Maintaining a gluten-free diet is not as hard as it sounds.

Written by Julia Cervantes
Photo by PJ Cervantes

“So, what do you eat?” asked my coworker at the company barbeque where I was the only one conspicuously without a fully-loaded hot dog. I had just explained that I am gluten-free.
The question caught me off guard. Although I can’t eat just anything, I eat everything. Social gatherings—along with travelling and dining at new restaurants—serve to remind me of my dietary restrictions. But 10 years ago I was as mystified as my colleague about my dining options.

Today I can walk into most grocery stores and find almost anything gluten-free—muffins, pasta, baguettes—usually made with rice, potato, or tapioca flour blends. Ten years ago all I could find was a brick of a bread loaf that worked best as a doorstop, and going to most restaurants was out of the question unless I wanted lettuce with lemon.

I had to focus on things I could still eat. My obvious sources of starch were corn, potatoes, and rice. At restaurants, I could have something grilled with rice or mashed potatoes, but I couldn’t eat French fries; deep fryers are usually contaminated with the battered and breaded. Never mind that fries taste best with burgers, and I couldn’t have the bun. A burger, I learned, is something else entirely without the bun.

I thought life without gluten would be devoid of flavor, but my dietary restriction became a license to try new things. I discovered quinoa, millet, amaranth, sorghum, and the world of international cuisines. I bought a bread machine and experimented with gluten-free bread recipes. It would be hyperbole to say I found joy in the kitchen, but I did become a passably respectable cook and baker.

Eventually going gluten-free became a fad diet, and stores exploded with ready-made gluten-free products. The first time I saw gluten-free hot dog buns in the freezer section, I howled with glee. Restaurants got in the game with handy dietary guides on their menus. Even I can eat at most restaurants in the valley now. If you’re going to be gluten-free, the best place to do it is in a city renowned for hospitality.

In giving up gluten, the only thing I really gave up was culinary spontaneity.

That’s when I really noticed how my diet had changed me. Now I can buy anything gluten-free, but I don’t. After years without them, processed foods taste peculiar. And how did I never notice how salty hot dogs are? I buy some gluten-free items for convenience now—hello bagels, my old friends—but nothing tastes or smells as good as homemade bread.

The only thing I can’t do anymore is leave my meals to chance. At home I plan weekly menus, and I research restaurants in advance. To travel, I just about need a private investigator’s license. (I once prepared a massive dossier of gluten-free restaurant options throughout New Zealand.) In giving up gluten, the only thing I really gave up was culinary spontaneity. As someone who loves a good plan and a to-do list, I can live with that.