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Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.
-- Proverbs 9:17
Bread: It's America's new food enemy, eaten in secret or not at all -- and it's America's latest food obsession.
For almost 10,000 years, humans have been making bread, maybe even longer than they have been making wine. But the human body doesn't need wine to survive (the French notwithstanding); it needs bread. That's why one of the dictionary's definitions of bread is ''the necessities of life.'' As Julia Child once said: ''How can a nation be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?''
So it is strange, here in the land of amber waves of grain, that some people are asking: Is bread dead?
The signs: anti-carbohydrate diets like Atkins and South Beach are wildly popular. Growing numbers of people have been diagnosed with diabetes and told to stay away from bread. Bread industry statistics show a 2%-a-year drop in unit bread sales in recent years and even higher for specific brands. In one industry survey, 40% of consumers said they eat less bread now than a year ago.
Scores of ''low-carb'' breads compete for space at grocery stores and at premium artisan bakeries; even the people who make Wonder Bread are making low-carb brands. Ten years ago, bread-making machines were the trendy kitchen appliance; now people have moved on to George Foreman grills and chucked their breadmakers into the garage or the garage sale.
The bread industry is so unnerved, it has started holding annual ''bread summits'' to fret about the threat and devise strategies to fight back.
On the other hand, the anti-carb movement has arrived just as American attitudes toward bread have shifted perceptibly. No longer is bread just the stuff we slap peanut butter or pastrami on. Many of us have become exacting in our bread tastes, just as we have about coffee, wine, cheese, olive oil and scores of other comestibles.
The number of high-quality artisan bakeries, as well as mass-market bakery cafes such as Panera Bread, has mushroomed across the country. Millions of American shoppers make extra trips to buy fresh bread at these stores; even supermarkets such as Safeway carry fresh artisan bread. Bread-baking cookbooks proliferate and sell well. Acclaimed bakers have become celebrities with their own TV shows. In recent years, the USA bread-baking team has taken home first-ever medals from the Olympics of bread bakeoffs, the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie held in Paris every three years.
''Now bread is the main event -- an actual entree, as opposed to an appetizer or a distraction or a vehicle for something else,'' says Rose Levy Berenbaum, author of The Bread Bible, whose PBS series on bread, Baking Magic With Rose, premieres next month.
''Bread gives us credibility,'' says Ron Shaich, CEO and chairman of Panera Bread, which has more than 600 restaurants nationwide. ''People relate to us in a different way because we serve real food rooted in authenticity and served by people with a sense of pride.''
And if fewer people are buying bread machines, maybe it's because more people are making their bread by hand. How else to explain why about 350 people turned up on a recent Monday night at a hotel in the middle of nowhere in Fairfax, Va., just to watch a guy from the King Arthur Flour company play with his dough?
''Most people never met a carbohydrate they didn't like,'' jokes Michael Jubinsky, who teaches free bread-baking classes all over the country. Wisecracking, explaining and demonstrating, Jubinsky kept an overflow audience rapt for two hours as he kneaded dough for boules, bâtards and baguettes and imparted tips learned in 10 years of baking bread.
''People are being more selective about their carbs, and these are just more appealing than Wonder Bread,'' he says, nodding at a pile of handmade artisan breads. ''People are looking for a connection back to the basics and tradition.''
Give up bread? Thuy Tran, 45, a homemaker who came to Jubinsky's class, shoots an ''Are you crazy?'' look at a questioner. She's not afraid of carbohydrates. ''When I came to the United States (from Vietnam) in 1975, I couldn't find a good French baguette anywhere,'' she says. ''Now I make my own. It tastes so much better, and it's very relaxing, very rewarding.''
Robert Atkins would not be rolling over in his grave: He never said don't ever eat bread again. ''He said to be more gourmet in your choices,'' says Colette Heimowitz, vice president of Atkins Health & Medical Information Services.
Dieters are told to avoid bread at the beginning of the Atkins plan, ''but once they start adding back carbs, the best bread to choose is a high-fiber, whole-grain variety.'' Nutritionists say whole-grain foods help protect against several forms of cancer and heart disease.
That would include the artisan breads sold at Firehook bakeries scattered around Washington, D.C., and its suburbs. Owner Pierre Abushacra says he has decided against making low-carb versions of his breads because ''they just don't taste good. I'd rather sell good-quality bread to fewer people,'' he says.
But the Great Harvest Bread Co., a Dillon, Mont.-based company of more than 200 bakery franchises, makes and sells fresh low-carb artisan bread at about 75% of its bakeries. ''What Atkins did for our industry is create a lot of people being smart about the carbs they're consuming,'' spokeswoman Maria Emmer-Aanes says. ''It's great for us because we have a great message.''
It may seem that America has become a nation of carb-counting Atkins acolytes -- when restaurants start listing carb content on menus, when low-carb food stores open up, when Neiman Marcus sells $48 T-shirts that say ''Carbs Stink.'' Yet surveys show that only about 4% of the population -- about 10 million people -- are on a low-carb diet at any time, according to The NPD Group, a marketing research firm. The bad news: It was 1% only a year ago.
The bread industry certainly acts uneasy -- Panera, for instance, is introducing several low-carb breads in May -- but bread spokesmen play it cool. The anti-carb craze is just that: a craze, they say.
''It's a white-hot topic right now, but it will burn very quickly,'' says Patrick Davis, spokesman for the newly formed National Bread Leadership Council, which organized the first bread summits in 2002 and 2003. ''Are we in an age of bread decline? No, we're in an age of consumers being smarter.''
Besides, it helps to remember that Wonder Bread really is America's brand: Sales of the top-selling bread dropped 3.5% in 2003 -- but that still amounts to nearly 169 million loaves.
''In the supermarket, bread has a higher household penetration than any other product,'' says Mark Dirkes, spokesman for Interstate Bakeries, the makers of Wonder Bread. ''It's still true, and it will be true 10 years from now.''
Harry Balzer, vice president of The NPD Group and an expert on American eating patterns, says bread is like coffee: Consumption of both has been in decline for two decades -- yet Starbucks continues to grow, and so does Panera.
How is this possible? ''We like to try new things,'' Balzer says. ''Low-carb is clearly an issue, but Americans are trying bunless burgers! Even if we abandon them in a week, we'll still try it.''
And just as with coffee, some people have become more demanding about their bread -- enough for bread makers to profit by selling exotic breads with names many Americans can barely pronounce. ''When you have 100 million households, all you need is 5% of consumers buying to make money, so this is about the segmenting of a big category,'' says Balzer. The anti-carb movement may dissipate but ''upscale bread is not going to go away.''
Big relief for the ''bread heads,'' as aficionados call themselves. And artisan bakers are feeling pretty good, too: They point to surveys that show sales are either steady or increasing as consumers go in search of tastier, healthier bread.
Berenbaum says it's a good thing that the anti-carb movement is teaching people more about healthy bread. ''It will get people to focus on bread in a positive way and get rid of the fluff,'' she says.
''People will buy based on quality rather than quantity,'' says Peter Reinhart, founder of an artisan bakery in Santa Rosa, Calif., author of The Bread Baker's Apprentice and a baking and pastry teacher at Johnson & Wales University in Providence.
Anyway, says Mark Furstenberg, owner of BreadLine bakery and a longtime champion of quality bread in Washington, anti-carbism is already diminishing. ''On the one hand you have Atkins and his predecessors, who go back to about maybe 1950, and on the other you have bread, which goes back 10,000 years,'' he says. ''Which do you think will be enduring?'' See COVER STORY next pageCover story
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