Not long ago, I completed a 30-day stint in gluten-free living. This exploration of the last culinary frontier was not attempted in the spirit of foolhardiness, but rather in the hopes of getting to the root of a tenacious asthma problem. Once I saw that the experience could elicit all the creativity, discipline, mind-expansion and eventual reward of a home DIY project, my dim outlook began to soften.
At first, my burning questions included: Why are there such an overwhelming number of gluten-free people in this town? If many people without bona fide allergies avoid gluten, what is the appeal of going without it? I figured that there had to be some substantial payoff to get so many people to give up cookies. Were there classified advantages to being gluten-free that I might benefit from?
At restaurants, I hallucinated looks of exasperation from servers as I asked apologetically for the umpteenth time, "Does this have gluten in it?"
Professed food intolerances and allergies are on the rise, which can raise some conflicts for a commercial kitchen as people grow more brazen with their requests. Some of my closest friends have legitimate allergies and others are committed devotees of specific nutritional lifestyles or philosophies.
That said, I'll admit to having questioned people in the past for food quirks that I've perceived as a means to an end. Indeed, I have wondered if some people use the widening acceptance of certain food allergies as a justification for their fussiness, to appear eccentric or, more simply, to avoid carbs.
Santa Feans are fortunate to have a number of local chefs who are familiar with gluten-free cooking and are prepared to accommodate a request at any time. These days, Daniela and Maxime Bouneou of Torino's @ Home (227 Don Gaspar Ave., 982-4545) are living gluten-free, despite the fact that they are surrounded by, and responsible for, fantastic sandwiches and pasta.
"We're trying out bean flours for crepes and pasta. Our soups are gluten-free, and usually our daily special is, too; today, it was polenta al parmigiana," Daniela Bouneou says. The Bouneous are happy to deconstruct any sandwich to make a salad, to which any of the ingredients offered for panini can be added.
Two weeks in, just as I began developing a case of cake envy, the stupefyingly good daikon cakes ($7) at Mu Du Noodles (1494 Cerrillos Road, 983-1411) lifted me out of my quinoa rut; note that its vegan counterpart contains gluten. If it's the dearth of noodles you're mourning, the Malaysian Laksa ($14+) is a fine way to lick your wounds—and the plate, when you're done.
The papusas ($8.50) at Tune-Up Cafe (1115 Hickox St., 983-7060) are made with masa, and will turn a longing for a pancake tepid at first bite. As excellent as everything else is at Tune-Up, the papusas take the cake—and take it far, far away from the bakery.
"Are you sure this doesn't have gluten in it?" I asked my friend Polly, who had invited me over for a gluten-free dinner. She was stirring a saucepan of thick gravy.
She looked exasperated. "No. Just some spice mix I got in a jar from a friend."
My radar went up. "Do you mind if I take a look at it?" I asked.
She handed me the unlabeled mason jar of reddish brown powder. I took a sniff and my mind charged with suspicions. It's a slippery slope out there; kitchens and supermarket shelves are dominated by gluten, that secret agent, silent predator and master of disguise. Avoiding wheat, barley, rye, spelt, kamut, triticale and oats may sound easy, but it's not.
Ingredients containing gluten can be listed as vaguely as "flavorings," "edible starch," "seasonings," "stabilizer," "hydrolyzed plant protein," "binder" or "emulsifier." This is partly because in the United States the term "gluten-free" is not yet regulated. Gluten can also be found in innocuous-seeming products like ice cream, low-fat yogurt, cheese, vitamins and cosmetics.
When my 30 days were complete, I served a gluten-free dinner subtitled, "Gluten-free, still a glutton," a no-holds-barred feast that began with Arpege eggs and ended with candied bacon ice cream. It had been a month, and I felt no different. And that was that.
The next day, in a haze of icing sugar and violins, I broke my gluten fast, my eyes veiled with the secret language of cake crumbs.
Maybe I should look into giving up dairy next.
Food blogger and author Shauna James Ahern of Gluten-Free Girl lives with Coeliac Disease, but does not allow it to compromise the quality of her life or her freedom to eat well. Her site lists dozens of links to gluten-free products and bakeries she has found and likes.