Eat Before Dinner: A Gluten-Free Manifesto

Gluten-free dough is an option at Blaze Pizza, a national, build-your-own pizza chain based in Pasadena, CA. Going the extra mile they even offer nitrate-free meats and vegan cheese. This gluten-free dough is made of: brown rice flour, filtered water, extra virgin olive oil, tapioca flour, sea salt, yeast and xanthan gum (plant-based, for texture). Photo by Lizanne E. Webb.

Dear Friend and Reader:

It’s been 10 years since I wrote my first gluten-free piece for Chronogram, called “Hold the Bread on that Sandwich Please.” As usual, we were way ahead of the wave. Gluten-free was an obscure topic in 2006. It’s now a bona fide trend. In fact, it’s become an industry. It’s become a controversy.

And it’s also become a joke: such as the person who goes to great lengths to make sure that their dinner is absolutely, entirely free from a single molecule of gluten, only to order the ordinary crumb cake for dessert. In case you’re one of those people, please stop. You’re free to inflame your cells, mess up your immune system, be an emotional mess and strip your upper intestine of its ability to absorb nutrients. But you have no right to make life more difficult for anyone else, or cast the rest of us as phonies.

Keith Olbermann, who has been diagnosed with celiac disease, in a promo for his GQ show, The Resistance. We had no idea he had an entire show about resisting gluten. Photo by Chris Buck/GQ.

If you own a restaurant, or work as a server or prepare food, thanks for putting up with these people. There are actually those among us who need to keep gluten out of our bodies, or else we can have serious problems — long-term and immediate.

Here’s the thing to remember: Being wheat-free may not seem like a big deal to you. But to someone who is honoring this diet, the whole universe of prepared foods becomes hostile: it’s literally toxic.

Sharing food is an important aspect of social life. The feeling that gluten-sensitive people have, particularly those with celiac, is that of being excluded and left to starve. Everyone else can enjoy things that you cannot, and this is happening all the time. It’s so bad that I’ve often had to eat before dinner, if I have a hunch that the only thing gluten-free will be the celery. Yes, I will literally eat dinner before going to a dinner party. If I can get to the person preparing the food, usually they’re happy to help, though this is not always possible.

If I’m traveling, I’ll make sure I have some gluten-free snacks in my bag. Gluten-free people cannot “grab a slice” or “run out for a sandwich.” Rather, we have to map out the neighborhood, do research and gain experience in order to be able to eat more or less normally. Note that in 2017, we have many more options available. There was a day when the only gluten-free stuff was Rice Krispies and these things called Rice Wafers, which made matzo seem like a delicacy. Today, even many ordinary supermarkets have hundreds of products that are certified gluten-free.

I was diagnosed with celiac when I was one year old, in April 1965. My life was saved by my Grandma Mary, and by Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose book, Baby and Child Care, warned of a celiac problem known of for hundreds of years. The treatment is to stop feeding the kid wheat, barley and rye — grains (which I will call wheat products for the purposes of this article) that contain a protein people with celiac cannot process. For an excellent introduction to the science behind this, visit

There are no drugs to treat celiac; and if there were any, I would not be interested. This is a condition that’s entirely manageable using diet, which means knowledge and discipline. There are also lower-grade gluten sensitivities, which do not fit the definition of celiac. Others are experimenting with going off of gluten, which is a worthy goal. Gluten serves no productive nutritional purpose.

Zooey Deschanel, another celebrity with celiac, in her role as Jovie, a department store elf in the 2003 movie “Elf.” Santa now has many more gluten-free options for kids than he used to.

It’s either a contaminant, or used for aesthetic purposes: that is, to make a pastry feel and taste like a pastry, or to put the crunch into the crispy. As you get gluten out of your diet, you’ll start to figure out the difference between a need and a want. You’ll also discover how wheat, particularly low-quality, hybridized wheat, infiltrates our entire food system.

