Gluten-free through the ages: coping with Celiac Disease from 1997 to today

Like all the cool kids these days, I eat gluten-free. I wasn't always this way.

There was a time when I ate gluten with reckless abandon, when I grew fat and happy on sugar and carbohydrates, when I squashed slices of Wonder Bread into doughy balls and squeezed them into my mouth by the fistful. Now I look at wheat products with only a bitter mixture of revulsion and fear.

I didn't choose the gluten-free life as a way to get fit, nor do I suffer from some vague gluten insensitivity. I have celiac disease, which means if I eat gluten I will die a slow and painful death.

I was diagnosed in 1997, back when nobody knew or cared what gluten was. I was a lanky, ravenous 12 year old—so I cheated on my diet, a lot. Birthday cake, Chinese food, pizza parties: the temptations were strong, and I was weak.

Eventually, I wised up. Ceaseless, wracking abdominal pain will do that to you. My heart hardened to gluten's seductions.

Donuts? Just coffee, thanks.

KFC? Why would you do that to yourself?

Bread that's not the texture and flavour of cardboard? Who are you, the Queen of England?

And lo, for many dark years I lived a pitiful life of potatoes, Tostitos, and that godless Rizopia pasta upon which even the most succulent Bolognese sauce slumps down and dies. I'm sometimes asked if I ever miss the taste of “real” food. Of course I don't; I can't remember what it's supposed to taste like.

All that's changing now.

Suddenly I can walk into practically any restaurant or supermarket and stuff myself stupid with half-decent, gluten-free doppelgängers of foods as exotic as cookies, bagels, and cupcakes (mostly cupcakes). This deglutenization, as I understand it, is achieved by arcane sorcery and by substituting wheat flour with some concoction of potato, corn, rice, tapioca, and sorghum. And xanthan gum, whatever that is.

2016 is a far cry from 1997, when all I had to eat was Styrofoam and tears. Today we celiac sufferers inhabit a world only slightly less flavourful (and much, much more expensive) than the world of gluten-eaters.

How did it come to this? How did I lose the right to feel sorry for myself and my beleaguered taste buds?

Scientific progress, for one. We may be mere years away from a pill that protects against mild gluten exposure. Greater public awareness, too. Today, when I tell people I have celiac disease, they don't look at me strangely and ask if it's contagious. (It's not. Yet.)

But the biggest reason, for better or for worse? The fact that gluten-freedom has caught on as a sexy lifestyle choice, a trend I can only interpret as a sign of the imminent End Times.

Of course, we card-carrying members of the Celiac Club shouldn’t complain about a little help from hipsters and extremely rich writers of diet books. Gluten is pernicious, insidious, sinister, the culinary equivalent of asbestos. The protein composite that makes dough elastic, chewy, and basically worth eating, gluten also appears in a variety of unexpected places: the seasoning on chips, the filler in hot dogs, the malt flavouring in Rice Krispies; in soy sauce, broth, salad dressing, and beer. And just a few weeks ago, I wept openly into a tub of delicious organic ice cream that contained delicious organic food starch.

So yes, I do owe a few inches of my waistline to the swelling ranks of modern glutenphobes. But this trendiness is a double-edged baguette: because so many people avoid gluten voluntarily, and exhibit few adverse effects when they do consume the stuff, restaurants and other vendors get into the habit of not taking it seriously, of not taking precautions against cross-contamination, of not checking and double-checking all the minor additives in their house vinaigrette. Sisters and brothers, unless you're dealing with a dedicated gluten-free kitchen, you're probably not eating gluten-free.

What I’m trying to say is: even in this enlightened day and age, gluten-free living is risky business, and a culture that treats it casually only makes it riskier. So, the next time you're deciding what to contribute to your experimental art collective's gluten-free, bring-your-own-kombucha potluck, why not try food that's actually meant to lack gluten? Polenta, farinata, injera, papadums, and arepas are all authentically gluten-free and make delightful alternatives to boring old bread-things. Gluten-free beer is almost uniformly terrible, but grab a case of cider on the way and watch as your news feed overflows with grateful, inebriated status updates.

Anyway, that's my advice. If you're going gluten-free, go all in. Be careful, be vigilant, be informed. Besides, it could be worse. You could be vegan.