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The Gluten Dilemma

August 11, 2012

Gluten is a complicated subject to bring up these days. The word has become almost taboo—shoppers wince and pass by wheat bread, forgo crackers and shun pasta. Ten years ago “gluten”—a protein in wheat that holds dough together—was hardly even in the American vocabulary. So how did a previously unknown culprit emerge as one of the biggest culinary pariahs in just under a decade? Are we as a nation being sold a gluten-free fad? Has the allergy been among us this whole time without our knowing? Or has something in our current food system generated new reactions in our bodies? Are we somehow more likely to develop allergies than past generations?

Not long ago, Americans considered red meat a killer and avoided eggs like the heart attacks they were thought to cause. Then, in the early 2000s  [or you  , there was a resurgence of the diet made famous by the late Dr. Robert Atkins. Suddenly the exact foods we were eating to stay thin—cereals, breads, pasta—became the sources of our rising weight. As Michael Pollan observed in his 2006 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma:


These high-protein, low-carb diets found support in a handful of new epidemiological studies suggesting that the nutritional orthodoxy that had held sway in America since the 1970s might be wrong…. Within months, supermarket shelves were restocked and restaurant menus rewritten to reflect the new nutritional wisdom.


The Atkins Diet paved the way for a new group of restaurant and supermarket products that capitalized on the low-carb diet trend. The “low carb” became the perfect bridge for “wheat free” food alternatives. Wheat and gluten-free breads, pastas and cereals rapidly made their way into restaurants and supermarkets across the country. The trend has continued and magnified to such a degree that we are currently in the midst of a sort of gluten-free craze. Now, a new self-diagnosed gluten-sensitive consumer base has started to see these products as a healthier alternative. What was once deemed healthy and harmless is now among the most avoided edibles. This culinary shift is also a means for companies to create a new wave of specialty products that appeal to a growing number of consumers. The more dangerous wheat appears to be for our collective health, the more wheat-free products companies can sell. General Mills is leading the race with over 300 gluten-free products—like Chex cereal, Bisquick pancake mix and Betty Crocker cake mixes—and has even launched a website, But is the allergy real, or is it a fad?

To determine what information was available on the subject I did a cursory Google search for “gluten allergy.”  Most of what I pulled up were extensive lists of potential symptoms of gluten sensitivity, anything from headaches and anxiety to autism or multiple sclerosis.

A particular favorite of mine comes from a Huffington Post article by Dr. Mark Hyman—a self-professed practitioner of “functional medicine” and founder of The UltraWellness Center—titled, “Gluten: What You Don’t Know Might Kill You.” The first line reads: “Something you’re eating may be killing you and you probably don’t even know it!” What might be killing you, according to doctor Hyman, is whole-wheat toast.

Most of the information I found online sided with the dangers of eating wheat, but little of the information explained what Wheat related diseases are, or how they affect the body. It doesn’t bother me that these blogs are discussing a potential food allergy, but it does bother me that they’re doing it with such fervor as to startle a devout cynic like myself into thinking I might have an obscure disease just because I read a list of relatively common symptoms. Suddenly otherwise healthy people are clamoring for gluten-free products as an assumed healthy alternative to one of the world’s oldest food staples.

In “Against the Grain,” an article published recently in Columbia University’s alumni magazine, journalist David Craig explains: “Celiac disease occurs when the small intestine, upon mistaking gluten for a toxin, attacks its own lining to diminish its absorptive power and thus seal off the rest of the body from the threat.” For the one percent of people with a sensitivity to gluten (approximately 300,000 Americans), the stomach reacts as stated above, by generating an allergic reaction. Craig goes on to quote a study done by the Mayo Clinic:


One study conducted recently at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and based on analyses of old, preserved blood samples, suggests that since 1959 the prevalence of celiac disease in this country has increased from 1 in 400, to 1 in 100. A major study in Finland in 2004 found the same rate of increase over that period. In both countries, diabetes rates also increased fourfold. A widely discussed hypothesis, offered first by the British epidemiologist David P. Strachan, is that people are becoming more prone to autoimmune disorders like diabetes and celiac disease because children are exposed to fewer germs and bacteria than in the past. This might stunt the development of the immune system, say many scientists.


In other words, our reaction as a society may be overblown, and it may be compounded by marketing, but in actuality we are four times as likely to be allergic to gluten now than we were 50 years ago.

So, if the allergic reaction to this relatively harmless protein has quadrupled in just over 50 years, perhaps the solution is not to buy into the gluten-free lifestyle, but to ask ourselves why we are so much more susceptible to allergens now than we were back then. Is it possible that our collective immune systems have gotten weaker over time?

