I’ve been gluten-free for eight years. It’s not to be trendy, because I think it’s a dumb trend, but because I’m woefully allergic to gluten. I still have dreams of just eating a sandwich or a hot dog in a bun, while my subconscious reminds me that I’m ingesting something I’ll pay dearly for later. It’s a waste of a dream, honestly—nothing else happens—but clearly this is something that’s on my mind after all this time. I still gaze upon the glass cases of sandwiches at delis, wire bins of everything bagels, long, silky egg noodles piled into Chinese soups and burritos packed to bursting. And last week, I read something a little nuts: According to science (one of my favorite things), I’m not allergic to sourdough bread. I can have bread that’s not Udi’s, which I’d like to go on the record as dubbing “the absolute worst.”
Last week, we got a book at the office called Eat Wheat: How to Overcome Food Intolerances With Ancient Wisdom and Modern Science. The author, Dr. John Douillard, is a leader in the fields of natural health, sports medicine and the Indian practice of Ayurveda, which dates back thousands of years, so I thought, what the heck, I’ll peruse. I mean, thousands, right?
Eat Wheat is an extensive but streamlined how-to guide on rebooting your digestive system so it can once again digest foods it’s been disabled from breaking down. There is bread that’s safe for the gluten-intolerant, backed up by numerous studies that declare it well under the 20 parts per million considered gluten-free by the World Health Organization. It’s naturally fermented sourdough made with four ingredients: wheat flour, water, salt and time! I was hopeful that there was a plan I could follow to be able to digest all kinds of wheat again, but the wheat we’re talking about has already been digested by the heroic organism that is lactobacillus bacteria.
It’s no news that fermented foods are one of the most popular and important trends in the modern food sphere. Really, they’ve never gone out of style — the one-two punch of effortless, delicious preservation and an infusion of healthy gut bacteria is timeless. I’d never applied that logic to bread, however, and as Dr. Douillard explains, this gluten-exempt status only holds for a naturally slow-fermented recipe that can be difficult to track down. Supermarket sourdough loaves and even some of the artisanal-style versions contain shortcuts and additives that put a serious damper on the bacteria’s ability to break down the tough, developed gluten at its own pace, and would probably result in an allergic reaction. A sample ingredient label of this faux-sourdough might read:
Organic wheat flour, water, sea salt, organic vinegar, organic oat flour, organic barley malt, organic high oleic sunflower/safflower oil, yeast, organic wheat gluten, cultured organic wheat starch, organic whole wheat flour, ascorbic acid, natural enzymes.
That’s a lot of extra stuff, including actual wheat gluten for some reason. With that in mind, I bought a certified organic San Francisco sourdough baguette — ingredients: organic wheat flour, water, sea salt. For my first trick, I tore off a piece and savored the simple resistance of it, along with the tangy, earthy aroma. If you’ve ever pulled at gluten-free bread, you’ll know it immediately turns to a lifeless powder, then bursts into eerie blue flames. I dipped it in olive oil and, despite my brain begging me not to, popped it in my mouth.
(The sounds of a symphony orchestra)
Talk about the sheer mastication of it all. Nothing else you eat has quite the resistance of thick sourdough bread crust. My jaw, given the task of chomping through something with elasticity for the first time in nearly a decade, initially rebelled. I probably looked like a wild animal biting and yanking at my minuscule baguette sandwich, shaking my head a little from side to side like a dog playing tug of war, and I’m sure it was adorable.
Lightheaded and giddy, I finished the fist-sized chunk and left it at that — no need to push things right off the bat. The rest of the night was spent waiting for an early sign: itchy hands, a case of the farts, a terrible nightmare, pregnancy-style abdominal bloating, a pre-cold, aching joints, a foggy head. I felt nothing but the unique sated feeling you get from a really good slice of bread. After a great night’s sleep, I continued feeling as healthy as ever. No “grain brain” or a case of the farts (oh, I said that already) and nothing else that came along with my old digestive system. Let’s give it another 24 hours, I thought, after another slice. Gluten reactions are famously delayed, very much unlike their anaphylactic counterparts, which can make it difficult to track down whatever you ate that had gluten in it.
I was totally fine. I am totally fine. I packed a caprese sandwich on a sourdough baguette for lunch today, and wrote this story while staring at it to motivate me to write faster.
Now let me re-emphasize: I’ve been on a cheat-free diet for a very long time. I have no desire to slip up, because I get so sick. You can’t tempt me, I won’t even take a bite of your stupid waffle. Fuck your waffle, in fact. I went so far as to test out a gluten-free dating site friends wouldn’t stop pestering me about. And now, my gluten-totally-fine fiancé, whom I met on a not-gluten-free dating site (more commonly known as OK Cupid) has taken it upon himself to nurture a STANKY little homemade sourdough starter we affectionately named Bubbles and bake bread we can both enjoy. I won’t be ordering pancakes or pizza anytime soon, but my sandwich-on-the-go game is about to get legendary.