Getting the wheat out is not merely about making a dietary change. Rather, it’s about getting an understanding of food, lifestyle and where the two meet. You will learn how to scrutinize a menu or food package. When you’re eating in a restaurant, you might find yourself playing a game of deducing the one thing on the menu you can eat. When reading a package, there’s an easy way to know for sure that something contains gluten: if the ingredient list is too long. You don’t need to read the long lists; you can assume they have gluten. When the ingredients are a few lines, read carefully and you may discover that they left it out.

If you live in the EU, you will need to learn the secret numeric codes for ingredients that are listed on the label. They have the perfect system there for manufacturers who like to conceal their ingredients.

Addressing gluten sensitivity, or any food sensitivity, is about total dietary awareness. You must scrutinize every last thing you put in your mouth. You must know how food is made. That means conscious, constant learning. It means having many conversations with servers and food preparers, till you have a real answer. If you’re in a restaurant and your server says, “There’s wheat in pasta?” try not to laugh; just ask for the chef or the manager.

Living this way as a child stoked my interest in food preparation. Grandma Mary was a deep influence: as the family chef, she was part artist, and part scientist. She had the right tool for everything. She would practice new recipes the day before she had to make them for a family gathering. Between this and the constant investigation into the contents and preparation of foods, by the time I was about 20, I had worked in numerous restaurants as a server, food prep and cook.

Green Bay Packer running back James Starks, who has a gluten allergy, riding a fan’s bicycle at pre-season training camp, Green Bay, Wisconsin, in 2011. Photo by Gabriel Cervantes.

When I was accepted at the Culinary Institute of America, my admissions essay was called “Recipe for a Chef,” which noted that my celiac had been one source of my passion for food preparation. I chose a journalism career instead, though never lost interest in the kitchen. When I was 22, I lived in a spiritual community for a year, studying A Course in Miracles. Someone named Patrick Sullivan ran the kitchen. He had been saucier at Windows on the World and executive chef at the Columbia University Faculty Club. He knew his onions.

Naturally, I shadowed him in the kitchen every minute I could, volunteering as his prep or sous chef or dishwasher or whatever he needed. I was determined to learn everything I could possibly learn from him. One thing I discovered was that you can make just about anything vegan.

At that stage of his career, he was obsessed with making sumptuous vegan meals that you just could not tell did not include any meat. All it took was the will, some research and planning, and some experimentation.

So, to all you restaurateurs out there, you have no excuse. Anyone actually trained in culinary arts knows that, outside of pastries, nearly all use of flour for appetizers and main courses is unnecessary — most, as in 90%. If you want to help gluten-free people and also run a better kitchen, get the flour out of where it does not belong.

If you cannot make a reduction (gravy or sauce) without thickening it with flour, stick to cooking for your family on Thanksgiving, or get more training.

To the places that make a real effort, thank you. I walked into Cheese Louise for the first time last weekend; it’s an actual old-school delicatessen located on Rt. 28. They had salmon chowder on the menu. I asked if it was thickened with flour, and the chef said, and I quote: It’s not necessary. The soup has potatoes. She had me at it’s not necessary.

I finally found a local place that makes gluten-free pizza the right way — they get their dough and bread products from off-premises: Enzo’s in the town of Ulster, which buys its dough from Meredith’s Bakery. Recently, I called my old landlord Renato, who owns DiBella’s Pizza in Kingston, and he went on and on for 10 minutes about all the new gluten-free stuff he has on his menu. Dominick’s Cafe has gluten-free options every day. Anatolia in New Paltz will gladly help gluten-free people. Please tell these places I said hello.

This attitude is more than we can hope for, however. So, for the rest of this article, I’ll share my strategies for keeping gluten out of my body.

First of all, you need a little chutzpah. Just a little — enough to ask a series of questions and get real answers. You need to know in your heart and soul that the purpose of a restaurant is to serve you. Write that on your debit card. This comes with a tremendous responsibility on the part of the owners. Your job is to get the conversation onto the level of what they’re secretly planning to put into your body.

