baby embryo) and the wheat starch (the lunch). These defences might have been enough to put off most herbivores, but humans – omnivores in possession of tools – were not so easily deterred.

In other (food) news: Lindt opens its new chocolate museum in Switzerland, and it includes a huge chocolate fountain: “The massive museum features a 16,000 square-foot exhibit on the history of chocolate, a tasting room, an open-view production line, classes on chocolate making and the world’s largest Lindt Chocolate Shop. The pièce de résistance is a 30-foot fountain spewing ‘real melted chocolate’ onto a huge Lindor simulated truffle.”

Dear old Banksy may be a staunch anti-capitalist when it comes to banks turning a profit or auction houses making a buck, but he likes his coin as much as anyone. A European panel, however, has ruled that his trademarks are invalid because of his anonymity: “Banksy lost the case against a greeting card company, Full Colour Black, which argued it should be able to use an image of the Flower Thrower stencil mural, which he painted in Bethlehem, because of the artist’s anonymity. In 2014, Banksy’s representatives, Pest Control Office, successfully applied for an EU trademark of the Flower Thrower, but this week that was overturned after a two-year dispute. The European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) panel said it ruled against the artist because he could not be identified as the unquestionable owner of such works because his identity remained hidden. ‘Banksy has chosen to remain anonymous and, for the most part, to paint graffiti on other people’s property without their permission, rather than to paint it on canvases or his own property,’ the panel said.”

The National Book Award nominees have been announced.

Check out the Scrabble-like signs of the National Library of Luxembourg: “Pentagram partner Sascha Lobe and his team designed a wayfinding system for the library with a custom typeface called Bibliothèque that has sharp, angled serifs that nod to the library’s strong architectural angles. (The building was designed by Bolles+Wilson.) The Pentagram team then applied those custom letters to 25,000 interchangeable resin cubes.”

Sigh: “To musicologist Nate Sloan and songwriter Charlie Harding, stars of the ‘Switched on Pop’ podcast produced in association with the New York Philharmonic, the Fifth Symphony is a stand-in for everything they don’t like about classical music and Western culture. As far as they’re concerned, it’s time to cancel Ludwig. On Vox.com, the pair blame Beethoven’s music for what they consider to be a stuffy elitist classical culture that bolsters the rule of white males and suppresses the voices of women, blacks and the LGBTQ community.”

Bigger Thomas restored for the big (and small) screen.

Sam McBratney, the Northern Irish creator of Nutbrown Hare, has died. He was 77.

Photo: St. Mary’s Church in Kandersteg

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about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

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