A Glutton for Gluten

I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. But in contrast to the previous few weeks of feeling generally crummy, this time, the wind was literally knocked out of me. By my doctor.

A few days earlier, she’d tested me for celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that prevents a person from properly digesting gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and, let’s be honest, just about everything good in this world. Now she’d just called with the results, informing me that some of the tests were positive, some were negative. This wasn’t normal. “Everything may still be OK,” she explained. “But we’ll have to do more bloodwork to be sure.”

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What my doctor didn’t have to say was that if the second round of tests came back positive, all of my relationships and habits surrounding cooking and eating would be annihilated. Even before I’d gone to the doctor, I was shaken by the events of the previous few weeks. Without my habitual food cravings, I feared the food writer’s equivalent of a divorce: loss of appetite.

Now, with the looming loss of gluten, it wasn’t just the potential forfeiture of bread that made me feel sick. It was the whole shebang: No more soy sauce. No more good, thick chowders. No more bedtime bowl of Cheerios. It seemed that my entire relationship with food—and, by extension, my entire sense of self—might fall apart. I struggled to breathe, mentally catastrophizing my career in a matter of seconds. My doctor said she’d call Monday with the results.

It was Friday. Friday, as it turns out, is a very long time from Monday. So I did what any self-respecting lover of all things food-related would do: I decided to spend the entire weekend having fabulous, unprotected sex with gluten.

I slammed two sticks of butter onto the counter to soften for chocolate-chunk cookies. Feeling stubborn and suddenly hungry for the first time in a month, I grabbed a pen and started scribbling down what I creatively titled “Things To Eat This Weekend.” I concentrated my efforts outside of my own kitchen, desiring those things that weren’t exactly practical to pull off at home. When I stopped to read what I’d written, I realized that these were the foods I lived to eat—foods that I could avoid only if I stripped my tongue of taste buds and invested in a considerable amount of hypnosis. If I was facing abandonment, I wanted a final fling. I’d savor a good, greasy kiss from the double-bacon deluxe with cheese at Red Mill Burgers. I’d lick a hundred translucent shards of impossibly flaky croissants from my fingers, eyes closed, thanks to Café Besalu. I’d slurp ramen at Samurai Noodle, memorizing how it felt as the noodles slithered in my mouth, my lips slippery with pork fat-flavored ChapStick. It would be a long, slow, tortuous dance through my culinary Eden.

As I pondered my list, it occurred to me that it’s perhaps not a coincidence that “glutinous” and “gluttonous” are spelled so similarly. Nothing without gluten would pass my lips until Monday. I’d eat my way through the pain of pending rejection, savoring every detail, every quirk, every crumb.

That night, I gorged on an immodest number of cookies. I went to bed early but spent a couple of hours tossing, distracted, comparing my potential split with gluten to a very real separation. I pondered whether to call a friend of mine who’d just been dumped, thinking he might be able to help me feel less forsaken. After all, our situations seemed pretty identical, save for the minor detail that my break-up, should gluten and I permanently part ways, wouldn’t leave me searching for a new apartment. I decided that at least I had that going for me, which calmed me slightly. I took a Xanax and passed out.

I spent the next day edibly etching the word “last” across my renewed appetite. My husband and I started our Saturday here in Seattle as we always do during ski season: with sausage-and-egg breakfast sandwiches. The last time I’ll dig English muffin crumbs out of my ski boots, I thought. A full 20 minutes later, we stopped for a Frisbee-sized cinnamon roll slathered in orange-tinged icing. The last time I’ll buy pastry that could double as a Princess Leia headdress. I had a BLT for lunch before polishing off the rest of the cinnamon roll. My last sandwich. We met friends for a drink later in the afternoon and I downed a hefeweizen. My last beer. Dinner was at Tavolata, my favorite Seattle pasta joint, where I swooned over my spaghetti studded with anchovies, chilies, and garlic, committing its flavor to memory. My last meal here. (OK, maybe that was a little dramatic. I could always go back and order something without gluten. But why subject myself to the hauntings of a hundred happier moments?) Afterward, I still had room for doughnuts.

Sunday morning. Before the newspaper had even hit the porch, I’d torn into a ham-and-Gruyère croissant. My husband and I cruised the farmers’ market while munching on a crusty baguette. Then I ordered a slice of thin-crust pizza from the market’s mobile wood-fired oven. I forced a vegetarian pal to come to Red Mill with me, where I picked the burger bun apart and obsessively rolled it into little balls before eating it. She just stared at me, not knowing what to say. We’d invited friends over for dinner that evening, so I made spelt risotto and, after licking my plate, gorged on pain de campagne dipped in olive oil.

