A couple of years ago, one of my regulars at the restaurant was ordering a burger. She stated that she wanted it without a bun. I assumed that, like many other customers at the time, that she was doing the Atkins low-carb diet, and asked if she needed to hear low-carb options on sides.
To my surprise, she stated that carbs were not the issue-- wheat, or contact with wheat was. And that was the first I heard of Celiac Disease
Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disease. It is triggered by wheat (and barley and rye) gluten. As my customer pointed out, even contact with wheat gluten can "contaminate" food. So, if, for instance, french fries are cooked in oil that breaded calamari was cooked in, the fries are contaminated. If a chicken breast is cooked on a griddle in which breaded pork tenderloin was cooked, the chicken breast is contaminated.
My customer offered information on the disease, which is genetic and affects a little under 1% of the population (even greater in people of Irish ancestry). She mentioned a couple of the symptoms (I won't go into the gory details here-- you can look them up on the Wikipedia article if you want), but I realized that I had a lot of them. I looked it up on the internet the next day.
Celiac goes largely undiagnosed. Coincidentally, Dead Spot emailed me a link, while I was working on this post, to a BBC article on the underdiagnosis of celiac (or coeliac, as it's sometimes spelled).
There is a test for it, but it's not conclusive. The only really true test is eliminating wheat gluten from your diet and seeing if it makes a difference. I did so.
The difference was startling. I'd long had digestive and breathing problems-- these cleared up entirely. Over the years, I'd taken to using Psuedoephedrine allergy medicine year-round-- I'd always assumed I had some kind of airborne allergy or allergies.
It's a struggle to eliminate gluten from your diet. The obvious culprits, like bread and noodles are easy. Wheat is in products you wouldn't expect. Soy sauce, for instance, has more wheat than soy (fortunately Tamari, a wheat-free soy sauce is available). I've gotten the Celiac reactions to unexpected things-- like Dorito corn chips (there is wheat in the seasoning coating) .
In restaurants, you have to ask about soups and gravies-- wheat is a popular thickener. And of course beer, made of barley, and sometimes even barley and wheat, is a no-no.
Sensitivity to gluten varies in people with celiac. Some people, like my wife's best friend Palette can introduce some low-gluten grains like spelt back into their diets.
Today, there was an article in the New York Times about gluten that mentioned Celiac Disease, which prompted this post.
At the end of the article, they quoted a person with celiac saying it's easy to go gluten-free, and that she doesn't miss it. She is lying her ass off. The noodles and pizza crusts don't have the consistency of the wheat ones. The bread is expensive and hard. While I've made due with rice cakes, corn tortillas, corn noodles and other substitutes, I miss wheat-- particularly in sandwiches. I spent years of my life subsisting largely on sandwiches-- I've spent most of my adult life as a bachelor, and they were a handy way to make a healthy meal for one.
Every few nights I dream that I'm eating a sandwich, a big submarine sandwich, with lots of different turkey cold cuts, lettuce, tomato and yellow mustard. The bread is fresh, warm, soft and delicious. In the dream, I realize, after a few bites, that I shouldn't be eating the sandwich, but since I'm already going to get the celiac reaction, I might as well just enjoy the rest of it. I wake up relieved that I haven't actually eaten the bread, but I think of people I've read about who lose a limb-- that they dream that the limb is there again and that they are able to use it.