Sunday, September 18, 2011

The mysteries of gluten and tempestuous little girls

Gluten-free pasta
About six months ago I was invited to join a book club and I was delighted. I'd never been in a book club before, and every woman I know is in a book club. It's the midlife equivalent of a sorority, except you can't really be "against" book clubs. What was wrong with me?

Then my friend Susan asked me to join her book club and I did and it was great. I haven't missed a meeting since, even though I never got past page 40 of What the Body Remembers.

This book club involves someone hosting dinner. There is the usual depressing understanding among women: No one wants to get fat. But meal planning is more complicated than that with this group. One woman is vegan. One woman absolutely can not eat gluten. One woman was on a cleanse the month I hosted, so she didn't eat anything at all, just drank herbal tea.

Dinner this last Friday, hosted by Alicia, started with homemade cashew "cheese" and gluten-free crackers. Alicia promised to send the recipe and when she does I will print it here, because this cashew "cheese" was sensational. Not as a replacement for cheese itself, but as something delicious in its own right.

We sat down to dinner. Two lasagnas: one vegan and gluten-free, the other merely vegan. We were allowed to choose. Here's what puzzled me: Everyone wanted the gluten-free lasagna. I understand why people with celiac disease can't eat gluten, but most people don't have celiac disease. When I said I didn't mind having the gluten-full lasagna, I felt slightly uneasy, like I'd been left out of yet another important girly secret.

We talked about the book (Shopgirl by Steve Martin) and movies and Michele Bachman and then, over coffee and soy creamer, the conversation turned to cleanses and the whole gluten business. Apparently, it's all about something called inflammation.

Unlike me, you probably know about inflammation, which leads to heart disease, stroke, cancer, pain, everything you don't want. Apparently, some foods are inflammatory, and some foods are anti-inflammatory. White foods -- including potatoes -- appear to be inflammatory and are to be avoided. Alcohol: very inflammatory. (The women in the group do not seem to mind this particular inflammatory.) Tomatoes and eggplant: inflammatory. Blueberries: anti-inflammatory. My book club members believe gluten is also inflammatory, although this turns out to be controversial. For the record, Dr. Weil does not see any reason to avoid gluten if you are not gluten sensitive.

So perplexing. So interesting. I was gazing into the middle distance while processing my thoughts about inflammation when a woman said gravely, "Jennifer, are you okay?"

Everyone fell silent and looked at me, which was awful. I said, "Oh I'm fine. I was just thinking about white foods."

Anyway, this is how dietary theories inform/complicate my life: Last night I was going to cook African food, but in the end I didn't want to go to the supermarket and I kind of wanted to try the box of gluten-free quinoa spaghetti that I'd inherited from my mother and which had languished in the cupboard for over a year. I made a sauce of olive oil (good fat), a whole head of garlic (major anti-inflammatory), broccoli (ditto) and red pepper flakes and served it with the gluten-free spaghetti. Then I added some inflammatory Parmesan cheese, because the pasta didn't taste good until I did. How was it? No one could even tell it wasn't "normal" spaghetti. I drank inflammatory white wine and ate some extra broccoli to offset the wine. This morning when I made my coffee I wondered if soy milk might be a better choice than super-inflammatory dairy milk. But isn't soy milk a white food? Or is it beige? I was going to have a slice of toast with some peanut butter for breakfast, but there's gluten in my bread and we only had Jif, which contains sugar, a white food.

And so I ate a pear with 1 ounce of inflammatory cheddar cheese and felt like I'd started the day on the wrong foot.

Inflammation. Just one more thing I'll worry about when I'm trying to decide what to cook and what to eat, without ever really believing that these inflammatory foods that people have eaten for centuries can be truly bad. On the fence: The story of my life.

Next month's book club book: The Emperor of All Maladies, A Biography of Cancer. It was that or the Dalai Lama's Art of Happiness. I voted for cancer.

On another subject, yesterday we went to a high school football game. It was not exactly like one of the games on Friday Night Lights and I'm sorry to report that while the teenagers in our town are very good looking, they're not as good looking as teenagers in Dillon.

