4 June 2005
I’m only starting to walk down this path, but I already feel as though I have done a lifetime’s learning. I feel thankful to everyone on the forums on celiac.com, the delphi forums on celiac, and the braintalk community. Without commenting, I’ve been reading and learning from these disparate people, spread throughout North America, asking about particular brands and sharing their stories.
Stories are the best of us. We put our efforts into tangible goals, faster cars, bigger houses, or even better ways of being. But in the end, I believe, all we have to give is ourselves. That’s why I love hearing people’s stories, and telling my own. Because there’s an open vulnerability to this, and a wonderful confidence at the same time.
So here are some more stories, this time of trying out gluten-free products.
When I was first diagnosed, my mind jumped to two places: oh thank god; and “But I’ll never have bread again?” Life without bread is just fine, but in that moment, I tried to take scope of my entire life, imagining myself at eighty, having endured over forty years without a baguette. Fairly quickly, I was able to rein in my thoughts, because trying to look through the prism of anything forty years ago gives me the heebie-jeebies. Life changes so enormously, in ways that I can never predict, that I’ve pretty much stopped trying to think about the future. (Years of meditation and a near-death experience in a car accident will do that to you.) But when this bread issue arose, there arose the old demon “…the rest of my life.”
I know what to do when my brain goes into to spin cycle: do something my hands. So I started making bread.
I hadn’t made bread in years. In my mid-20s to late 20s, I lived on rural Vashon Island and imagined myself a country girl. I bought a battered copy of Laurel’s Kitchen at a garage sale and started making dishes with lentils. I became a vegetarian, carefully combining my proteins. And I made bread by hand nearly every week. It was never especially good, but it was heartfelt. I loved the work of kneading and pushing that dough around, really working my muscles into it. That was my meditation then.
But the move to New York City knocked the Berkeley-hippie-girl ways out of me. Not the ethos, but the actions. Everything gleamed bright there, and there was just no time for homemade bread. Sadly, it’s hard to find truly great bread in New York City (I know, I was surprised as well), so I learned to eat other things. Like meat. I dreamt of chicken every night for a week, and I gave into the craving for Tandoori chicken at my favorite Indian restaurant. And never looked back. Of course, I gorged on bagels every Sunday, and somewhere in between as well. I never lacked for bread products. (I shudder to think of it now, how long I’ve been feeding my body gluten, without ever knowing that it was hurting me.) But I stopped making my own.
And then I moved back to Seattle. And here, we don’t lack for truly great bread. When I lived in Capitol Hill, I walked down to Pike Place Market often for long, crusty baguettes, freshly baked, from Le Panier, the gorgeous little French bakery just down from the original Starbucks. And when I moved to Queen Anne, I started visiting Macrina Bakery–forty yards from my front door–on a nearly daily basis. Oh, the whole-wheat cider bread is enough to make anyone stop talking. One of my best friends insists that I bring her a loaf whenever I visit her. And the olivetta, a soft, flat loaf studded with green olives? Give me a break. It’s so damn good. Why would I ever need to make my own bread?
Well, now I do. And writing all this, I realize that I will miss these experiences, the taste of them on my tongue. There’s a certain amount of sadness in my stomach. But it passes. This is one of the quiet magic passes to life: feel what you feel. And then watch it dissipate as soon as you fully acknowledge its presence. Besides, I’d never willingly eat those delicacies again, knowing in my body what damage they would do to me. It’s like looking back at a bad relationship: there were some passionate moments, some sweetnesses you’d like to savor, but you know you have to go.
And writing about bread is almost as good as eating it.
When I finally received my diagnosis, I felt elated. My naturopath doctor looked surprised. She had never seen someone so happy to hear she had celiac. But I knew in my body that this was it. (And I was jubilant to finally know what the hell was wrong with me.) And just after that appointment, I drove to the PCC in Fremont and bought every gluten-free product I could find.
It amazed me to see how many there are.
Clearly, the word was out there, long before I started writing. It felt good to know that other people spoke my language.
