The Celiac Surge: How I Make the Most of a Life Without Gluten

Editor's Note:

Paul Graham is an associate professor of English at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York and his essays have appeared twice in the Best Food Writing anthology (2012 and 2013). He’s the author of In Memory of Bread, and joins Signature to discuss Celiac disease and what it’s like to make do without bread.

When I was thirty-six, I abruptly became a drastically different kind of eater. A genetic predisposition caused my immune system to respond to wheat and other glutinous grains as poisons instead of as sustenance. Celiac disease — which I’d never even heard of — first made me seriously sick, and then left me confused, angry, and mournful for my previous life as an ambitious home cook, amateur beer-brewer, and fan of great bread. There is no cure except for an elimination diet.

How? Why? What the hell? An answer wouldn’t change anything, but it might have made me feel better. However, while we understand the genetics, and how gluten affects the small intestine of people with celiac, the trigger (or triggers) remain elusive.

The source of the trouble is not, as so often claimed, GMO wheat, though there is evidence to support that modern, hybridized wheat could be more reactive than ancestral varieties. However, humans have been hybridizing wheat for thousands of years, and the first diagnosis of celiac disease on record — and regarded as valid — is from around AD 100, when the grains people ate were less complicated. A certain set of the population seems to have always had trouble with gluten. Now, there are just more such people, possibly many more. By some estimates, the prevalence of celiac disease in America has increased fourfold in the last half century alone.

It’s an eye-catching statistic, and likely the result of more than improved diagnostics and awareness. Perhaps the most compelling explanation for the rise in celiac diagnoses combines several dietary factors: changes to the wheat itself, industrialized food production (for instance, commercial breads are leavened more rapidly), the quantity of gluten that slips into our diets in hidden forms (it’s frequently added to processed food), and the usage of vital wheat gluten (a concentration of the protein that improves the shelf life of industrially-produced bread). At the same time, researchers are also interested in the role modern hygienic practices might play in compromising the resident bacteria in our guts. Multiple potential triggers are not good news if you’re searching for a cure — or looking to better understand, generally, the potential costs of our modern food system.

My wife and I eliminated gluten (especially in the form of bread) and sought out replacements, turning our kitchen into a kind of time machine, a window into how people ate when wheat was an expensive and unreliable crop. For thousands of years, “daily bread” really was the meal for many people, but that bread wasn’t always made of wheat. When the preferred grains were unavailable, our ancestors baked loaves from beans, millet, potatoes, and ground nuts, all of which commonly show up in today’s gluten-free breads.

The historical current that fascinates me the most is how the absence of bread has haunted eaters in just about every historical era: a loaf of something is better than none at all. I came to see my own efforts to turn rice into wheat as a very old project in kitchen-alchemy — and a bit of a fool’s errand.

As a modern eater fortunate enough to have good cookbooks, a flexible budget, and some ambition, I also had another option: I became a culinary explorer. Eventually, celiac disease made me a better cook by shoving me way out of my comfort zone. The “better” part happened slowly, as I let go of much of what I’d learned prior to my diagnosis in order to make room for the new ways. While there are definitely happier reasons for learning to cook in Thai, Indian, Mexican, and other traditions, a huge dietary shift is a great excuse to expand one’s repertoire. It seemed odd that a narrowing of options actually led to more options, but that’s exactly what happened.

Some things never got easier, of course. Wheat and other glutinous grains remain at the heart of our culinary traditions. That truth, constant through the ages, has not changed, even if my gut has. This fact is most obvious when I’m traveling, or at celebrations.

The challenges to my daily routine were, in hindsight, predictable, but I could not have anticipated the social or emotional changes, nor the differences in how I would relate to my own past and, more broadly, human history. And I did not foresee my resilience, or the way that longing can be, in the end, a path to inspiration.