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Why Is Flour Making These Pizzamakers Sick?

Rebecca Flint Marx

By the time his eyes started to water and his throat began to feel like it was closing up, Anthony Mangieri had been a professional bread and pizza maker for over 15 years. “This was 2008,” he says. “I didn’t know what was going on with me.”

Credited as one of the first pizzaioli to bring Neapolitan pizza to the states, Mangieri was four years deep into the second incarnation of Una Pizza Napoletana, the legendary pizzeria he first opened in New Jersey and subsequently moved to New York’s East Village. Not one to rush to seek medical attention — “I’ve been to the doctor, once, for a hernia; I paid cash,” he says — he instead went to an acupuncturist, which helped a bit. But what really helped was the period between July 2009, when Mangieri closed the restaurant, and September 2010, when he reopened it in San Francisco. His symptoms “totally went away,” he says. The reason? He wasn’t working with flour.

Photo by Una Pizza Napoletana

It sounds like a lame joke, the one about the baker who can’t eat bread. But Mangieri is among an estimated 5 to 28 percent of bakery workers who suffer from wheat allergies and gluten intolerance. It’s a relatively small group, but one that includes some illustrious members: aside from Mangieri; Elisabeth Prueitt, the widely renowned pastry chef behind San Francisco’s Tartine bakery; and Dan Richer, the chef-owner of Razza, a Jersey City restaurant whose pizzas The New York Times anointed as the best in all of New York. And Chris Bianco, the Phoenix-based chef who has been described as America’s best pizza maker, has baker’s lung (also called baker’s asthma), a condition that sounds like a Victorian syndrome, but is the result of inhaling flour dust.

Photo of Dan Richer of Razza by Robin Chase

“I take lots of allergy medication every day,” says Richer. “I’m conscious of my time that I spend with flour on my skin and in the air so I’m not sitting there mixing dough six days a week for 12 hours a day. When I do have to do that, I definitely have to make sure there’s Benadryl around.”

For Richer, his wheat allergy is just one of the slew of allergies he’s had his entire life, and was triggered by his exposure to flour. Other bakers develop issues as a result of their jobs; baker’s asthma, which is caused by the frequent inhalation of flour dust and other particles in bakery air, has been documented since the early 18th century. Whether it’s asthma, constant sneezing, a perpetually runny nose, itchy skin and eyes, or hives, these problems are extremely inconvenient at best and potentially career-killing at worst.

“You can imagine how difficult this is to process,” Richer says of learning that there was nothing he could do about the problem — which for him sometimes included sneezing “100 times in a row” — aside from taking a pill. “It’s something I love so much. I have devoted my profession to it, and now it makes me feel terrible.” He questioned whether he should continue making pizza. “What else can I do with my life?” he remembers thinking. “I have no other skills. What do I do, become a lawyer now?”

Years after being told there was nothing he could do about his allergy, Richer has found a way to manage it through medication and restricting his exposure to flour — and pizza. “I’m very, very conscious of how much I eat,” he says. “I tend to eat less of it on days that I’m working. I taste our product all the time, but I won’t sit down and have an entire pizza.”

Out in San Francisco, Michelle Polzine has had to all but give up eating wheat and gluten. “I can’t fucking eat anything anymore,” she says. “I can’t even eat soy sauce.”

Polzine is the owner of the 20th Century Cafe, a jewel box of a spot that is renowned for its Eastern European pastries; her 11-layered Russian honey cake is the stuff of legend. She first realized she had a problem several years ago, when she gave up her regular diet of “pasta and bread pizza and sandwiches and pasta” to lose enough weight to fit into a vintage dress she wanted to wear to a rockabilly music festival. She realized she was less susceptible to the terrible mood swings she’d been having; once she began eating “normal” food again, she recalls, “I started feeling like killing people all the time.”

What started out as an intolerance has become something more profound over the years; today, Polzine avoids eating anything with gluten, including her own pastries. “The tasting part is hard,” she says. “I used to be able to taste and spit, but now I have to have a toothbrush to make sure none of it gets in me.” Too much skin contact with dough and starters can give her a rash, and while Polzine has no plans to stop using flour, she has developed some gluten-free pastries that get their structure from ingredients like nuts or cornmeal. “Sometimes I’ll base something on a dough I already have in my pocket; luckily, I’ve got a lot of doughs in my pocket so I’ve got a lot to work with,” she says. “I use a lot of visual cues and feeling and memory.”

Polzine admits that she doesn’t like to talk about her gluten intolerance; it’s embarrassing and makes her “feel weird,” she says, “because a lot of people act like it’s not legitimate and I don’t feel like defending myself.” And indeed, despite the long history of baker’s asthma, the idea of a baker with a wheat or gluten problem can seem as hard to grasp for some people as the idea of a dentist with cavities; it’s just not supposed to happen.

Even inside the industry, there seems to be some confusion. When I emailed an interview request for this story to the American Bakers Association, a nonprofit that calls itself “the voice of the baking industry since 1897,’ a spokesperson replied that she “[didn’t] understand” the subject, which I explained to her was about bakers with wheat and gluten intolerances. We went back and forth a couple of times until she told me she wouldn’t “feel comfortable” pursuing my interview request without a “published statistic in order to check its validity.”

Still, plenty of bakeries do get it, and have taken steps to protect their employees as best they can. At Red Hen Baking in Middlesex, VT, Randy George provides masks for all of his bakers and also installed a filter that he estimates removes about two pounds of flour from the air every week. During his 25 years as a professional baker, George has encountered only three workers whose sensitivity to flour was so debilitating that they had to quit baking, but he acknowledges that “there are quite a number of people who have some degree of what would probably be considered a mild allergic reaction” to flour.

Although, he adds, “I don’t know if ‘allergic’ is even the right term, but it’s something that involves inflammation.”

It’s “curious,” George says, that the issue of flour sensitivity hasn’t been discussed more in the industry, but he attributes that to the fact that the vast majority of cases aren’t life-threatening. But, like any other job that involves breathing in particulate dust — woodworking, sheetrock sanding — breathing flour all day carries its potential perils. “Even though this is edible,” George says, “that doesn’t mean it’s breathable.”

For his part, Mangieri says his problem is now largely a thing of the past, something he attributes to a change in both lifestyle and flour. He discovered he was particularly sensitive to one blend of wheat he’d been using for years, and so rarely uses it anymore; regular cardiovascular exercise has also helped him. “For me, I think I found that the key really, truly is just lifestyle and even my mental state,” he says.”I don’t know if any of that is true or if it’s just me.”

In 2017, Mangieri closed Una Pizza Napoletana’s San Francisco location and returned to New York, where he opened his pizzeria’s third incarnation last year. Since returning to New York, he hasn’t had any flare-ups. But, “right now,” he adds, “I’m making dough balls, and there’s flour on my shoes and pants and under my fingernails. It becomes such a part of your body. When I’m done here, I should probably do something healthy for 45 minutes.”

Original author: Rebecca Flint Marx
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