All the while, something deep inside my brain, a little nagging whisper—or was it my husband’s voice?—reminded me that there’s more than one way to make a cinnamon roll, a slice of bread, or a strand of spaghetti. That, in fact, there’s more to eat in the world than wheat. But, like a bitter divorcée-to-be, I had no interest in reason. I couldn’t see a way forward without what I couldn’t have.

With each bite that weekend, celiac disease seemed more and more probable. You know how sometimes something happens—or doesn’t happen—and you make up a completely irrational explanation and then convince yourself that it’s true? That’s how I was with gluten. By bedtime Sunday, I was taking it personally. Gluten hates me, I thought. Then suddenly—OK, finally—it registered. No one had ever really broken up with me. I was being dumped for the first time. By a protein. Or not. I wasn’t sure. And that was the problem.

I spent most of Monday staring at my phone, realizing that the last time I’d willed someone to call like this was when I was still wearing braces. Now, like then, I wanted validation. I needed resolution. I thought about sending gluten a handwritten note with two boxes:  Check here if you like me. Check here if you don’t like me. To distract myself, I made pizza with nettle pesto, kale, and semi-dried tomatoes, ate a panini while it was still too hot, and rattled around the house looking for other foods to cry over.

Late Tuesday afternoon, I got my call. The test results were all normal—except that stubborn antigliadin antibody, which some believe is the leading indicator of celiac disease. “You probably don’t have celiac,” were my doctor’s opening words. “But we can’t say for sure without a biopsy. You could try not eating gluten for a while…Although, that might not be the solution, either.”

I should’ve been elated. It seemed that gluten wanted me back. Mostly, anyway. So what now? Make-up sex, I decided halfheartedly. Spaghetti bolognese. And the next day, I’d go for that ramen I’d missed over the weekend. No protein dumps this girl.

But when I opened the pantry, I saw a bunch of needy, non-commital pastas and flours staring back at me, daring me to prove to them—and to myself—that I needed gluten. Now that gluten had decided to crawl back to me, head hanging, it looked rather pathetic.

One of my friends is Shauna James Ahern, a.k.a. Gluten-Free Girl, who’s quite possibly the only person on the planet who makes eating gluten-free sound downright sexy. Maybe if I called her, she’d do break-up duty, commiserating with me. Reassuring me that no, I didn’t need gluten. I tried for a moment to pretend that going gluten-free could be an adventure. Character building, even. I’ll admit, I was curious to learn about all those flours I’d marveled over but never actually used in baking. I was sure Shauna would show me The Way. So I called her.

Some of her tests had come back negative the first time, too. Yet when gluten rejected her, she turned her back on it, defiantly and irrevocably, head held high.

I decided that mostly wasn’t good enough. I didn’t want to be the girl who was lucky enough to maybe get a second chance. No woman wants to be loved conditionally.

I was going to give eating gluten-free a try. It wouldn’t be easy. I’d miss the burger joint. But what if I actually started feeling better?

I had my answer.

“It’s not you,” I said, staring into the pantry. “It’s me. I just need some time to myself. Some time to think.”

And with that, I packed up all of gluten’s things and tossed him out.

© 2010 Jess Thomson. All rights reserved.

About Jess Thomson

Jess Thomson is a Seattle-based freelance writer and cookbook author. Her work has appeared in various publications, including SunsetEdible Seattle, and Food & Wine. She's the winner of the 2012 MFK Fisher Award for Excellence in Culinary Writing, and also the voice behind the food blog Hogwash. Her third cookbook, Dishing Up Washington, will be released in November 2012.

Comments
Comments
  1. This was delightful! I now plan to meet every potential disappointment with an orgy of self-indulgence, no matter how risky to my health.

    Oh wait… that’s already what I do anyway.

  2. I’m with Gary. And so are my belt loops! This was perhaps the exact form of chastising I needed after my own Easter weekend of gluttony, which had a lot of gluten attached to it. No one’s telling me I’ve maybe got celiac, but it’s also true that in the world of food relationships, gluten is my “drunk dial” weakness—the thing I grab when defenses are down and I’m feeling suddenly needy (or should that be kneady?).

    Anyway, I loved Jess’s piece. It’s brilliant, funny, and, yes, sexy, too. More, please.

  3. Iris says:

    I love Shauna’s blog! And being gluten free really can be a great adventure! If you end up having to go that way, you’ll get to a point where you don’t miss all that stuff because you’ll be able to get/make your own gluten free versions that taste just as good. At least that’s how it’s been for me…although now that I’m developing a bunch of other food sensitivities, I’m not feeling quite so gung-ho about taking those things out of my diet!