As a society, we’re relying more on preservatives and sanitizers to keep us clean than during any other time in history. Most of the foods we eat are pasteurized, irradiated or otherwise sterilized to extend shelf life and maintain sanitation. This sanitation, however, deprives us of natural antibodies we’ve historically gotten from food—a little dirt on a freshly dug carrot or the naturally occurring bacteria present in fermented foods. As reporter Burkhard Bilger explained in “Nature’s Spoils,” an article for the New Yorker:


The immune system builds up fewer antibodies in a sterile environment; the deadliest pathogens can grow more resistant to antibiotics; and innocent bystanders such as peanuts or gluten are more likely to provoke allergic reactions. All of which may explain why a number of studies have found that children raised on farms are less susceptible to allergies, asthma, and autoimmune diseases. The cleaner we are, it sometimes seems, the sicker we get.

The microorganisms we pick up from the dirt on a farm can also exist in the air around us. Natural fermentation is a process that integrates our ecology into our bodies and may also help support our immune systems. This is why doctors tell us to eat yogurt after a stint of antibiotics. In his book Wild Fermentation, Sandor Katz touts the digestive benefits of fermented foods. “Eating fermented foods live is an incredibly healthy practice, directly supplying your digestive tract with living cultures essential to breaking down food and assimilating nutrients.” He mentions a study showing that “wheat that has undergone fermentation is easier to digest than unfermented wheat.” This suggests that gluten-sensitive people might have an easier time digesting sourdough, in which the wheat is fermented before baking, than they would with something like whole-wheat bread.

Fermented foods were a staple in all people’s diets until around World War II. G.I.’s returning from war coincided with the explosion of suburbs and with them came supermarkets. This suburban growth created a more homogenized customer base, and marketing became a driving force in consumerism during the 1950s. This affected the way Americans consume on a grand scale, but in food it ended up eliminating place-based diets. Up until that point most people bought meat from a butcher, bread from a baker and did much of their own preserving out of necessity using plants that grew in their region. New methods of canning and chemical preserving on a grand scale made it possible for things like pickles and hot dogs to be distributed all over the country from a single source. Branding became more important in the race to sell goods and name-brand items won out over local products. Meanwhile, scientists found more ways to extend the shelf life of foods, and things like fresh juice and cheese were replaced by Tang and Velveeta. Over the next 60+ years processed foods prevailed and fresh foods became less essential. Fermented foods are not shelf-stable and were traded for more supermarket-suitable goods. Thus, fermented pickles and fresh cheeses were replaced by vinegared pickles and the aforementioned “cheese product.” The live, active cultures of fermented foods and beverages may be what our immune systems need, but these things are harder to come by and sometimes have to be made at home. This takes time—time that many of us aren’t willing to spend.

Celiac disease is truly debilitating. I’m not offering a cure for the disease for those who have been diagnosed, but I worry that assuming the solution to any wheat sensitivity is to stop eating bread may only compound the problem. If you feel like you have a sensitivity to gluten, avoiding gluten may not be the answer. Buying heavily processed gluten-free snacks may be just as harmful as consuming any other processed snack food. By clamoring for gluten-free processed foods instead of looking at the real reasons we’ve developed these allergies, we’re only temporarily diverting the issue.  So, barring a home-cooked lifestyle, what can we do? To those who fear they may have gluten sensitivity: It may be that what you really need is fresh produce, exercise, and sunlight. And it is possible that eating some fermented foods will introduce your body to a better brand of bacteria that will make your stomach better equipped to process things like gluten.

Our food system is broken. It’s not a coincidence that rates of diseases like celiac and diabetes are on the rise. It’s because of what we’re eating. Replacing one packaged product with another is a corporation’s way of dealing with it. It doesn’t matter what you buy, as long as you buy it from them. The real answer is to take food seriously. Supporting local restaurants helps and supporting local food producers is key, but the best way to make change is in the kitchen. To change the system we have to buy more fresh food and we have to learn to cook and eat it. Advertising affects nearly everything we buy, from what we eat to what we wear to what soap we wash our hands with. The grander reach of the gluten dilemma is not to buy a new cake mix to replace the old, but to try instead to bake something from scratch. To consider our meals as entities that are important as our cars or the TV shows we watch. To sit somewhere comfortable and look at our meals with joy and appreciation. We have been trained to treat most of our meals as a nuisance—something we have to do grudgingly between our other priorities—rather than something to look forward to. As a result we eat for convenience rather than for nourishment. Unless we put our feet down and pick our forks up in favor of local, sustainable and homemade foods we won’t have access to the foods necessary to improve our collective diets .Now we need to collectively reach out to our friends and families and make a commitment not just to eat, but to eat well .

“There is no debating that it’s ‘better’ to cook at home whenever—and as often as—possible.”

–       Anthony Bourdain (2010)


“One of the strongest of human laws is that which commands respect for the life of any man with whom one has shared bread and salt.”