Sarah Vowell next to Gov. John Winthrop’s tomb in Boston in 2008 to promote her book, “Wordy Shipmates.” The author, former contributor to This American Life and voice of Violet in the 2004 movie “The Incredibles” actually won’t take the cannoli, because she has celiac disease.

Some places have a good attitude toward gluten-sensitive people. Please patronize those places and send your friends. Spread the news on Yelp and elsewhere. Other places have a genuinely dismal attitude, as if they’ve declared ideological war and would sooner keep a dead rat in their freezer than a loaf of gluten-free bread. I suggest boycotting those places, telling your friends to do the same and, once again, making sure that you reflect this in any review you write.

When you’re ordering, keep it friendly and matter-of-fact. It helps if you’re knowledgeable and sincere. Declare your situation upon being greeted by the server. My preferred language is, “Hello. I have celiac and we need to keep all gluten off of my plate. Can you help me with that?”

Do not feel bad about this! Enlist the server as your ally. You’re not inconveniencing anyone. You’re only helping them fulfill their dharma (life purpose). You’re helping educate them for the next customer who comes in. Be grateful when you find servers and kitchen staff who are cooperative. Leave a good tip. Tell the manager you were treated well. This kind of positive encouragement goes a long way.

As a gluten-free person, you know that you have to avoid all the obvious things that contain wheat products: breads, cakes, pies, pasta, pizza and most snack foods. The challenge is spotting the invisible gluten, or the places where there’s cross-contamination. If you’re ordering gluten-free pizza, for example, ask about their food practices. How do they know it’s gluten-free? They should have a good answer.

The deep fryer is the perfect example of where cross-contamination happens. Most restaurants only have one of these. The French fries go in the same vat as the onion rings, the chicken fingers, the mozzarella sticks, the wheat bombs and the rest of it. To be safe, you must avoid eating all deep-fried foods outside your home. One exception is that most major fast food systems have segregated deep-fry bins: the potatoes go in one, and the gluten stuff goes in another. You might not think of McDonald’s or Nathan’s as a godsend, but if you’re gluten-free and in a pinch, you can always have fries and tea.

Actress-with-celiac Jennifer Esposito opened her own gluten-free, soy-free, dairy-free, refined sugar-free, celiac-friendly bakery, “Jennifer’s Way,” in Manhattan’s East Village in 2012. Image: CBS.

I recently figured out that a taco restaurant I frequent was deep-frying the tortilla chips. I talked to the owner and he said it was too expensive to get a second deep fryer. That’s a poor excuse, in my opinion. But they could also keep a bag of ordinary chips on hand and mention on the menu that their regular chips are not gluten-free.

The other common place wheat gets into is soups and sauces. You have to ask the server what the ingredients are. For example: “Does this come with a sauce and, if so, is it gluten free?” If they don’t seem to know, politely ask them to ask the chef. Be persistent and get a real answer. Don’t be afraid to ask to read the package that an ingredient comes in. This stuff called eel sauce, used on sushi, is like gluten gel. The soup base in pho, a Vietnamese dish, often has gluten. There are many weird examples in Asian food, and you have to become something of an expert. For the most part (with the exception of soy sauce), garden-variety Chinese food is fine, except if something is deep fried. You have to ask them to keep the soy sauce out.

I frequently eat at a place in the city, and every time I go, I ask if the fries are gluten-free. The first five times, they said yes. The sixth time, the server said no, they have gluten. This called for an investigation: they had changed their ingredient that one day. I switched to baked potatoes (which they happen to have ready in time for breakfast, since they serve dinner all day). You have to keep asking and, in the process, get to know the staff and the kitchen habits of the places you frequent.

In short, you have to participate in the food that you eat. As our whole society moves toward a service economy, we are increasingly removed from the actual preparation of our sources of nourishment. As a gluten-free person, or someone who loves one, you must turn this around for yourself. It’s on the level of a 24/7 mindfulness exercise.

Be grateful that Zen training comes free as part of your diet.