  4. Shannon says:

    My brother was born with celiac (although it took lots of doctors too much time to figure it out, and he nearly starved to death), so I read your article with great interest. I’ve always said that he was so lucky to have never developed a taste for things with gluten (i.e. bread, pastries, the really addictive stuff), and now I’m certain of it. You did a great job expressing the sadness inherent in giving up your favorite foods. Presented with the same situation as you, I’m sure I would have indulged in exactly the same way! Those tastes are just too strong and comforting to give up without at least a sentimental farewell session (or three). Great piece…loved it!

  5. Jess says:

    Thanks, all. I haven’t drunk-dialed yet!

  6. Christy says:

    I went through the exact same scenario on Good Friday two years ago. I had just been told that all of my celiac tests were normal, except for my anti-gliadin levels. They were the highest my doctor had ever seen in his life. For him, it was a no-brainer. Obviously gluten was poisoning my body. I told myself that on Monday I would start eating gluten-free but until then I was going to binge on my last “normal” holiday with all of the family favorites. When I woke up that Monday morning, I was filled with such a sense of dread. I was still in college and everything about my social life was about to change the moment I set foot on campus. After six months on the gf diet, I had more energy than I had in years. And after two years I enjoy and respect every bite of food that enters my mouth. One thing that helped me to transition was to completely eliminate certain temptations rather than try to find a gf substitute immediately. When I finally started eating and baking those temptations again, I enjoyed them so much more and was satisfied after only a few bites.

    Thank you for putting into words what its like to enjoy a “last [gluten] supper”.

  7. Playin_d_fiddle says:

    I absolutely went through all the stages of grieving when I found out. Eventual full acceptance took actual conscious effort, but I haven’t cheated or looked back since the doctor gave me the bad/good news. How different and wonderful I feel in comparison to how sick and foggy I felt before: miraculous! I’m meant to be me this way, not that other way :) Much luck!

  8. jen says:

    I did something similar when I found out except I strung it out for months. I gave myself a deadline to when I”d stop buying gluten. Then a deadline to when I’d be done eating it (hopefully run out by that date). It wasn’t until I got off gluten for a while then accidentally got glutened that I realized how much better I felt. My mind was so fogged by gluten for my estimated 20+ years that as it slowly left my body I knew I was better but didn’t realize how much.

    As a side note be careful on glutin and gluten—they are different things. Glutin is safe for Celiacs, Gluten is poison. Funny this is the second time today I’ve seen glutin when someone meant gluten.

  9. Chris says:

    So funny! Someone actually said to me the other day that I should have done this, should have had a gluten orgy before becoming very strictly gluten free….. glad I got to live vicariously here! And Jess, gluten free can be amazing. The energy, the sleep, the FOOD! I think I eat better and appreciate it more than I ever did before the Celiac diagnosis. Hang in there. C

  10. Jess says:

    Your encouragement is so appreciated! It will definitely take me a while to relearn how to bake, but I hope it’s worth it in the end!

  11. Fiona says:

    You couldn’t have a better friend than Shauna to start you on the gluten-free path! I didn’t know anyone who had even heard of celiac disease when I was diagnosed; shopping was daunting (I was living abroad at the time – not so many GF products as here) and the process of feeding myself seemed like the biggest mountain to climb. Five years on I feel so much healthier and when you realise how much better you will feel, you won’t miss gluten much.

  12. Jean Layton says:

    This is the reading I will be suggesting to all my newly diagnosed patients. It truly captures the mourning process of going gluten free.
    And with Shauna in your corner, you won’t be missing gluten full food for long.
    Welcome to the gluten-free world.
    Jean
    GF Doctor

  13. melissa bigelow says:

    hilarious, thanks for the good laugh.

    a friend of mine was feeling sorry for me the other day as she dove into the pizza i had made for her while i ate the gluten-free one i made for myself, but it’s hard to miss it when you feel so much better.

    best wishes for some sexy gluten-free eating.

  14. Carbzilla says:

    Try being allergic to MSG….now there’s something to be super dramatically sad about. No PHO, no teriyaki, no sausages, careful with the Dim Sum,…there’s hardly an MSG substitute. You can find perfectly fine gluten-free products everywhere! *pat on the shoulder* I can tell you’re going to be fine.

  15. Jess says:

    Thanks, Carbzilla. I do a little dance every time I remind myself it’s just gluten. In my world, if it had been meat, I might not have required institutionalization.

  16. Dia says:

    Oh my – you don’t do things by halves!! Last summer my grown daughter sent off samples for genetic testing, & found that ‘we all’ (her little family & ‘both her parents’) have the GENES for gluten sensitivity, & so we went gluten free. I have been a ‘health food nut’ most of my adult life, so it wasn’t a huge stretch, & her best friend had been GF for a few years.