–       Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1826)


“The foregoing celebration of local food rests, admittedly, on the threatening assumption that someone will cook.”

–       Joan Dye Gussow (2001)


“I must eat to live; I want to live well; therefore I must eat well. And in these days of spurious and distorted values, the best way to eat is simply, without affectation or adulteration.”

–       M. F. K. Fisher (1950)



How to make roasted beets

February 17, 2012

Roasting is generally agreed to be the best way to get the most flavor out of you beets. When buying beets try to find ones that are slightly larger than a golf ball. These smaller beets are usually more readily available during the summer season and are sweeter than the larger ones. In the winter you’re more likely to find larger, baseball sized beets. Though they may be less sweet they still have wonderful flavor. try to buy beets that are a consistent size, whether large or small. And try to avoid excessively large beets, for they can have a woody texture.

To roast your beets, Preheat your oven to 375º. It is not necessary to peel the beets before cooking, but make sure they are scrubbed of most dirt. Don’t worry too much about root or stem bits, they will get peeled off after cooking. Put your beets in a bowl and toss with oil and salt. place the beets in a baking dish. They can be baked, covered straight away, but I recommend adding a bit of liquid and herbs to give the beets a little extra flavor and to ensure that the pan doesn’t burn. Try adding a bay leaf or some fresh thyme, then put some fresh cider, orange juice or white wine in the pan. Cover the beets tightly with aluminum foil and bake. Small beets can cook in about 30 minutes whereas large beets can take upwards of 1 1/2 hours. To check doneness of the beets, peel the foil back carefully to avoid the steam and insert a paring knife or fork into the beet. When the knife slides easily to the center, they are ready. Let the beets cool slightly before peeling them. To peel them use a paper towel or cloth napkin, the peel should slide right off if they are properly cooked. You can serve them immediately after cooking, or let them cool for later use as in a beet salad. If the juice in the bottom of the pan has remained clean and tasty it can be reserved to dress the beets as well. I used golden beets for the pictures, they cook the same as red beets but are a little less messy. All beets can be roasted in this manner, Enjoy!

Simple Bean Spread

January 17, 2012

This is a simple recipe for a bean topping that is great with toast or crackers. Almost any kind of bean can be used in this way and if you use chic peas and a little tahini this is also a basic guideline for making hummus. The ingredients list is very simple:


–       cooked beans (or canned) drained.

–       Olive oil

–       Lemon (or vinegar)

–       Salt

–       Finely minced fresh raw garlic

–       Fresh chopped parsley or other fresh soft herbs (mint, chives, cilantro, etc)

–       Pepper, chili flake or other spices (cumin, coriander, paprika…keep it simple)


How much of each ingredient you add depends on your own personal taste and how much you want to make, and whether you are using cooked or canned beans. Canned beans usually contain a fair amount of salt, whereas  home cooked beans contain only that which you add so you need less salt when using canned beans than home cooked. Canned beans will be plenty soft, but if you are using beans cooked from dry make sure they are well cooked and soft. Pour your beans into a bowl. add in a bit of minced raw garlic. Raw garlic has a great spicy taste to it, but it’s strong, so add a little then taste to see if you need more. Add in your herbs and drizzle generously with olive oil. Drizzle some fresh lemon juice in. as with the garlic, you want the lemon to add a fresh bite to the beans, but too much can be abrasive. Start light then adjust. Season with salt and pepper. Taste the spread to determine if you need extra of any of the ingredients. Beans respond well to generous amounts of olive oil. Don’t be shy with the oil when making a spread like this. You can also salt this spread generously to taste too (unless you have medical reasons not to). Beans are delicious when well oiled and salted. Trust you taste buds and serve when it tastes good, Enjoy.


Note: this spread can also be made in a food processor for a creamier texture. Just blend it all up and adjust for taste the same way.







about Cooking dry beans

January 1, 2012

BEANS! Hearty and versatile, they’re good in soups, beans and eggs make good breakfast and fresh herbs make a simple and delicious bean salad. Dry beans taste better than the ones out of the can and aren’t difficult to cook but there are a few variables.

White Bean bruschetta with a poached egg.

When you cook with dry beans it’s almost always a good idea to soak the beans in water before cooking. The exception to this is small beans like lentils and split-peas which can be cooked from dry in 30-45 minutes. You don’t have to soak beans to cook them, but most beans will take 2-3 hours to cook unsoaked, whereas soaked they take about 45 minutes.

Dry beans should be soaked over night for maximum water absorption. To soak your beans, fill a plastic container or large bowl just under half way with dry beans then fill the container the rest of the way to the top with water. Beans will swell over twice their size while soaking so it’s important not to overfill your container. If you soak beans in a glass jar they’ll swell and get jammed up in the jar, which is why I recommend plastic or a bowl.