With love,

Planet Waves Monthly Horoscope for April 2017, #1144 | By Eric Francis

Aries (March 20-April 19) — One thing that’s fast going missing here in the internet age is something known as an inner life. You can think of this as the sanctity of one’s thoughts; a private inner experience of the world; a relationship with the ‘you’ nobody knows. One reason for this loss is an unwholesome obsession with appearances and glamour: looking like something at the expense of being that thing. There’s another problem: the internet has blown our minds inside-out. We expose ourselves, and we’re invaded, tracked, stalked and photographed. Despite all of this, you have an inner life. Your being extends inward further than it expands outward. Aspects this month will guide you in this direction: toward yourself, into a world of feelings, a dimension of perceptions you may not be able to describe. This may have a ‘scary’ feeling as you step from one form of consciousness to another. If you peer into your mind and see shadow and darkness, give your eyes a moment to adjust. Allow your inner vision to receive rather than pursue what you might see. What you’re likely to discover is a world of light, of ideas, of memories and of unfamiliar desires. It will be worth stretching past any fear, discomfort or strangeness, and allowing yourself to get to know your own being, and discover your inner life.

Taurus (April 19-May 20) — You tend to be a private person, and this is understandable enough. You have a clear line between what is your business and what you would feel comfortable with others knowing. Most of who you are is inside that circle. Yet as the next few weeks progress, you will be drawn out of yourself as if by some cosmic or psychic force. You may notice that you’re revealing what you would never ordinarily let out; putting into words what you might never speak; allowing people into your feelings in new ways. Why would you do this? For one thing, what you’ve got going on inside is too compelling to contain. It’s not that you need validation, but rather, when you encounter the world on the level of your deepest truth, you take an extra step in its direction. There’s a confrontation involved, which necessitates a deeper level of both experience and claiming who you are in the context of others. This is not about them. It’s about you. To be fully confident in who you are, you need to be confident in your identity, which comes through a kind of confrontation with the world. The private space of ‘knowing something is true’ will get you part of the way there. Then it’s essential to connect: and that’s what you seem to be reaching for.

Gemini (May 20-June 21) — If you want to attain the highest levels of professionalism and success, it’s necessary for you to be vulnerable in ways not usually associated with a career. Emotional investment, cultivation of your talent, and the willingness to serve rather than to be seen are all involved. Your work cannot be separate from who you are; which is to say, in whatever you do. You’re an artist, and that calls for total investment, and taking a hint from your Gemini cousin Bob Dylan that a poet alone can tell the truth. It’s possible that in recent months you’ve become wary or weary of the drive for superficial accomplishment. Your chart is cautioning against falling for appearances and popularity, to the point where you may be openly rebelling against these things. Rather than rebel, draw yourself closer to the very thing that distinguishes you. Be not afraid to stand out, that is; or to be authentically different in a way that challenges you. The thing that you may be concerned is your fatal flaw is the thing to work with. For you that may feel like a longing to hear the true message of the universe, or the drive to connect with others in a common language you feel you might never attain or master. If you pursue the impossible, or even the improbable, you’re heading in the right direction.

Cancer (June 21-July 22) — Sometimes you come up with a plan, and sometimes a plan reveals itself to you, and you must respond. This month you’ll be at the nexus of where the two meet. You have your ideas about what you must do with your existence, and life seems to have ideas of its own. If you’re not strictly the product of your environment, it’s also true that your environment is only partly the product of your efforts. In order to find the correct blend, you’ll need to experiment. For example, you can set an agenda with no concept of how you’ll accomplish it, and watch what happens. You can let your life unfold without planning things in advance, and use your skills of adaptation and invention to develop seemingly random events into something that really works for you. One thing that remains true regardless of what approach you take is to keep on friendly terms with people in power. They are your collaborators, your facilitators and, in essence, your sponsors. Being friendly with them, and finding the points of contact, is not about kissing ass. Rather, you do your best when you’re working on the human level among other humans. Be truthful about your desires and your motives, and notice who responds supportively. Powerful people are protecting you, and have an interest in your success. Get to know them.