    I have lost ~ 15# – the ‘post menopause’ weight that I just couldn’t shake; & feel more my old self (I switched to coconut oil for most cooking around the same time) When I’m out with my galfriends, I have to remind them no, they don’t need to save me any of the appetizer ‘we can all share!’ One friend has begun packing my little goodie bag with nuts, when the others receive cookies or candy.

    Yesterday I had GF hot cross buns, naturally GF Brazilian Cheese Bread, & lemon cheesecake, baked in a spring pan with GF crust of crushed ginger molasses cookies (great sub. for graham crackers!!) I ‘nudge’ my diabetic, probably G sensitive friend to ‘try’ making the shift, but she’s ‘not ready’ . . . I love Shauna’s book & blog; know you’ll enjoy this journey of relearning; you ARE in good hands!

  17. Kath says:

    I found “The Allergy Self-Help Cookbook” by Marjorie Hurt Jones very helpful when we were dealing with wheat sensitivity. She has a section about cooking and baking with alternative flours. It’s a wheat-free book, so not all are gluten-free, but some are. I found the book helpful for developing recipes my daughter could eat.

  18. Zanne says:

    Even if you don’t have Celiac disease, you might be gluten intolerant. I have had every test and they are inconclusive, but I do better without gluten, so I am GF. I used to crave pasta and bread. I’m told that sometimes your body craves what you’re having a problem with. If going GF seems bad, think of all the damage you won’t do to your body by going GF. There are very serious ramifications to eating gluten if you are intolerant or have Celiac disease.

    BTW, San J brand has a naturally gluten free Tamari. I was using this years before going GF. It is the best soy sauce.

    You’re lucky in the fact that you are in the “food biz” and can get lots of input from others. Just a few years ago, it was very hard to be GF since the availability of products was much less than now. And what was available was pretty bad. Things have changed a lot, even in the last 2 or 3 years. People are much more aware now.

    Good Luck. Maybe this will bring about some really great new GF recipes for all of us to try.

  19. AB says:

    Hilarious – it was the make up sex with spaghetti bolognese that got me. Good luck and keep updating on your progress.

  20. Mindy says:

    Kudos to a very well-written essay on a wrenching, life-changing event. Here, in front of us, is the journey one makes when given bad (good?) news about our health. Eventually you did reach out to those who could support you (yay Shauna!).

    Although removing gluten from one’s diet is a very big deal, hopefully this was caught early enough that you don’t develop other food intolerances. In my case, a lifetime’s worth of damage caught up with me in 2009. Because the damage was so great, it is estimated that it will take approximately two years for complete healing and is very possible that some (or all) of my food intolerances may be with me for the rest of my life. Currently, I can’t have dairy (lactose and casein intolerance), soy (in *any* form, including oil and lecithin), legumes, eggs, tomatoes, white potatoes, peppers (including paprika), and eggplant.

    So many people exclaim, “Oh my God, so what *can* you eat?!” My reply is: a LOT! Today’s lunch was a roasted sweet potato (with dairy/soy free margarine), a pork chop, and roasted parsnips and carrots (roasted with olive oil, salt, and black pepper; topped with dairy/soy free margarine and maple syrup). Dessert will be apple slices with sunflower seed butter.

    I buy the best tasting stuff that I can get my hands on, and I do eat very well.

    Good luck to you and I look forward to updates about what *your* journey looks like.

  21. Carla says:

    Naughty sex and forbidden food. What fun! You had me at the “slippery pork—fat flavored ChapStick”.

  22. Jess says:

    Hi all,

    Thanks so much for your comments! Wanted to post an update, for those who have expressed interest . . . I don’t have celiac disease. Six weeks of eating gluten-free didn’t ease any symptoms. In fact, they got worse, which lead my rheumatologist (I have lupus) to refer me to a nephrologist (kidney specialist). The short version is this: My kidney’s don’t work properly. I’ve started some new medications. MY APPETITE IS BACK!

    However, I will say a good stint eating gluten-free is something everyone should do—not only to realize how much gluten we ingest on a regular basis, but to become more aware of what people with serious food allergies go through. One thing’s for sure: Life can be delicious, no matter what your restrictions are. You just have to be a little creative sometimes.

    Jess

  23. Such wonderful words! “One thing’s for sure: Life can be delicious, no matter what your restrictions are. You just have to be a little creative sometimes.” THANK YOU!

  24. Jess says:

    Thanks, Kate—you’re a shining example of someone who makes it work!

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