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Hold the Gluten

Joseph Epstein, gluten-free.

Feb 17, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 22 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Men, it is said, do not like to go to doctors. Clearly I qualify here. I have long considered myself a Christian Scientist, minus the Christian part. A realist in my taste in fiction, I am a fantasist in my views about physiology. I prefer, that is, to pretend that I do not have such organs as a liver, spleen, and kidneys, and like to think of the duodenum as a doo-wop group from the late 1950s. 

David Clark

David Clark

My problem with doctors is that when I go to them, they tend to find unpleasant things wrong with me, but not always the right things. They send me for tests, which fairly often prove inconclusive. A few years ago my then-gastroenterologist informed me that blood tests revealed that I had celiac disease, a condition that damages the lining of the small intestines and prevents one from absorbing food properly. He suggested I go on a gluten-free diet. At the time I was suffering from a skin-blistering problem called—and best pronounced in a W. C. Fields accent—bullous pemphigoid, which was all the medical trouble I could handle at the moment, and so I ignored his advice about the diet. Nothing untoward happened, and six months later I called him to tell him so. “The analysis wasn’t really definitive,” he said. “Is that so?” I answered, and made a mental note to leave him, which I did. 

Three or so years later, I encountered stomach trouble. Along with all the usual inconveniences stomach problems bring, I had lost four or five pounds, which I, already so lithe and dazzlingly beautiful, could not afford to lose. I went to my primary physician, who suggested I go on a fat-free diet. On a fat-free diet I couldn’t seem to regain the lost pounds. Only then did it occur to me that I might after all possibly have celiac disease, long delayed, and so I put myself on a gluten-free diet, which seems to be working. 

Gluten, Wikipedia informs me, is “a protein composite found in foods processed from wheat and related grain species, including barley and rye.” Gluten-free has in recent years become a fad diet. Middle-class supermarkets now stock much gluten-free food. Some have entire shelves devoted to it, and one can easily enough acquire gluten-free breads, crackers, pasta, and even (flourless) cakes and cookies. 

Being on a gluten-free diet has not been all that difficult, except for eating in restaurants. I meet weekly with two friends from high school days at a deli in Chicago called The Bagel, which has never heard of cholesterol let alone gluten, and there I can no longer order sandwiches or chicken soup with matzo balls, kreplach, or noodles, which is a deprivation. I don’t much mind taking a pass on cakes, pies, danish, and pastries, and liken my situation here to that of a reformed alcoholic I knew who told me that after 40 years of serious drinking he gave up alcohol because he felt he had had his share. 

After so many years of eating whatever I wanted, suddenly being diet-conscious feels strange. I used to mock, at least in my mind, health-food faddists. They seem, for one thing, so unhealthy-looking. I go into a health-food store in my neighborhood called J. D. Mills, run by an east Indian gentleman named Mr. Prakash, who drives a sleek gray Mercedes sedan. I go there to buy salted almonds and dried apricots. “Non-organic,” I always instruct Mr. Prakash. The one small smile I’ve ever got from him was when I recently whispered to him that “that organic stuff will kill you.”

I never used to read labels on packaged food or cans, though now I tend to do so. Labeling on food is clearly going to become more and more prevalent. I note that a government regulation requires vending-machine operators to label the number of calories in the various snacks in their machines. Liberals, I have heard it said, don’t care what we do so long as it is mandatory. 

The other night I was watching on television the movie You’ve Got Mail and in one of its final scenes noticed that Tom Hanks is eating a pretzel. I would not have noted this before I went gluten-free. This made me wonder if the day will come when movies, along with being graded X, R, PG-13, and the rest, will also have to announce that they contain scenes with gluten. 

In the best of all possible worlds, the one that Dr. Pangloss inhabits, one will eat exactly as one pleases with no ill effects. Until that day arrives, though, I shall stick to my gluten-free diet, hoping it will temporarily ward off the angelo di morte and keep me out of the offices inhabited by those imperfect artists who go by the name of physician. 

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