A couple of years ago, one of my regulars came into the restaurant and ordered a burger, without bread. I assumed that it was because she was doing the Atkins diet, where you cut out almost all carbohydrates. The Atikins Diet was all the rage then. I told her that I assumed that she then didn't want french fries, and started rattling off her low-carb options. She told me that it was fries were okay, depending on how they were prepared. She told me that she had a disease called "sprue celiac," a genetic allergy to wheat.
She told me briefly about how she discovered she had it-- she's suddenly lost weight. She told me her symptoms, and I realized that I had a lot of them. I did a little research on the internet, and decided to try cutting wheat out of my diet.
It wasn't easy. Not only is wheat proscribed, but related grains, like barley. In otherwords, no more beer!
The change in my health was dramatic. I'd long taken ephedrine all year round to relieve congestion and itching, which I assumed was from some airborne allergy. All of those allergy symptoms suddenly disappeared. I checked into getting an actual test for celiac and found that they can only test you if you are still consuming wheat gluten!. The changes were dramatic enough that I didn't go back just so I could get tested.
Celiac, sometimes spelled coeliac, is concentrated among, but not limited to, people of Northern European ancestry, particularly the Irish. It is an autoimmune disease caused by a reaction to gliadin, a protein found in gluten. According to Wikipedia, "Upon exposure to gliadin, the body's immune system cross-reacts with the enzyme tissue transglutaminase, causing an inflammatory reaction that leads to flattening of the lining of the small intestine, which interferes with the absorption of nutrients." Symptoms can include include diahrrea, fatigue and weight loss. The only treatment is complete elimination of gluten from one's diet. If you do not follow the diet, the celiac can eventually damage your health and even kill you. About 1 in 130 people have celiac disease.
This has not been easy. Did you know that soy sauce has more wheat than it has soy? Did you know that Doritos corn chips have wheat in the coating? I have to read every label closely.
And what my customer was talking about-- how it was prepared-- if oil is used to fry something with wheat--for instance breaded and fried calamari-- it is "contaminated," and gets wheat gluten on everything else cooked in it afterward, including french fries.
It takes only a few molecules of wheat gluten to set off the allergy. So if a cook sets a piece of bread on a griddle to warm it up, and then cooks a burger on the same griddle, the burger is "contaminated."
It's obviously restricted my diet. If I have to eat another rice cake, I'm going to scream. There are still plenty of foods I enjoy. I'm able to substitute-- for instance, there are wheat-free subsitutes for most noodles. But I have to read labels, and be a pain in the ass in restaurants, asking a million questions. And foregoing a lot of foods I love. It's all been tough, but very, very worth it.
A week or two ago, blogger Natalie was posting about going to dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant here in Chicago, the Ethiopian Diamond, and mentioned the flat, pancake-like bread of Ethiopian cuisine, injera. Injera is delicious-- it's got a sour taste that comes from allowing the batter to ferment. Out of curiosity, I looked it up on Wikipedia and found that injera is made not out of wheat, but a grain called teff or tef. I did a little more research and found that we "celiacs" are okay with tef, but that a lot of restaurants mix it with wheat flour. I called the Ethiopian Diamond, and found that yes, they usually mix the tef with wheat flour, but can make the bread out of pure tef if you call in ahead. I'm very excited at the prospect of having a food I've missed.
One other piece of good news-- Anheuser-Busch is adding to the list of a few other smaller brewers offering a gluten-free beer made of sorghum for celiac sufferers.