I ordered a bread machine off Amazon the day I stopped eating gluten, somehow knowing this was it. I felt vaguely guilty for giving in to a machine, but I didn’t have the strength then to knead dough. I could hardly stand up without swaying. Wonderfully, it arrived a few days after my diagnosis. So I read all the instructions, set everything up, and opened my package of Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free bread mix.
I love Bob’s Red Mill. If you don’t know about them, you should. They’re made in Oregon, and they make the best steel-cut oats I have ever eaten. Of course, that’s gone now too (at least for awhile). I adore their simple packaging and their ethos about the world. And mostly, I love supporting local businesses who are trying to break free from the monolithic corporate structure of food. So their bread mix was the only one I wanted.
I mixed everything together, carefully. I love to cook, and I rarely use a recipe anymore. But now, I’m back to basics. Besides, I had never used a bread machine before. So I poured and mixed and dutifully made a well in the dry mix to pour the yeast, and plugged it all in. I loved watching the machine twirl and chug, kneading the dough. And quickly, the dough began to rise. Because it was late in the evening, I used the quick-bake cycle, so I could see the bread before I went to bed. The loaf rose, a little lumpy on the top. But who needs perfection? This was bread! I wasn’t going to miss bread anymore!
After an hour, the timer beeped. I ran to the machine, and was surprised to see a blowsy top of the loaf, like a cauliflower on speed. Oh well. I opened the top . My nose recoiled at the smell. That didn’t smell like bread. Oh well. Maybe I’m just not used to the machine smell. I lugged the loaf pan out, dumping the monstrosity onto a wire rack. Except it wouldn’t come out. I had to nudge it, then kick it, with a knife, before it finally emerged, misshapen and sagging, onto my counter. Steam rose, and the strange smell with it. Still, it kind of looked like a loaf of bread. I let it set for ten minutes, and then I hovered over it with my bread knife. Finally, the first slice. I took one bite, and.….
It was awful. Oh god, I thought, am I going to spend the rest of my life eating this?
With all due respect to my dear Bob’s Red Mill, this bread sucks. I looked at the package again, and noticed that they use garbanzo bean flour and fava bean flour, along with the six other kinds of flours. Um, okay. So that’s why my bread tasted like beans. I really don’t want my bread to taste like beans. Or to congeal at the roof of my mouth when I eat it. For the first time since I stopped eating gluten, I started feeling depressed. Is this what eating would be like for the rest of my life?
Well, no. Because I had, of course, forgotten how much I love foods that never have gluten in them: copper-river salmon with garlic and meyer lemon oil; omelettes with fresh basil and goat cheese; enormous salads with twelve crunchy greens and lemon-tahini dressing; homemade hummus with sun-dried tomatoes and kalamata olives; that one fresh peach in July that dribbles juice down your chin as you sit grinning in the summer light. There is more to life than bread.
Still, I wasn’t ready to give up. (I did throw that beany loaf away the next morning, however.) The next week, my first online order from the Gluten-Free Pantry arrived in the mail. Later, I realized that every one of the products were sitting on the shelves of the PCC or Fred Meyer, but no problem. On Sunday, I made their Sandwich Bread. This time, I gave the machine the full cycle. This time, I used a mix that didn’t include beans. And at the end of the three hours, the kitchen smelled like bread this time. And when I tapped the loaf pan, the bread fell out without a struggle. And when I took my first bite?
Not bad. It doesn’t taste like real bread. But it doesn’t taste bad. I ate an entire slice with peanut butter. And I had one with jam on it the next day. It kept for a couple of days, and then the rest of the loaf hardened into an impenetrable mass, which I had to throw away. From now on, I’ll give half of it away to friends immediately.
More to the point, I feel like this is just the beginning. Now that I have my strength back, partly, I can start kneading the bread myself. I’m determined to find my own recipe, instead of buying mixes. (There are lots of them out there, including some on the forums I talked about before.) Before my diagnosis, I would have NEVER made something from a mix. I’m a cook, not a mixer. This summer, when school is done, I’ll be experimenting wildly, and sharing the results. And mostly, this is an ever-expanding adventure. I’m grateful for the length of the path.