Gluten-Free Is the New Normal

Gluten-Free Is the New Normal. Get Over It.

There’s a Slew of New Books, a Glossy Mag, Even a Pasta Truck!

By Sarah Henry

It’s been a year of seesawing fortunes for the gluten-free movement. It’s endured rolled eyes and snark, but it’s also earned respect. Chefs, cookbook authors, and magazine editors are touting gluten-free, or GF, as an everyday option—not as a weirdly textured and tasteless diet of denial, but as food that’s absolutely fabulous, on its own terms.

Coming soon: a new crop of glossy gluten-free cookbooks, a high-end magazine designed to put the luxe in gluten-free living, and a food truck serving GF pasta, the brainchild of one of New York’s leading Italian chefs. These projects and others like them are championed by a band of GF innovators who have added good taste and more than a little glamour to gluten-free, branding it as a satisfying way of eating for everyone, not just the allergic or the physically intolerant.

Avoiding gluten—the protein in wheat, barley, and rye that gives dough its elasticity—may already have outlived its 15 minutes of fame but it’s no fad. Whether as a dietary preference, lifestyle choice, or medical necessity, gluten-free is here to stay. More than a quarter of Americans say they’re cutting down or eliminating gluten from their diet for health reasons. That’s quite a cultural shift, considering that only 10 years ago few Americans had even heard about gluten. The trend is widespread in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand too.

GF’s new star status hasn’t come without push-back. Intolerance for the gluten-intolerant is widespread, and gluten avoiders are high-profile punch lines these days. Case in point, a New Yorker cartoon depicting a woman looking over a restaurant menu, telling her friend: “I’ve only been gluten-free for a week, but I’m already really annoying.” Mocking the gluten-free lifestyle is fodder for late-night TV, too. Jimmy Kimmel recently asked fit, gym-junkie Southern Californians on the GF bandwagon to define gluten, and found them all hilariously clueless.

How many of us actually need to avoid gluten foods altogether? Celiac disease, a serious autoimmune condition triggered by gluten, impacts only 1 percent of the population. Others say they skip gluten simply to cut carbs, lose weight, reduce belly bloat or inflammation, curb fatigue, or cure so-called foggy brain. Some maintain they just feel better without gluten, even though research to date to support these claims is slim. Still others are bailing on gluten over concerns about highly processed grains or GMOs. The reasons are myriad and often personal, sometimes even professional: A handful of prominent bakers and pastry chefs have given up gluten to deal with wheat allergies or to ease the symptoms of other autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.

Key stakeholders are paying serious attention to gluten-free followers. As more consumers embrace a gluten-free life, culinary forecasters, food producers, and chefs see business potential. Demand for gluten-free products could reach $6.6 billion by 2017, according to a 2012 report by research firm Packaged Facts. A June 2014 story in The New York Times cites optimistic researchers predicting a much bigger market—more like $15.6 billion by 2016. What the numbers don't show is the hunger for a new emphasis in the gluten-free market, one that's all about lifestyle and the quality of the food.

Go Ask Alice
Author Erin Scott (above) embodies an updated gluten-free culinary aesthetic. Her cookbook, Yummy Supper: 100 Fresh, Luscious & Honest Recipes from a {Gluten-Free} Omnivore, hit stores this month. The title is a nod to Scott’s popular photo-filled blog of the same name.

The book offers the seasonal, simple, produce-driven fare you’d expect from an unabashed disciple of Alice Waters and Jamie Oliver who lives in Berkeley, California, not far from Chez Panisse. “When I stripped back my diet to raw ingredients it felt expansive and inspiring,” Scott says. “I liked the challenge. It made me a much more creative cook.”

About those brackets in the title: They’re intentionally, playfully equivocal. Scott doesn’t want to be the poster girl for the gluten-free lifestyle. “I have mixed feelings about identifying as gluten-free,” she says. “I want to be seen as someone who just likes good food.” Scott has celiac disease, a chronic digestive disorder—gluten can damage her small intestine. GF isn’t merely an option for Scott; it’s a necessity. “That label is such a turn-off for some,” she says. “Gluten is a gross word. And gluten-free doesn’t sound delicious.”

