Most of you who’ve heard me speak, or taken a class with me, or use the recipes and advice in my cookbooks, my foodphilosopher.com website, or here on this blog, know that I find it difficult to say much of anything in just a few words. Perhaps that is the philosopher in me, but I love the luxury of more leisurely writing. I like to linger over my thoughts and I like having the time to play with my words and rework them with time to spare. I’m a terrible blogger and even worse at Twitter because I find that I have little interest or natural ability in trying to stay in the public eye on the Internet everyday. But I do have a really useful natural inclination to save up all my thoughts and to think about what I’m thinking about; it is then that my best recipes and my most worthwhile thoughts emerge. It takes time. And for the last several years I’ve been watching and reading and thinking about what is going on in the gluten-free world. Last year when my brain got really full of all these gluten-free ponderings, I started to put them down on paper as a chapter for my next book. But timing is everything.
After speaking at a regional gluten-free “expo” this past weekend, I feel provoked to speak out. Food picture lovers and people who need to capture the details in 140 characters or less should leave this page now. My writing here is for readers who are hungry for something to think about.
The following passage is copyrighted ©2013 by Annalise Roberts. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this passage or portions thereof in any form, including any electronic information storage or retrieval system, except for brief quotations or limited reproduction in a review or feature.
The Wild West Days of Celiac
First there were only the pioneers, the ones who bravely traveled into the new uncharted territory of the “wild” west. The pioneers had made the decision to move on and change their world in order to improve their lives. There were few road maps, almost no one to help them on their journey, and very little communication along the way with others who had gone before. In the celiac world, these were the (unlucky) few diagnosed a decade or more ago.
Then very slowly, settlers started down the lightly traveled paths of the pioneers. There were no established towns or cities for them to come to because the pioneer folk who were living in the new uncharted territories lived pretty much by themselves in very small communities. In the celiac world, I was a settler at the time of my diagnosis. No one I knew had ever heard of celiac disease. Doctors, except for a select few, could never be counted on to diagnose their patients correctly or give accurate advice about how to deal with it; nutritionists and dieticians often provided outdated and incorrect food advice (for example, I was incorrectly told not to eat anything made with distilled vinegar); and the leaders of the two largest national support group organizations couldn’t agree on diet protocols. The relatively small number of celiac settlers who existed at this time had to find their own way by searching for the few accurate resources that were available.
Then more people came and started to settle down. There were more day-to-day basics, but few conveniences and no luxuries. The growing, but still small communities, tried to develop a sense of order, ward off unscrupulous gunslingers, and help the new comers. But there was still no one was in charge, no spokesman, and there were few rules or standards. There was also an overall jostling for position among the folks who were there as people started to stake out their claims for leadership, land and commerce. In the celiac world, there was still no main clearing house for guidance and advice in the way the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, the National Breast Cancer Foundation, or the Lupus Foundation of America are often the first place people go to supplement the information they get from their doctors. In place of gunfights, there were petty rivalries between the national support groups organizations, newly formed independent support groups, and hospital research centers as they competed for the attention and money of people who had been diagnosed. Moreover, the growing number of celiac websites often provided conflicting information from both self-proclaimed experts and the participants in community chat rooms, as patients, who had been left with few authoritative resources to turn to, tried to help themselves.
Here Comes Everybody
Then, that famous golden nugget was discovered and the Gold Rush began as people answered the famous call to “Go West Young Man”. Individuals, families and entrepreneurs poured in, coming from all directions. In many ways, that is the same explosion of awareness, excitement, opportunity, and involvement that we are witnessing now in the celiac world. As more people have been diagnosed with celiac, and medical researchers finally came to admit that gluten-intolerance does in fact exist outside of celiac disease (even though the patient community had been saying this for over eight years), the market has exploded for all things gluten-free: restaurants, large corporations, small and mid-sized food companies, grocery stores, farm markets and cooking schools all jumped into the pot. To flame the fire, this rush to embrace “gluten-free” coincided with the catapultic rise of blogging and social media. These forces have resulted in a huge throng of people shouting for attention and aggressively try to fill the void left painfully empty by culinary professionals and the medical community.