Leo (July 22-Aug. 23) — This month, you’ll need to take some time and resolve a prior emotional or sexual bond. If this is something that did not end well, you’re the one who will need to set aside your ego, extend the proverbial olive branch, and take the risk of vulnerability. This is a complex situation. All the people involved have brought an element of past injury to the scenario, which has little to do with those who are immediately involved. See the situation in that context and it’ll be easier to understand. You may have stepped away because it was just too complex, or because of some uncertainty about whether you were being told the truth. However, your personal truth is more important than some abstract notion of a valid point of view, and you’re now much more confident in who you are. In a similar way, ‘the situation’ is not what needs to be resolved: rather, you must come to terms with your own feelings and your own healing process. You may or may not get the full cooperation of others, though that does not matter. What counts is that you make yourself available for an exchange, without judgment. Then, as you do that, notice what happens: how people respond, what they say and, most of all, the contrast between what you remember and what you see now.

Virgo (Aug. 23-Sep. 22) — If you find yourself strategizing how to get or keep a lover, take a step back. Using strategy is a sign of a closed heart, and what happens on the emotional plane cannot be planned or predicted. If you need a plan of action, try being real; which is to say, honest about your feelings. This is a matter of vulnerability. You might feel like it’s someone else who’s not quite open, though even if that were true, you could still respond by staying close to your feelings. If you discover that the past is in the way (such as resentment, guilt, or the feeling that you just cannot please someone), stick with those feelings, too. The real obstacle may be something from your own past entirely unrelated to what seems to be going on. Notice if you feel like you need to prove something to someone; notice if the discussion omits the emotional level; there would be reasons for these things. Ultimately, you will need to submit yourself to what actually means something to you: what matters, what makes a difference, or some motive you have for living and being, rather than being in a relationship. Any encounter between you and another person must be based on common ground, and your part in this is to know intimately the ground on which you stand.

Libra (Sep. 22-Oct. 23) — Relationships need a purpose. That is to say, both parties to the encounter need a common reason for being there, otherwise the experience can degrade into something self-serving for people who are mutually using one another. Yet it’s astonishing how rare it is for people to work with a tangible shared purpose. Raising children and paying the mortgage can fill in for a while, though it needs to go deeper. You might ask yourself what the purpose of each of your relationships is — especially the thing you consider your primary relationship. If you don’t have one of those and are looking for one, you might ask yourself why that is. If the answer is companionship, what’s the nature of that? Is it about completing something missing within you, or is it the desire to co-create? Do you have some mutual purpose related to service? Do you have a healing agenda that you can share with a close partner? That would serve your purposes well. When we say love, we mean trust; and trust is about understanding that your presence in someone’s life is to make their life better, as is their presence in yours. As you orient on this, you’ll be taken to a deeper emotional level than you may be accustomed to going, especially in recent years. Hang in with this purpose, and with the people you care about.

Scorpio (Oct. 23-Nov. 22) — Sex is underrated. Yes, it’s ridiculously hyped in some places, and thrown into the gutter in many others. Yet we might take a chance and admit that the source of life, the wellspring of existence itself, has a spiritual and creative purpose. Even so, between you and that state of consciousness are several obstacles. They all involve exploitation, from the most publicly displayed (selling everything from cars to drugs to vacations with some form of erotic bait) to the most private: all the injuries that we’ve suffered, many of them going back to childhood. I think there are two keys to tapping the power of sexuality: one is being open to it; the second is seeing it as the creative core from which all other forms of personal expression emanate. This is potentially controversial, though should it be? Embarrassment is no excuse. You would be well-served to open up to the nuances involved, starting with a careful review of your erotic liaisons the past two years. There’s something you seem to be urgently trying to let go of and to move beyond. Yet there’s something you’re wanting, needing and intending to turn toward. This is a point of inner contact that will melt away your fears and inhibitions and allow you to enter totally unfamiliar, perhaps frightening, strangely beautiful territory within yourself. That’s how you’ll know you’re making progress.