At half time, I walked home with Owen and his cousin Stella, who is 5. I started a conversation with Stella. We discussed school, her friends and her upcoming birthday, for which she would like a rock tumbler. I thought I was being a benevolent and interested aunt when I asked, "Are there any cute boys in your class? Do you have a boyfriend?" She yanked my hand, glared at me, and burst into tears. She cried stormily for the next three minutes while I apologized helplessly and Owen berated me: "MOM! No one likes it when you ask those things." He started to cry tears of sympathy with Stella and pinched the inside of arm so hard there's a purple bruise now.

Life is so confusing!


  1. That crying think is weird! My youngest daughter is 5 and she wouldn't have that reaction, though I would never ask that question because I don't want to encourage anything. When my older daughter was five, she unfortunately *did* have a boyfriend in kindergarten. They kept kissing, despite parents and teachers repeated pleas!

  2. What a lucky society we are that we can be so picky about our food. Only a very rich nation could reject whole food groups and still manage to maintain health - or in some cases fat. I can't imagine another time in history that people could turn their noses up at so many types of food and survive. It used to be if it didn't eat us we ate it. Maybe we should send out inflammatory dairy and gluten to the starving people of Sudan. I think they would welcome it. All my grandparents lived into their 90's while dining on cheese, bacon, pasta, wine and butter. Get over it America and learn to be grateful instead of so controlling and self-obsessed.

  3. I was very amused by my childrens forays into gilfriends. I have three boys and when one was in second grade, he had a girlfriend, and a few weeks later, when I asked about her, he said, in the most bewildered voice, "she said we had to break up". It was like a caricature of relationships, you meet, you date, then you break up.

  4. I'm laughing so hard I'm wiping away tears.

    I'm an everything in moderation kind of girl, so I question completely eliminating entire food groups from your diet. I must be inflammed every day of my life. But I would never, ever give up pizza margherita, even if there were "flames" shooting out of my intestines.

    Poor Stella, but isn't nice that she has such a sympathetic older cousin to watch out for her!

  5. Hmmm. Is that book What the Body Remembers about an Indian girl named Roop who is married off to a much older man? If it's that's the book, I loved it. I also like that quinoa pasta, but I think it's silly not to eat wheat if it doesn't give you problems.

    I was in Babycakes {gluten free, dairy free, nut free, sugar free bakery in NYC that's actually pretty good} a few weeks ago when a young woman came in and ordered a chocolate cupcake, a doughnut, and a brownie. She started shoving them into her mouth while explaining to the woman behind the counter that she was "on a cleanse." I'm still laughing.

    I'm a newcomer to your writing and this blog but I wanted to tell you how very much I enjoy your writing.

  6. Right on PansWife! I too am mystified by the whole gluten free fad, except for the tiny portion of the population that has Celiac Disease. I hope people get over it soon, like PansWife I find needless pickiness about food distasteful. By the way, I have been reading your blog for a while now and I love it, though this is the first time I felt compelled to comment.

  7. My parents had a gourmet group all through the 1970s. By the mid-80s, my mother (the second youngest) and her friend (the youngest) joked with each other that it was like hosting a famine. The diabetics ate no sugar or juice. The heart patient ate no salt. One had always been allergic to peanuts, my father to fish, and another developed lactose intolerance. It made them sad to go from lavish, carefully researched and constructed international meals to poached chicken and steamed veggies, so they started going out instead.
    Who decides what is inflammatory and not? How odd.

  8. I had a superinflammatory dinner of red wine and regular pasta. Hopefully offset by the garlic in the pesto--pesto should be good for you right? it's so green. The same people who eat these crazy diets are usually the ones circling the grocery parking lot for the closest spot rather than walk an extra 200 meters.

  9. I love your account of your inflammatory/anti-inflammatory diet! Too funny.

    The whole anti-gluten thing really annoys me, especially because my best friend was JUST diagnosed with Celiacs after years of stomach issues. She is so sad to say goodbye to so many of her favorite foods, but she is doing so for the sake of her health and comfort. Meanwhile, people without any gluten intolerance whatsoever seem to be jumping on the gluten free bandwagon. As I see it, it's just the latest excuse to starve yourself and be miserable.

    Personally, I'll take the bread, the beer and the couple extra pounds to go with them.

