Gluten-Free

By Adrienne Martini    
Photography by Leslie Washburne

Shortly after my daughter’s third birthday, she stopped growing. As if that weren’t alarming enough, she would randomly vomit and was painfully thin, as well. During her next checkup, our pediatrician flipped through her chart and asked, “Have you thought about celiac disease?”

My answer was the same, I’m sure, as it would be for many. No.


Three years later, I can say that I’ve thought a lot about celiac disease—because I have to. My daughter was diagnosed with the autoimmune condition that makes it imperative to avoid all products containing gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley flours. For people with celiac disease, accidental consumption of gluten can lead to gastrointestinal effects like violent diarrhea and vomiting— even migraines. Long-term ingestion greatly increases a person’s risk of certain cancers as well as osteoporosis and diabetes. 


For the first six months, my daughter’s diet was brutal. We learned that gluten lurks in most prepared foods and hides in the shadows at restaurants. Eliminating all baked goods, pasta, breakfast cereal and Goldfish crackers felt more than impossible. Now, it’s simply second nature.

Luckily, within the last three years, there has been a gluten-free awareness movement in this country (though Europe is way ahead of us). Once relegated to a small, dusty section in health food stores, gluten-free products can now be found in mega-marts like HEB, Randalls, Albertsons and Tom Thumb, and gluten-free dishes now populate the menus of busy local restaurants like Shady Grove, Guero’s Taco Bar, Threadgill’s and Matt’s El Rancho—even national chains like Outback Steakhouse, Pei Wei, P.F. Chang’s China Bistro and Red Robin. For many of us, the summit of the seemingly unsurpassable culinary mountain of living gluten-free is definitely a little closer to the ground.

“One of the great advantages that we have in Austin is that it’s the birthplace of Whole Foods,” says Karen Morgan, founder of Blackbird Bakery and the website theartofglutenfreecooking.com.

“It’s like the consciousness of diversity in diet was born here by having a grocery store that pushes a lifestyle geared toward healthy living.”

Morgan, who was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2002, insists that gluten-free has nothing to do with enjoyment-free. In 2006, she spent four months as the pâtissier at a French château.

“The whole time we were there,” she says, “everything I made was gluten-free. We never told the owners of the château, nor any of the clients. They couldn’t tell a difference.”

Morgan’s bakery supplies gluten-free treats to Emerald City Press, Sabia Botanicals and By George. She bakes for events at the Hotel San José and has plans to launch an online store. A lot of business may be heading her way.

According to the National Institute of Health, celiac disease affects 3 million Americans—more than those affected by Crohn’s, colitis, multiple sclerosis and cystic fibrosis, combined. No one is certain what causes the disease, but one widely accepted theory is a genetic component triggered by environmental conditions. Sadly, while one in 133 has the disease, only one in 4,700 is properly diagnosed.

Tides appear to be turning, though. Thanks to advocates like author and personality Jenny McCarthy—who claims that removing gluten from her son’s diet cured his autism—gluten-free is on the minds of more than just those with celiac disease. While the link between gluten and autism spectrum disorders is currently unproven, the concept has made believers out of many, including Austin chef Alain Braux.

“A lot of the illnesses we see in this country, I believe, are self-created,” Braux says. “It’s coming from the food that we eat. We make ourselves sick by eating the wrong kind.”

Braux, who has 40 years of pastry experience, creates gluten-free desserts for Peoples Rx pharmacy and teaches gluten-free cooking classes. He thinks Austin is a great incubator for new ideas and concepts about food, but knows that if any new dietary consideration is to succeed, ultimately the proof isn’t just in the pudding, but on the tongue.

“The food has to taste and look good,” says Braux, who insists healthier alternatives don’t have to be boring, nor does a gluten-free diet need to feel like deprivation—his best-selling flourless chocolate cake is loved by all eaters, not just those forced to cut out gluten.

Braux notes that with any new dietary path, the first few steps can feel daunting. He advises students to avoid getting too complicated at first.

 “I wouldn’t recommend going for the wedding cake right away,” he says with a smile. “Start with something simple like a cookie or a muffin.”

Communications consultant Cile Montgomery—gluten-free for over two years—feels the hardest part of adhering to the diet is giving up control when cooking with friends or family.

“After about a year,” Montgomery says, “you accept the fact that you can’t just show up somewhere and expect to eat. It requires some planning ahead of time.”

Mastering the planning and maintaining control in a home environment may become second nature after a while, but successfully finding safe food options outside the home kitchen can prove more challenging. For Montgomery, extensively researching where she could dine out was a necessity.

“I’m not one of those people who is going to change my life and only eat within my household,” she says. “I was pretty focused on adjusting.”

Experts suggest one simple way to play it safe when choosing a restaurant is to focus on non-wheat-based ethnic cuisines.

“Most of our food is already gluten-free since we use a lot of yucca flour in Brazil,” notes chef Johnny Romo of Sampaio’s. “Our bread is gluten-free, and we make bread pudding out of it, too. Every day somebody is asking about gluten-free.”

Juggling a critical dietary concern within a fast-paced, often chaotic culinary environment might seem like a huge risk, but many chefs in restaurants with extensive gluten-free menus say it’s easy to avoid cross-contamination between gluten-free and other foods. Their diligent efforts pay off in the form of more concerned diners choosing to eat there. Austin’s Clay Pit, for example, has had huge success with the gluten-free menu they introduced two years ago.

“If you go for Italian food, gluten-free is hard—it’s all pasta,” explains Navdeep Singh, one of Clay Pit’s executive chefs. “Most other cuisines use breadcrumbs for frying or flour for sauces, but in Indian cuisine, all of the curries—all of them—can be thickened with other things, like korma sauce, which is nuts and beans. You blend it and you get body in the sauce.”

For Montgomery, changing her diet was well worth the hassle of learning a new way to eat. Her migraines are gone, as is her B12 deficiency, and she doesn’t feel deprived, nor forced to eat some lesser, gluten-free item instead of what she really wants.

“I’ll eat gluten-free substitutes like rice bread as a vehicle for something else—like a piece of toast with a soft-boiled egg,” she says. “I’ll make pies, but I consider a gluten-free crust to be just a vehicle for pie…who cares about the crust?”

With celiac disease and gluten-free food continuing to gain attention, and with so many dining options available, both in and out of the home, a diet free of gluten actually can be seen as a new path to abundance. Experts suggest a way to stay positive is to focus on what you CAN eat, rather than what you can’t, and before long, adhering to a gluten-free lifestyle should be a piece of (flourless) cake.