Dietribes: A Pocket Full of Rye


• Rye is a hardy substance. It can grow in poor soils with less sun and at higher altitudes than wheat, and it can thrive through dampness and drought. The bread made from rye also lasts longer. And for some, it is a spiritual thing.

• George Washington had a much-loved recipe for rye whiskey that combined rye, corn and malted barley (in 1799 it was the most profitable part of his plantation). In 2011, his distillery was reopened briefly to produce 600 bottles of the famous mixture at a price of $95 each (and a limit to two per customer) for those who wanted a literal taste of history.

• Rye fields are also good for creating some amazingly creative crop circles.

• Speaking of the work of the devil, could rye have led to the Salem witch trials? Rye (as a cereal or as a bread) can be infected with ergot, a fungus which invades developing kernels under warm and damp conditions - known to have been the case in Salem at the time. "Convulsive ergotism causes violent fits, a crawling sensation on the skin, vomiting, choking, and--most interestingly--hallucinations.  The hallucinogenic drug LSD is a derivative of ergot."

• Is rye a better alternative to wheat? In a study done in 2010 it was found that mice that ate wheat gained significantly more weight than mice on a rye diet. "A possible explanation would be that wheat prompts a higher insulin response than rye, which means that the cells in the body can store more fat. The fact that rye contains more soluble fibers than wheat also plays a role, since they probably prevent the uptake of fat and other nutritional substances in the intestine."

• This may be my favorite Dietribe fact of all time: "Pumpernickel, 'a coarse, dark, slightly sour bread made of unbolted rye', is from German, as one might expect. The word was originally used in German as an insulting term for anyone considered disagreeable. Its elements are pumpern (to break wind) and Nickel (a goblin; devil; rascal), originally a nickname from Nicholas. Pumpernickel, in other words, literally means 'farting bastard'."

• What exactly is the significance of the "pocket full of rye" in "Sing a Song of Sixpence"? Essentially just what you would expect: an ingredient for making bread, cake or pie crust. But the rest of the nursery rhyme's meaning may not be what you remembered ...

• As of 1985 (so we can assume that it has increased dramatically since then), 7500 copies of Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye" checked out of the public libraries in Chicago had never been returned.

• A book billed as the sequel to "Catcher in the Rye" has been banned from release in the US.

• Are any of you partial to rye bread? Do you find pumpernickel indigestible? Can you really distinguish the difference between rye whiskey and bourbon? Do tell!

Hungry for more? Venture into the Dietribes archive.

‘Dietribes’ appears every other Wednesday. Food photos taken by Johanna Beyenbach. You might remember that name from our post about her colorful diet.