When soaking the beans you can leave them out at room temperature and they will be fine, but after a day or two they can ferment. I once soaked some beans with the intention of cooking them and ended up getting caught up and the beans fermented on my counter. Since then I have always soaked beans in the refrigerator. That way if you want to cook beans sometime over the course of a week, but don’t really care which day it is you can just leave the beans to soak in the refrigerator until you are ready to cook them. It’s not possible to over soak dry beans.

When you’re ready to cook them, drain the water off the beans, put them in a pot, cover them with plenty of fresh water, bring just to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer until soft (about 45 minutes to an hour depending on the bean). If you’re making soup you can add the soaked beans right to your soup base and simmer them in water or stock. There is some debate as to whether beans should be salted during or after cooking. I heard that it is generally best not to salt beans until after they have cooked because it can affect their texture. I have not noticed a significant difference either way as long as the beans are cooked until they are tender, so just do what feels right. Beans are good and they can really please all people and aren’t affected by seasonality. So buy dry beans, save money and eat well.

Note: It is true that beans can give you gas. their gassy quality comes from a type of carbohydrate that exists in beans. soaking the beans and discarding the soaking liquid curbs this a little bit, but the best way to avoid gas is to make sure the beans are fully cooked and tender. this breaks down the carbohydrate so they are more easily digested. the firmer the beans are the harder they will be to digest.

Bean and herb salad

December 23, 2011

Bean salads make a good quick lunch or light dinner and they travel well. Plain cooked beans have a pretty dry texture so they drink up a lot of oil. Cold beans with olive oil and salt are delicious and a good bean salad is wonderful for anyone at any time. This is a simple salad you can make pretty much any time of year. if you have some cooked off beans you can use them, otherwise canned beans will work fine. Here’s a list of ingredients:

–       cooked beans

–       olive oil

–       lemon (vinegar will work too)

–       salt

–       soft herbs of your choice (parsley, basil, chives, mint, fennel, dill…)

–       shaved shallot or onion (as thin as you can slice them)

–       Pepper

If your beans are in liquid give them a light rinse and drain them. Put them in a bowl for mixing and drizzle generously with oil. add a squeeze of fresh lemon and a bit of the minced shallot/onion. Salt to taste. How much of what you use depends on your own taste and how much you are making. mix the beans, taste and add more of anything you think it might need more of. Try to give it enough oil to give the beans a creamy texture, enough lemon to make it snap without being astringent and enough salt to make it taste good. Beans need more salt than they appear to, trust your taste buds when salting and note that canned beans contain much more salt than ones you cook at home. When you are happy with the dressing, fold in your fresh herbs, chopped or whole, pepper and serve. It will keep a few days. It can sit out for a bit too, the beans will be a little better at room temperature than refrigerator cold.

This salad is great in its simplicity, but you can vary it pretty easily by adding other things too. Try it with peppers, roasted vegetables, salami, fresh sweet corn, brown rice, cucumbers, grated cheese, fresh tomatoes, avocado, shaved fresh fennel, smoked fish, leftover chicken… just about anything you can think of. Enjoy.

Back from hiatus

December 22, 2011

About a year ago I had to put Learning Life From Scratch on hold. I got a job running a kitchen. It was a great experience but after 50+ hours a week in a kitchen I just couldn’t get it together to come home and write about more cooking. I’ve recently taken a new job now with more reasonable hours and have finally had a chance to start writing and working on my blog again. I’m going to keep writing and working towards more scratch cooking and fresh eating for all people. In the time I have spent away from writing I did manage to learn quite a bit about how to cure meat, how to turn juice into wine and quite a bit about Celiac disease and allergies in general. You’ll see plenty of new ideas and instructions coming over the next few weeks. Its good to be back. Keep cooking and talking about food, it is a huge part of our futures.


On Hiatus

April 14, 2011

In October 2010 I moved from NYC back to my home town in Boise Idaho for some food projects and to run a restaurant. I’ve been working and doing a lot of great things, but it has affected my ability to write for this site, so I’m going on hiatus for now. I started Learning Life From Scratch to keep myself writing and thinking about food and also to communicate with friends, family and some new people with similar passions. I’m still advocating passionate food and home cooking and all the information on this site is still available. If you are in Boise you can come visit me at the Red Feather lounge and as always you can always contact me via e-mail.

Many people think that gourmets, true connoiseurs of eating and drinking, must possess great wealth… The wealthy are gourmets, if so, in spite of their riches. It is much easier to eat honestly if one is poor, and eats food prepared by cooks who must, at least occasionally, use their wits and their skills rather than the truffles and rare condiments of princely kitchens… I must eat to live; I want to live well; therefore I must eat well. And in these days of spurious and distorted values, the best way to eat is simply without affectation or adulteration.”

M.F.K Fisher, 1950