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 baking. Then my 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-off-ness as economic necessity, I pondered how to do an end-run around the gluten-free aisle and its astronomical prices. The big payoff came when I realized that most Asian cuisines don't often utilize wheat. 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.
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.