The explosion has led to a better understanding of the spectrum of gluten sensitivity and to more people being correctly diagnosed with celiac and non-celiac gluten intolerance. This is a good thing. All of a sudden, everyone seems to know someone who has celiac or is gluten-sensitive. There is a also a lot more talk about the hundreds of symptoms, most of which are not related to the digestive tract, and the fact that you don’t have to actually have celiac in order to have symptoms. Moreover, the lines of delineation between those with celiac (one percent of the population with zero tolerance for gluten consumption) and those with non-celiac gluten intolerance have become more clearly defined, and as a result, it is easier for people to understand what they need to do to get and stay healthy.
The explosion has also helped, directly and tangentially, to educate doctors and other medical practitioners not to ignore the symptoms. Incredibly, I still meet people every week who complain that it took them seven to ten years to be correctly diagnosed. But now I’m beginning to have hope that people will have the knowledge and confidence to switch to more informed doctors when there own doctor ignores their pleas.
Secondly, the explosion has led to more and better gluten-free prepared food, baking flour and baking mixes in grocery and specialty stores. We’ve also seen more food choice in restaurants, and more cookbooks. This is particularly good for those who are newly diagnosed because it makes it easier for them to embrace their diagnosis. But in reality, it is good for anyone who wants to eat gluten-free food.
There are, however, things that concern me. The explosion has done nothing to deflate the number of competing national support groups and websites all clamoring for attention, support and limited dollars. Instead of one coherent message going out to the media, to food companies, to restaurants, doctors, medical personnel, insurance companies, and Congress, the groups are each sending out their own messages and often diluting the overall impact. There also appears to be a low level of acrimony between many of those working at the national level and there are turf wars over the work to be done. It has led to a duplication of effort and a squandering of resources. How much better it would be if the groups divided up the work and then specialized in an area for which they are best suited?
And my final concern: as the number of cookbooks and food magazines dealing with gluten-sensitivity increases, there are a seemingly endless number of flour mixes. There is, in fact, a general lawlessness among food writers and those who develop recipes. There are no rules or standards, not for home cooks, or for those in business. Although there is no real gluten-free cup-for-cup replacement for wheat flour, not having a universally accepted gluten-free equivalent of an all-purpose-flour isn’t necessarily a good thing. It makes it harder for new comers to develop their technique, become competent and to move up the learning curve. It means that everyone who starts down the path basically has to start from scratch in evaluating which road map to use. It also means the gluten-intolerant are more apt to bite into something dry or dense or grainy or gummy or rubbery or weird tasting or flavorless- or several of the above all at the same time.
So Where Do We Go From Here?
When it comes to baking, it’s probably safe to say that most people who give up gluten simply want to be able to recreate the baked goods they’ve always enjoyed (hopefully in moderation): the pizza, cookies, cake and crusty, chewy breads they left behind. So I’m not convinced it’s worth creating a whole new category of baked goods using gluten-free flours, although some other enterprising baker could possibly do just that. I’m also not convinced about the wisdom of what I call free-style baking, as in just use these guidelines for flour exchange or these ratios and throw in any flour you want or any flour you have in your in your cabinet; this leads to inconsistent, and often compromised results. And while the surprise aspect of never having the same thing twice might please some, the huge disparity in the quality of gluten-free fresh bakery products, shelf-stable bakery products, baking mixes, and recipes really means that there is much work to be done in just being able to dependably reproduce the basics.
The result? One of my goals is to try tame a bit of the wild west aspect of the gluten-free baking community. I want to create a starting place for gluten-free bakers, help them build a solid foundation for tackling recipes, help them to move up the gluten-free baking learning curve so that they can successfully innovate and be creative, and finally, to help them develop consistency. Consistency is a mark of being great in anything, from throwing a curveball, to dancing the tango, to writing good, clean software code. The difference between a great baker and everyone else is having the skill set to produce top quality baked goods over and over on purpose. And while I can’t promise to make you a great baker, I can promise to give you the tool kit to start you on your way.
Finally, my primary goal is and always has been is to provide you with a collection of dependable gluten-free recipes for baked goods that mimic high quality wheat versions. I want to be the cookbook writer you turn to when your baked goods have to be good, when you don’t want to take a chance. I want to be the cookbook writer whose recipes and advice you’ll come to know and trust and return to time again.
The above passage is copyrighted ©2013 by Annalise Roberts . All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this passage or portions thereof in any form, including any electronic information storage or retrieval system, except for brief quotations or limited reproduction in a review or feature.