Scott’s recipes take cues from the modern playbook. A self-taught home cook with a serious bent, she eschews most processed GF ingredients and simply makes meals from scratch. Scott hopes her cookbook finds its way into all kinds of homes, not just those of the gluten-free. Fish tacos with pomegranate salsa adorn the cover. Inside are recipes for dishes in which the lack of gluten seems incidental: rainbow quinoa with curried chickpeas, crispy kale, apple, and fennel; lamb chops with fresh fig leaves (pictured); beets with mixed greens, walnuts, and ricotta salata.

Scott’s number-one goal: presenting honest food that whets the appetite and nourishes the body, but without the self-righteousness that can make gluten eaters mean and cranky toward the GF crowd. Her book feels whimsical, it’s saturated with color (she shot it too), and the recipes look hard to resist—no boring beige food of questionable form and flavor here.

Scott thinks the nascent gluten-free movement is like vegetarianism was in the 1960s and '70s, an alternative diet that, with its mock-meat nut loaves and whole-grain breads like brown bricks, initially drew a negative reaction. She’s on a mission to prove that gluten-free doesn’t have to be unappetizing or aesthetically unpleasing.

Southern Comfort
Scott isn’t the first or only gluten-free trailblazer in the blogosphere. Any discussion of the mainstreaming of GF eating would be remiss if it didn’t give more than a nod to Shauna James Ahern, a.k.a. Gluten-Free Girl, a James Beard Award–winning cookbook author, who shares that honor and blogging duties with her chef husband, Daniel Ahern. Together—as Gluten-Free-Girl and the Chef—the pair helped pioneer the concept that eating GF isn’t about deprivation, but about pleasure and playfulness and plenty.

Occupying a similar space: The Lagasse Girls (Jessie Lagasse Swanson, above left, and Jilly Lagasse, right) daughters of famed New Orleans restaurateur and TV chef Emeril Lagasse. They authored The Gluten-Free Table. Their second cookbook, The Lagasse Girls’ Big Flavor, Bold Taste and No Gluten!, is due in October. Given their dad’s pedigree, these sisters grew up around big flavors, and they didn’t want to give those up in light of their diagnoses. (In 2001, after struggling with symptoms for some time, Jessie Lagasse Swanson learned she has celiac disease. In 2004, Jilly Lagasse discovered her own gluten sensitivity.)

“In our experience, people often associate GF with bland taste and weird textures,” Lagasse Swanson says. “Our goal is to prove that gluten-free doesn’t mean flavor-free and that GF food can taste just as good, if not better, than gluten-y food.” Her sister is more direct: “Our target audience is anyone with an appetite and a mouth.”

There’s a ton of flavor in their recipes for crispy Sriracha chicken wings, baked shrimp tacos with mango salsa, and vanilla poached pears with cardamom–goat cheese cream.

For those with a serious sweet tooth or cake cravings, two new baking cookbooks kick up the GF glamour quotient a notch. Consider Flourless: Recipes for Naturally Gluten-Free Desserts by Nicole Spiridakis. The book promises scrumptiously decadent desserts, dietary restrictions be damned. Choices like traditional flourless chocolate cake with hazelnuts and salted caramel sauce, buttermilk panna cotta, and honey-glazed figs with coffee ice cream don’t need qualifiers. Ditto professional pastry chef Catherine Ruehle’s Let Us All Eat Cake. Decadence is the word that comes to mind when leafing through the pages of her book. Ruehle offers sophisticated spins on classics like pink velvet strawberry cake with strawberry buttercream or very vanilla cake with fudgy frosting.

Deprivation? Forget about it.

King of Pasta
Even fine-dining folks are getting in on the GF action.

Take Del Posto, one of New York City’s most heralded Italian restaurants, bearer of a Michelin star, a place known for stellar pasta. On any given night, a third of Del Posto’s tables has at least one diner who wants or needs to avoid gluten, according to a recent New York Times story. That’s no big deal, at least as far as the pasta dishes, since Executive Chef Mark Ladner has made everything, even down to the signature hundred-layer lasagna, gluten-free.

