Until just over a year ago I could not have told you what gluten was. I had a vague notion it had to do with grain and flour and was somehow important in successful baking. Then my youngest son, Cole, started having trouble in preschool. It wasn’t just that he had a hard time sitting still; more like, he couldn’t sit at all. When the other kids sat in a circle for story time, my darling boy of irrepressible spirit wanted to run laps around (and around, and around) them. Cole’s exasperated teacher suggested that he might have some attentional issues, but an alphabet soup of neuro-psycho-behavioral tests found nothing amiss. Then the therapist doing the testing suggested that a sensitivity to gluten could be causing his keyed-up behavior, and that I should consider trying him on a wheat-free diet.
Gluten, I have since learned, is the protein found in wheat (and a few other grains) and gluten sensitivity is increasingly thought to be the cause of a broad spectrum of maladies ranging from digestive distress to tingling feet to ADHD-type behavior problems. So I agreed to give a gluten-free diet a go, figuring less bread and pasta, more rice and potatoes. . . how hard could it be?
That blithe notion lasted most of one day, right up until Cole’s brother requested his favorite leek and potato soup for dinner. I chopped the leeks, diced the potatoes, melted butter in an iron skillet and started sprinkling in some flour to thicken into a nice, golden. . . Holy oatmeal, Batman, how the hell do you make a roux without flour?
Going gluten-free, it turns out, is a huge paradigm shift. The gluten, she is in everything. Even places you’d least expect: Cole’s aunt, who suffers from celiac disease (a major autoimmune disease caused by consuming gluten when you’re—usually unknowingly—allergic), once had to go to the emergency room after using mouthwash that contained 0.03 percent gluten, an amount too small to be listed in the ingredients yet still enough to cause a major immunological meltdown.
Gluten-free diets are a fast-growing nutritional movement, with GF foods one of the biggest trends in 2012 for both restaurants and grocers. This is partly because the number of people seeking to eliminate gluten from their diets is growing rapidly; an estimated 1 in 133 Americans, or about 1 percent of the American population, suffers from full-blown celiac disease. An additional 6 percent of us have, like my son Cole, a less-drastic sensitivity to gluten, while another 5 to 8 percent, represented by a recent New Yorker cartoon—“I have no idea what gluten is, either, but I’m avoiding it just to be safe”—are going gluten-free for miscellaneous reasons. My theory, though, is that gluten-free sections are popping up in supermarkets near you because it’s a huge potential money-maker. Cooking gluten-free can be such an enormous hassle that ready-made gluten-free products are hugely appealing despite the fact that they are also ridiculously expensive—according to one study, 242 percent more expensive than regular foods.
Seriously, last week I paid seven bucks for a box of gluten-free graham crackers. I grumbled but forked it over because it’s important for my kid to stay off gluten so he can possibly, hopefully, outgrow the sensitivity and avoid developing celiac. But also because I don’t want him to be a gluten-free freak, having to watch as all the other kids gorge on s’mores. As an underemployed single mother, however, this is not a splurge I can afford to make often; nor can I routinely pay $4 for gluten-free pasta or $5 for a miniature loaf of no-wheat bread.
So, inspired as much by pissed-offed-ness as economic necessity, I pondered how to do an end-run around the gluten-free aisle and its astronomical prices. Not everyone, it seems, is trying to profiteer from GF foods: Trader Joe’s no-wheat offerings are priced in line with its other products, and as a bonus, TJ’s stores offer printed lists of all GF products throughout the store. But the big payoff came when I realized that most Asian cuisines don’t often utilize wheat and I started shopping regularly at H-Mart. At Asian food markets, staple foods—noodles, dumplings, soy sauce—are gluten-free as a matter of course, and lack hyperinflated price tags. They also carry alterna-flours—rice, potato, sorghum, tapioca—for much lower prices than ye olde Bob’s Red Mill aisle at your local grocery.
The real challenge is bread and baked goods. Before the gluten-free hammer fell, I was big into the artisanal bread thing, and I miss both the ritual of breadmaking and the way it made the house smell. Unfortunately, gluten is essential to good bread, giving elasticity—the very reason we let bread dough rest and rise is so gluten can do its thing—and a light, airy texture to the baked loaf. I have yet to come up with a homemade gluten-free bread that anyone would voluntarily choose over wheat bread, alas. But in my attempts to understand the role of gluten and why it’s important, I realized that there are some baking situations where gluten development is actually undesirable—chiefly, quickbreads, muffins, and pancakes.
We are now 16 months into living la vida sin gluten. Cole will always be a high-energy guy but these days he’s proud of his ability to hang reasonably tight during kindergarten circle time. Now that he is off wheat I can definitely tell when he’s had some: He gets antsy and cranky and easily frustrated. During the gluten-free diet learning curve I myself felt, at times, cranky and frustrated, but a calmer, happier kid is so worth it.
Oh—and it turns out you can make a pretty decent roux using rice flour.
Jelly-Licious Corn Muffins I adapted this recipe to replicate muffins my grandmother used to make when I was a child. Reasonably healthy but not too dense (and trust me, with GF baked goods, that is saying something), and a fun jelly center.
1 cup cornmeal (yellow cornmeal makes a prettier muffin)
1/2 cup brown-rice pastry flour (less gritty than regular brown-rice flour, but you can also use that or even white-rice flour)
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup melted butter
1/2 cup whole milk
2 tablespoons yogurt or sour cream (optional)
Fruit preserves or jam
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a muffin/cupcake tin, or put in paper liners.
Mix the dry ingredients together in a big bowl. In a separate bowl, beat eggs until golden, then whisk in milk, yogurt/sour cream if using, and melted butter. Quickly stir the wet ingredients into the dry until just combined; do not overmix.
Spoon batter into each muffin cup so it is about one-third full. Then drop a heaping teaspoon of jam into the middle of each. Divide the rest of the batter between each muffin and pop into the oven for 15 minutes, until beginning to brown around the edges. Let cool 10 minutes before easing muffins from tin.