When I was 36, I suddenly became a drastically different kind of eater. A genetic predisposition caused my immune system to stop responding to wheat and other glutenous grains as it always had. Instead of sustenance, they were poisons.
For a while I did not perceive any difference. Then severe illness jolted me out of my routine. When I recovered, I found myself in a strange place. It was as if a sinkhole had opened beneath an important part of my life and irretrievably consumed it. I had been an avid home cook and amateur beer brewer; these were the leisure activities that helped me define my place in the world, the things that I enjoyed most with my wife and close friends.
Overnight, I ceased to be someone who could enjoy bread, pizza, beer, and many other foods of cultural and personal importance—at least in the ways I had always experienced them. In a sense, I was no longer the same person. I was like an amateur athlete who tears up her knee and will never be the same runner, or an equestrian who develops an allergy to horses, or a proud homeowner sickened by some substance in his house.
I was not, thankfully, making my living in food, but I had long equated good food with good living. And so, cooking was no longer fun for me. In fact, it became something I dreaded every day.
The kitchen failures kept stacking up: a cornstarch-based “panko” for pork and chicken that went from dry to charred on contact with heat, bypassing the nicely browned stage (and it stank, like burned popcorn); sauces that wouldn’t thicken predictably, since most GF flour blends contain potato and/or tapioca starch; the roux that would not brown but readily burned; the crisps of thawed berries that turned into fruit soup; cobblers that wouldn’t cobble; cookies that wouldn’t form.
If I adapted a recipe that called for even a modest amount of wheat flour, the result was as if I had never cooked anything before in my life.
I was not flying blind, either. I was attempting to work from my favorite cookbooks, writers, and recipes. For as often as I cooked intuitively, I also took real joy in knowing that I was following a path that had been blazed by a sage. I loved the sense that I was entering the mind of a writer like James Beard, or Claudia Roden, or any of the other authors on my shelf, and experiencing a rich tradition through their eyes, hands, and words.
To be unable to follow their recipes to the letter—to have to use GF substitutions, or omit some ingredients and steps entirely—compromised and even destroyed the heart and soul of the recipes, which was their replicability. GF cookbooks were available, yes, but there weren’t many good ones at the time, and I had something of a literary sensibility in the kitchen: I was loath to scrap a beloved canon just because I could no longer keep wheat flour in the house.
Unless the recipes called for no wheat or other unsafe ingredients (like oats) at all, I never knew for sure how far off the author’s ideal I might have been. Quite often I was left to work purely on instinct, or, even worse than that, to guess.
Sometimes I knew something that was supposed to happen had not: The meat in a stew, for example, which was supposed to develop a brown crust in the casserole after getting a light coating of flour, did nothing but get slimy; the biscuit didn’t fluff or flake; the sauce didn’t thicken correctly. Other times, I felt only a suspicion that I had missed the mark, and I couldn’t say why. It was beyond frustrating, and I could see no easy solution, at least not in the immediate future.
One night, I had a cookbook come-to-Jesus moment. All of this hurling myself into adaptation was clearly not good for me. So I removed all of the bookmarks and unfolded all of the dog-ears identifying dishes I probably should not try again for a long time—if ever. I looked briefly at the pages, some of which were spotted, stained, or torn, and took my leave.
Then I turned to the indexes. A great attribute of any literary tradition, from short stories to cookery, is durability: It holds up to different readings at different times. In Beard on Food, I looked under “Rice” first, of course, and read all of the recipes I had never tried before: tians for the summer months, along with rice with sausage and tomato, and saffron risotto, and the list went on. There was another tian from Elizabeth David, and an adaptation of mujaddarah, a dish of lentils, fried onions, and rice, from Deborah Madison.
And at the recommendation of a friend, I bought Chang and Kutscher’s Encyclopedia of Chinese Food and Cooking, which provided enough inspiration to keep me busy for a long while. It would occur to me, much later but with a shock of understanding when it did, that this was what gluten-free cooking really meant: not paying attention to wheat—or trying to imitate it—at all.
The changes in my daily routine were predictable, but I could not have anticipated the social or emotional changes, nor the differences in how I would relate to both my own past and, more broadly, human history. And I did not foresee my resilience, or the way longing—the poor cousin of necessity—can be a path to inspiration.
Eventually, I did learn these things. Changing how I cooked and ate altered how I saw myself in the world. And so, once again, the table seemed almost—if not completely—full.