In Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, a village of beleaguered peasants seeks to protect itself from marauding bandits by hiring a squad of samurai. To show their esteem, they offer up precious white rice to the warriors, saving only lowly millet for themselves. Today, of course, the situation would be reversed: If my urban village were threatened, white rice wouldn't be good enough for a discriminating swordsman. I'd have to scurry off to Whole Foods to get some more highfalutin grain—something like millet—instead.
Although whole grains like millet have had a certain recherché chic for a while now, we don't eat very much of them: According to the Whole Grains Council, a bran-friendly lobbying group, whole grains represent only about 10 percent of grains sold in supermarkets. But the USDA's recent suggestion that at least half of the grains we eat each day should be whole ones, and the cereal industry's parallel scramble to cash in on a possible health-food boom, mean that whole grains—millet, whole wheat, brown rice, oatmeal, and the rest of the gang—are in for a very good year. Which makes you wonder: If whole grains are so tasty, hip, and good for us, how come they occupy such a tiny sliver of our diet?
First a quick anatomy lesson: Grains (and the "pseudocereals" buckwheat, quinoa, and amaranth) are seeds. Whole grains and flours retain the bran, the fibrous coating of the kernel; the aleurone layer, the fatty, nutrient-rich coating beneath it; and the germ, the would-be baby plant, which is rich in protein and some fat. White flour or rice contains just the starchy endosperm of the kernel. When these outer components are removed, so are much of the grain's protein, fiber, B vitamins, and so-called micronutrients. Without those extra bits, refined grains are lighter in color, texture, and depending on whom you ask, flavor.
For centuries, practically since people have been writing about food, refined grains have been preferred to their heavy brown counterparts. Go-to food-science writer Harold McGee quotes Archestratus, a foodie contemporary of Aristotle's, kvelling over "bread so white that it outdoes the ethereal snow in purity." Back then, white grains were more expensive than brown, because it took more labor to produce a smaller yield. Scarcity, of course, made refined grains more desirable. "White bread has always been higher status than dark bread," says food historian Harvey Levenstein. "As soon as [people] could afford it, they switched." In late 19th century, roller mills that isolated the endosperm with amazing speed and thoroughness suddenly made white flour, rice, and cornmeal cheap and plentiful. By the turn of the 20th century, when heebie-jeebies about germs started driving American food purchases, flour, bread, and crackers that were sanitarily packaged and snow-white seemed like a much safer bet than anything flecked and brown.
There are practical reasons, too, why refined grains were valued over history. With less fat to go rancid, white flour has a much longer shelf life than wheat flour, which must be more carefully stored. The particles of germ and bran that circulate in whole grain flours also mess with the magic of gluten, which allows baked goods to rise and pasta to stretch. Gluten provides what's known in the hairspray industry as "elastic hold": It lets dough stretch around, but capture, carbon dioxide bubbles generated by yeast or other leaveners. (Which helps explain the sodden whole-grain muffins and doorstop loaves of bread I've occasionally had the misfortune to encounter.)
So, how did whole grains regain a foothold in our diets? Popular support for them bubbled up in the 19th century, when quack nutritionists with an evangelical bent (among them Sylvester Graham and JH Kellogg) railed against refined flours as a symptom of modernity's unnatural trajectory. Eventually more reliable scientists confirmed that whole grains had valuable nutritional components. Research in late-19th century Java proved that the debilitating disease beriberi could be reversed when rice bran was re-incorporated into a white rice diet; soon the curative agent was proved to be vitamin B1. In response, since the 1940s, most refined grains have been fortified with several of the vitamins that are stripped away with the bran and the germ. Despite this nutritional boost, researchers continued to find virtue in unrefined grains themselves, linking their vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients with cancer prevention, weight maintenance, and better colon and heart health.
From the '70s on, Americans embraced whole grains as badge of wholesome eating. Thirty years ago, Americans brandished heavy loaves of bread and lumpy granola, made from rather pedestrian wheat and oats; but contemporary interest in more exotic foods has led us to seek out more sophisticated options. It seems to help if the grain is associated with an ancient, presumably healthy civilization: Quinoa has its Incans, and amaranth its Aztecs; kamut is sold as the grain of the Egyptians.
Unless you're fond of porridge, though, it can be hard to figure out what to do with these more rustic grains. Is it possible to eat them with dignity? The answer is yes, if you know what to avoid. Here's a quick field guide to whole-grain goodness.
On the whole, I find brown rice totally unpleasant, both slimy and coarse, with little of white rice's seductive perfume. One exception: the fabulously elegant fine-grained black rice (marketed, painfully, as Forbidden Rice—"once eaten exclusively by the Emperors"). Cook it up according to the package, or use it to make a lovely Thai-style rice pudding with coconut milk instead of cow's.
A well-made loaf of bread benefits greatly from some whole-wheat flour, rye flour, or oatmeal, but for aesthetic reasons, avoid loaves made with 100 percent whole-grain flour. Look for a mix of flours: whole grain for robustness and flavor, white flour for that crucial gluten flex and hold.