Ladner is one of the best pasta minds in the country; he’s also a GF fan. He eats gluten, but likes the challenge of creating gluten-free pasta dishes that diners adore.

Showing up at college campuses around the nation this fall: Ladner’s Pasta Flyer, a mobile pop-up housed in a sleek Airstream trailer (that's the mock, above), featuring gluten-free pasta shapes. Ladner’s sauces are creative, maybe spicy tomato sauce with bacon “steak” and crispy onions, or cauliflower stew and salted capers. And for the less adventurous, cheese sauce and Parmigiano shards.

Fresh off a Kickstarter campaign that raised close to $90K, Pasta Flyer is a quick-service concept to appeal to millennials, a generation that has gone gluten-free in droves. Pasta Flyer plans to combine the warmth of a nonna with the efficiency of a ramen shop, featuring Ladner’s patent-pending gluten-free pasta, years in the making. “He really has put the effort into cracking the code for the perfect GF pasta,” Jilly Lagasse says. That a chef of Ladner’s caliber is on board with gluten-free has lent credibility. “That’s the smell of progress,” Lagasse says. “And some amazing pasta.”

Making pasta, noodles, bread, and cookies without gluten is tricky. Wheat flour substitutes tend not to retain fat or hold their structure well, and many just taste lousy. Still, innovative gluten-free bakeries are popping up around the country, and at least one is trying to venture beyond its local community.

Jennifer Esposito, an actor and celiac sufferer, opened Jennifer’s Way Bakery in New York’s East Village in 2012. She also has a 17,000-square-foot gluten-free manufacturing facility in Queens, and plans to ship GF breads, cookies, cakes, and pancake mixes around the country. Esposito’s bakery and plant meet the celiac standard (defined as gluten content of less than 20 parts per million, as specified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration).

GF's Print Glossy
Where there’s a market there’s a media opportunity, right? Last spring two GF magazines launched Kickstarter campaigns. Wild Apple, an ambitious effort in New York by high-end food stylist Liza Jernow and food photographer Tara Donne, did not meet its funding goal. Plans for that project are unknown.

Meanwhile, San Francisco–based GFF is set to launch in October. Gluten-Free Forever, which collected almost $100,000 courtesy of Kickstarter, is the brainchild of editor Erika Lenkert, who wanted to put a little gloss into GF. Along with food photographer Maren Caruso and designer and art director Catherine Jacobes (above, working on the premiere issue), Lenkert plans to put out a quarterly bound publication to rival Cherry Bombe, Gather, Lucky Peach, and Kinfolk.

While there’s a plethora of gluten-free recipes on the web, there’s no style-driven print publication to inspire people who simply love food and happen to be gluten-free, says Lenkert, who gave up bread, pasta, and beer back in 2001 after health issues revealed an intolerance to wheat and wheat dextrin. Preachy isn’t GFF’s style—Lenkert plans to leave dietary advice and medical reporting to other publications. “We’re aiming for something satisfying and beautiful that anyone who loves food magazines can enjoy.”

Recipes will either be inherently gluten-free, or adaptations of ones with wheat. Either way, Lenkert says, they’ll have to pass her standards for deliciousness. “I’m not trying to sell gluten-free to anyone,” she says. “I’m trying to create a gorgeous food magazine with wonderful recipes.”

And just like that, gluten-free is being coaxed—or perhaps pulled—out of a nebulous diet niche and into the warm, glowing light of mainstream cuisine.

Photo credits: Erin Scott and recipe shot for Succulent Lamb Chops Nestled in Fig Leaves courtesy of Erin Scott / Yummy Supper; Lagasse Girls photo from Wheat Watchers; Pasta Flyer trailer mock and menu from Kickstarter; Mark Ladner portrait by Mimi Ritzen Crawford for The Wall Street Journal; GFF staff from GFF Magazine / Facebook

Sarah Henry is a freelance writer and a contributing editor at Edible East Bay. The voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale, she tweets under that moniker too.