A bread slut of the highest order, my addiction began innocently and, as for most people, at an early age. As the child of a single working mother, I subsisted on breakfasts of bagels and cereal bars, brown-bagged sandwiches on glorious whole wheat bread and, the weeknight godsend to all busy parents, the M.V.P. of congeniality: pasta.
I also come from a German family, in which “give us this day our daily bread” wasn't a prayer so much as a certainty. My grandmother, a baker, made cakes and yeasted goodies year round, and I learned how to mix, fold and knead at her elbow. My grandfather, a paragon of spartan existence, liked to snack on what he called “air sandwiches” – two pieces of plain rye.
Sunday brunches revolved around fresh baguettes slathered with butter and Nutella. Visiting relatives lingered over beers and bratwurst in chewy rolls from the German deli. Come Christmas, the only thing I enjoyed more than dancing to Al Hirt and opening presents was my grandmother's sweet, fragrant, saffron-laced bread woven into the shape of a tree and dotted with red and green maraschino cherries. And my favorite dessert of all time? Bread pudding.
To say I love bread is an understatement. So, when I began to suffer from a host of maladies about five years ago, I never even considered that wheat could be the culprit. After my doctor dismissed my issues as “just stress,” I set off on a quest, obsessively researching and trying all manner of holistic health solutions. Acupuncture! Yoga! Apple cider vinegar! Vegan diet! All to no avail.
At the time, I knew only one person with celiac disease, and it was the first I'd ever heard of gluten. Now an estimated 1 in 133 Americans, or about 1 percent of the population, has celiac disease – an autoimmune response to wheat proteins and transglutaminase enzymes in the gut. Gluten-free has gone mainstream and business is booming, particularly in L.A., the aesthetically obsessed, dressing on the side, juice cleansing, health-Nazi capital of the world. But for many people, being “gluten-free” isn't just a fad diet to flaunt during brunch at Café Gratitude.
To be fair, studies have shown that even if a person tests negative for celiac, they can still be gluten sensitive. For these people, “gluten-free” isn't a choice, it's a necessity. “Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity”, or NCGS, can affect nearly every tissue in the body, including the brain, skin, stomach, and endocrine system, causing more damage than just the telltale gastrointestinal distress. Because the myriad of symptoms is so broad, and the scope of testing still so limited, it's estimated that 83 percent of Americans are under or misdiagnosed. As of now, the only way to really know if you're gluten sensitive is to eliminate it from your diet and see how you feel.
That's how I happened to stumble on the truth. Of all my attempted cures, avoiding gluten wasn't one of them. It's quite possible I was in denial. Wheat – eating it, baking with it – was such a deeply ingrained part of my life, I wasn't about to give up the comforting embrace of my doughy mistress. Besides, I'd already given up meat and dairy, what then would I eat?!
Ironically, it was my foray into vegan eating that ultimately revealed what I didn't want to see. BabyCakes was the only source of vegan baked goods in my neighborhood, and also happened to be gluten-free. After a day of solely, unintentionally gluten-free gluttony, I woke up the next morning with none of the usual maladies I'd come to expect after a carb-heavy weekend. My head felt clear, my stomach felt light, I had energy, I was in a great mood and my skin was calm and glowing.
I mourned the implications, but proceeded to avoid gluten for a full two weeks. I had to be sure. Then in a moment of weakness, when confronted with an epic bread basket, I savored (okay, inhaled) a few crusty, soft, olive oil-soaked pieces. Sure enough, as with any toxic relationship, I suffered the consequences of going back – the next day my symptoms returned. And just like that, my torrid love affair with gluten was over.
Two years later, I'm still gluten-free. While going gluten-free has become somewhat of a cliche in L.A., I'm grateful for Angelenos' celebration of health, however shallow the underlying reasons may be.
Gluten-free options are ever more ubiquitous around town, making it a lot less painful to abstain. My grandmother, like many people, doesn't quite believe gluten sensitivity is a real affliction and was slightly offended the first time I wouldn't eat her beloved Christmas tree bread. However, after delving successfully into gluten-free baking, I'm proud to say I've won her over with my own goodies. And even though I still leer longingly when I see a fresh-baked baguette, I've realized there is a kind of truth to a certain tenet of the diet industry that applies even when you haven't chosen to be on a diet: Skinny, or in this case, happy, energetic, clear-headed, even-keeled, feel so much better than bread will ever taste.