Sagittarius (Nov. 22-Dec. 22) — You’ve been on a creative roll lately. Art and passion (closely related in astrology) are always a gamble, though you seem to keep winning every time you throw the dice. Over the next month, the level of personal risk involved in your creative expression deepens. You’re swimming upstream within yourself, toward a destination. The kind of vulnerability and sensitivity you may experience is the kind that everyone born under your sign knows about, and very few care to admit. Plunge in and go for it. The water is not nearly as murky as it may seem, nor are the questions you’ll face as overwhelming as they may appear. Yet there’s no question: the circumstances of your life, and the aspirations you’re being called to reach for, are summoning you to a new level of introspection and emotional contact. To reach into this place will require facing old pain, legacy material from your fantasy, and those age-old questions of whether you really belong here, and what you’re actually doing here. These cannot be accessed merely by asking, wondering or enduring. Yet you can liberate yourself by exploring, in earnest, the roots of your emotional being. If you’re an artist, your art will get better, and if you’re a lover, your love will grow. As a born explorer, this is one of your ultimate quests.

Capricorn (Dec. 22-Jan. 20) — You have a curious relationship to your spiritual life. It’s almost as if it hides from you, or you overlook it, while you’re busy pursuing it. This can have a number of effects, including a kind of detachment or separation between what you do in the world, and your sense of a profound truth you contain and cannot express. If integrity is important to you, and I reckon that it is, your inner life requires alignment with your outer activity. If you feel like there’s a gap between the two (by choice or by circumstance) that calls for some investigation. You might feel as if there are things you must do to ensure your worldly existence, which call for a compromise. That was never true, and it’s never been less true than it is today. What you hold as sacred, and what you know to be your ‘original instructions’, are the very thing that you’re summoned to live, to express and in a sense to enforce in your material and worldly life. If there seem to be levels of truth, that’s likely to be the result of the density associated with the various levels in your mind. As an inhabitant of this Earth, there are some things you cannot avoid; there are facts that are true on every level or dimension of existence. This is your starting point, not your destination.

Aquarius (Jan. 20-Feb. 19) — Astrology teaches us something obvious that I’ve never seen in a self-help book or learned in therapy training: money and self-esteem are intimately related. We see this through the 2nd house in astrology, which classically is about cash on hand and available resources, and in psychological astrology is about your relationship to yourself. In your solar chart this is Pisces, which at the moment is populated by an interesting assortment of planets (most of them new discoveries since the 1970s). Now Venus is about to enter Pisces, and will conclude its retrograde journey mid-month with a conjunction to Chiron. This is about deciphering all the ways you hold back love and approval from yourself. Then you can learn a lot by answering those judgments in sane and humane ways. Nobody on our particular planet goes through life without some struggle over the right to exist. Aquarians in particular can grapple with a poignant sense of not fitting in. Yet as you figure out that this whole drama is moderated by your own state of self-acceptance, you will settle down and, in a sense, claim yourself. That means taking ownership of all your personal resources and talents; and that, in turn, is good for business and career. What you might offer to others must be yours to share, and that’s the essence of full ‘belonging’ in every sense of the word.

Pisces (Feb. 19-March 20) — Your sign stands at the threshold of endings and beginnings. And that’s exactly where many of the planets stand at this moment — distributed between Pisces, the Omega zone, and Aries, the Alpha zone. Yet with Venus in retrograde motion, poised to track backwards from Aries into Pisces, there would seem to be something that you want to retrieve before you proceed forward. On many accounts, a new phase of your life has already begun. Rather than plunging forward without reflection, take a little time and consider what you simply must take with you. You may not be aware of what this is yet, though I reckon you’ll soon find out. I can describe in a vague way by saying that you’re ready to retrieve a memory of your true being and your true purpose. Yet in classical mystical fashion, this is the kind of thing you can become aware of with a sense of profound understanding, and then forget just as fast. Now, when you remember, the thing to do is to maintain that awareness as a central focus of your life. As this consciousness dawns on you, do what you can to acknowledge, record and express what you discover. Said another way, you’re about to rediscover who you are, and remember what you’ve known all along. Make this real by making it the basis of all your decisions.

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