I can consume an entire sleeve of Hostess Crumb Donettes from my local corner store in three-and-a-half minutes.The ritual is as appalling as it is delicious—not the fashionable diet of the day, to be sure. So, in the name of “investigative” journalism, I decided to go gluten-free. Gluten-free. My mission: to find out what, pray tell, all the grainless fuss is about.
I feared I would suffer withdrawal from my favorite snack because, naturally, living for any stretch of time without wheat-based, high fructose corn syrup-enriched, preservative-laden treats would be like going without oxygen. I gave it a week.
As food fads are wont to do, the gluten-free diet has successfully stoked the ire of the vox populi. A chef at a popular Asian hot wings spot in SoMa, for example, recently walked off the job, having reached his breaking point after the umpteenth gluten-free request from an alleged self-absorbed gastronome. “We’re closed because of you, customers,” read the sign on the restaurant’s door the next day. “And [we] don’t give a shit about gluten-free.” The response might seem a little harsh, but it’s no isolated incident. The writers of South Park are also fueling the fire: In an episode titled “Gluten Free Ebola,” one gluten-eater’s penis catches fire and flies off. It’s a genius comment on a diet, first designed for the truly wheat-intolerant, that became a trend and then spiraled into an epidemic. But more on that later. Back to me.
My new regimen began with an order of gluten-free lunches from Thistle, a local company that delivers healthy raw meals and cold-pressed juices to your door within 30 minutes. The delightfully dense and incredibly tasty salads (a generous handful of feta never hurts—I’m not vegan, after all) made the week much easier to sink my teeth into. I also cooked up lentil and vegetable soups for dinner, and followed the hearty bowls with heaping spoons of almond butter and cherry preserves for dessert. These meals were shockingly good. Perhaps the gluten-free path wasn’t as crunchy as I had feared.
For many gluten-free disciples, the diet isn’t a trend—it’s a matter of sickness or health. Celiac disease is a very real autoimmune ailment in which gluten, a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye, cannot be processed by the digestive system, resulting in fatigue, rapid weight fluctuations, and anemia. Gluten intolerance is also cited as the culprit for a plethora of other ailments. According to a recent New York Times article, a boy with symptoms thought to be indicative of autism “actually had undiagnosed celiac disease, and recovered on a gluten-free diet.” And a man with seizures found a cure in a change of eating habits where an anti-epilepsy medication had failed.
Erin Scott, author and photographer of the new gluten-free cookbook Yummy Supper (Rodale), suffered through many elimination diets before she was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2008. Determined not to deprive herself of great food (“I live in the Bay Area, like 10 minutes away from Chez Panisse!” she says), Scott has developed a bevy of soulful recipes using naturally wheat-free foods—any meat or seafood imaginable, for instance. Not surprisingly, she considers the token shelves of gluten-free comestibles at grocery stores to be black holes of nutrition. “It’s a shame to see people fall under the spell of gluten-free marketing,” she says. “Most of the gluten-free packaged foods are gross.” (She’s not kidding. I was forced to fold an entire bag of Reese’s Pieces into a gluten-free cookie mix just to make it palatable.)
Local food and travel journalist Erika Lenkert joins Scott on the gluten-free bandwagon. Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign funded by 822 backers, Lenkert launched GFF (Gluten Free Forever) magazine in late 2014. She didn’t suffer from celiac disease, but rather from a myriad of other health issues: belly bloat, rash, and dandruff. “I had no problems with food for years but, almost overnight, I gained 15 pounds and my skin was breaking out and peeling,” she recalls. So, she removed gluten from her diet, and voila: all systems normal.
My week of gluten prohibition did, in fact, have its benefits: I enjoyed an extra pump of energy, no 3pm triple espresso required; and my sleeping habits greatly improved. But at the end of the week, I missed shoveling bits of dough into my face and I nosedived back into my glutenous lifestyle and into a dish of housemade tagliatelle topped with freshly shaved white truffle at Spruce. Now, every so often, I kick around the idea of returning to a wheat-free life. Theoretically, I could learn to substitute strawberry doughnuts for fruit or dark chocolate. I could turn a blind eye to fresh pasta. The discipline required to tackle such an ascetic lifestyle would propel me to new heights of self-improvement. I’ll consider it. But it won’t be a piece of cake.
This article was published in 7x7's February 2015 issue. Click here to subscribe.