    Love your blog, by the way. As couple other commenters have said, you are a wonderful writer. I've been reading for 2+ years and am always excited when I see a new post in my google reader.

  10. We have become on the whole an excessively tiresome society. Is there a word that means hypochondriac, only about food?

    Also, I read about halfway into that book and it was very interesting and frightening. But then I had to return it because some eager beaver had put it on hold and I couldn't finish it in time.

  11. Oh, book clubs. I just got home from a meeting with mine, which of course means dinner, and all of the changeable dietary requirements that go along with it. I made tomato soup and worried the whole way there that someone wouldn't be eating "nightshades" this time (it has happened before) and I'd feel bad for bringing a dish everyone couldn't enjoy. Luckily, the soup was fine. But what did trip me up was the strange battles for superiority we girls have (and I've been with this group for years). I was joking about my husband stealing the covers at night, and was met with this supercilious reply: "hmmm, I'm glad to realize that my husband and I are so compatible in that way. We never have arguments about the bedclothes." I'm sorry, but what do you do with that? Sometimes I'd rather just go out with a bunch of guys and drink a beer.

  12. Hope, last night I woke up several times to yank the covers back in my direction. And tonight I had a hamburger and fries for dinner. With tomato and ketchup! Who knew tomatoes were bad? (Ketchup, yes.)

  13. For lunch today I have the all-inflammatory special: pasta with tomatoes and mozzarella. For dinner it's beef bourguignon... I think that might break the inflammatory meter. Oh, wait, it has garlic. We're good.

  14. book clubs...each has a personality of its own..i am in 3. one is intellectually snobby and (sometimes) quite is just friendly low key neighbors but the books aren't as good as the first one..the other has guys in it which totally changes it.....

    as for the food... two require the hostess to cook dinner for 12 which is - in my opinion- an imposition and one has all sorts of gluten-free, vegan types which makes it almost impossible to cook and very irritating...they make such a big deal of it all...

    i am with anonymous who finds all this pickiness distasteful - "get over it!" and Layne: hypochondriac about food..let's coin the word...great idea

    and kudos for Panswife: so many people in this world starving....and we are picking through our food and throwing tons of it away.....

  15. i just celebrated my mother's 101st birthday last weekend, and we planned the menu entirely according to her wishes: fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, rice and gravy, sausage biscuits (this wasn't all one meal, mind you), fried green tomatoes, wine, chocolate cake, ice cream. and she was disappointed that we didn't make it to her favorite chili dog joint.
    she may have been inflamed, but she was sure loving it. (just saying)

  16. The covers thing reminds me of the few times I had to share a bed with my sister growing up. She would take all the covers. One night I went and got my my own set of covers, and she tried to take those TOO!

  17. I wonder if all male book clubs go through this bulls**t with food.

  18. I wonder if all male book clubs go through this bulls**t with food.

    An all-male book club -- that's a good one!

  19. Oh praise the Lord! I have found a blog that I agree with, thoroughly enjoy, learn from, and laugh at! Found this blog when my father brought home an airline magazine promoting the upcoming book release...and quickly realized after reading the excerpt about Uncrustables that I would just totally relate. Your description of the book club dinners is exactly what I deal with each time there is any event with my husband's side of the family. Thanks to grammy my kids know the word 'calories' and asked me at dinner the other night how many calories were in the chili-topped mashed potatoes I served (with Fritos on top of the sour cream dollop for extra crunch!!). What? I don't even own a scale let alone have any concept of caloric content in my meals. We are all very I roll with it. I get chastised for not having fat free salad dressing in my house for the she brings her own stuff and I come home to find out that my kids' new fave treat is some package of weight watchers cookies or brownies. Oh, and I am just supposed to keep packages of chips made with olean/olestra on hand for her!! Nope, no book clubs for me. But my three kids are all under 5 so maybe in the future there will be time for these book clubs...and the laughs that go along with it. Thanks so much for your writing!

  20. I'm surrounded by gluten-free enthusiasts, and I was never been tempted to try it until last week when a friend told me that it cured everything from joint pain to depression. I'm on the fence too, and I resist the idea that cutting out gluten will solve all my problems. I might try it anyway, just to see if it does make any difference.

    On another note: If you're already struggling with food questions, don't read about soy products. It will only make it worse.