Before you roll your eyes… I’m, like, the OG (original glutard). Ten years ago, after a semester in Ireland where I sustained on bread, breaded fish and Guinness, i.e., liquid bread, I experienced a string of health problems; weight gain, acne, chronic cold and lethargy, leading to a few more serious visits to the ER because my immune system was shot. This was well before the time when everyone decided to go g-free as an excuse to eat nothing, or everything processed as long as it had the trusty GF stamp making it “healthier.” But I happened to land myself a roommate who had been diagnosed with Celiacs, which back then was a word that was ‘Huh?’ inducing. After many a slip-up inviting him to pizza or offering him a beer, I slowly gained a better understanding of what exactly gluten was and how it could reek havoc on a body that doesn’t process it properly. As karma would have it, a few months later my digestive system was so defenseless against a stomach virus that I faced a life-threatening case of dehydration, followed by two months of not being able to digest solid food. I lost thirty pounds, and not in a good way.
So when my naturopath suggested I may be gluten intolerant, I was willing to do anything not to continue eating like a baby or a person with no teeth. I embarked on an elimination diet to determine the culprits, and the results were loud and clear; it was time to say ‘Bye Felicia’ to that stubborn little protein found in wheat (wheatberries, durum, emmer, semolina, spelt, farina, farro, Graham, KAMUT® Khorasan wheat and einkorn), rye, barley and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye).
Easier said than done. Remember, this was before folks were going gluten free as a lifestyle choice, and it wasn’t common practice for doctors to test people with early onset arthritis, severe eczema or depression for a food allergy. Going gluten-free required a lot of research, a lot of label-reading, a lot of feeling like an outcast in social settings and a lot of crying over failed baking experiments. The only gluten-free flour blend I could find in the health food store was bean-based, which didn’t make for very tasty sweets. Luckily, I like to cook, and I’m stubborn. I started buying different varieties of grain and nut flours in bulk, and my kitchen turned into a chemistry experiment that I was determined to crack.
I look back on that time now and chuckle. Like anything, with time my way of eating became second nature. Also, as gluten-freedom entered the mainstream conversation, the options became better and more accessible. But because I couldn’t rely on dummy-proof packaging or labels, I became an expert on how to look for gluten in disguise and, more importantly, how to embrace all of the foods I can eat and create f#@%ing awesome alternatives to fill in the gaps… even after moving to the food desert that is the Bronx.
Here are my top 5 hacks for feeding your hangry gluten-free a$$, while avoiding being told to go back to Whole Foods in Manhattan where you came from! *Disclaimer, these will not be sufficient for people like my friend Maria who breaks out in a rash if she smells gluten.
1: Comida Mexicana Ere Tu Mejor Amiga
One word: Maiz. If you don’t know what that is, I’ll be the first to tell you, ‘Go back to Whole Foods in Manhattan where you came from!’ or start using Google translate stat. Masa, tamales, elotes are all corn-based, delicious and easy to come by in the Bronx. If I’m not making tamales at home from ingredients purchased at my local Pioneer, I get them from the cart right in the middle of 138th between Willis and Alexander.
Tips for g-free newbies and super-gringas: tortillas de harina are the ones to avoid, mole- while super delicious- is almost always thickened with wheat, and “sin pan por favor” means without bread, please.
2: Extra Lettuce, Hold the Bun!
Or, in the case of Mott Haven Bar and Grill, the English muffin. I like my burger medium rare with ketchup, mustard, pickles, onions, jalapeños… Or if I’m really on a protein bender, the El Barrio from Milkburger or the 454 from Charlie’s Bar and Kitchen. However or wherever you like it, the only mistake you can make is missing out on the meat juice running down your hands like a normal person with an undeniable craving. So grab an extra piece of lettuce pick that $h!t up and commit. You won’t regret it, and that’s what napkins are for. And showers, maybe…. just saying, sometimes you have to do what it takes.
3: B.Y.O.T (Bring Your Own Tamari)
One of the most annoying things that contain wheat for no reason whatsoever, except that it serves as a cheap filler is soy sauce. But if you’re like me, you love sushi, and it’s just not the same if you can’t swirl your wasabi around in a salty puddle. Exactly why I’ve been known to carry a bottle of tamari in my purse. Ta-whaty? Tamari is fermented soy, aka, more expensive, wheat free soy sauce. Also available in individual packets from Amazon, if you want to be more discrete. So drop by Ceetay, order some gluten-free sake and get your sushi on. They even have spicy mayo if you’re feeling extra saucy.
4: Mofongo, Tostones, Maduros… Oh, My!
Did you ever know there were so many delicious ways to eat fried plantains? Your Puerto Rican, Dominican and Cuban neighbors did and, while they’ll probably all fight over who does it better, there’s only one way to find out… Try them all. Whether you’re gluten-free or not, tostones- twice fried green plantains- dipped in a runny egg yolk are the absolute best cure for a hangover you can find.
And SNL Big Papi jokes aside, get your mofongo con bistec or anything really because in this case, the side is the star. If you’re less weary of cross-contamination on the gluten-intolerant spectrum, take a cue from the Hungry Dominican and hit up 188 Bakery Cuchifritos for authenticity, or for a brilliant g-free innovation try the To’ Chimi Sliders at Travesias, prepared on a tostones “bun.”
5: The Italian Job
Italy is usually one of the scarier regions to suggest to a glutard because our minds immediately think pizza, pasta, gluten baby (it’s a real thing).But if you trust them to be careful about cross-contamination, most Italian restaurants have more to offer than everybody’s go-to gluten bombs. La Grata, for instance, has chicken, fish and steak entree’s that are delicious and gluten-free friendly, as well as stellar salads – they don’t even put croutons in their Caesar. Winning!
But if you do want pizza pizza and you don’t want to settle for a sad piece of cardboard smothered in a disguise of toppings, the answer is a short journey over the river. After ten years of searching and nearly resigning myself to the fact that I would always be longing for something that could truly be called pizza, I found Sottocasa in Harlem. It is run by an Italian couple who treats patrons with the care of guests coming to their own home. They serve regular pizza as well, but clean all surfaces and tools between preparations and they import a special gluten-free flour from Italy, which they use to make a crust that is chewy, bubbly and, well…. normal. It’s so good, it’s brought gluten-freaks to tears and my half-Italian fiancee to share a pizza with me. So if you don’t trust me, ask him.
Obviously, it goes without saying that hitting up your local grocer or Farmer’s Market and eating-in is the safest and arguably healthiest and cheapest way to go gluten-free in the Bronx. Edible Bronx magazine includes some fantastic recipes if you like to keep it local, and I also highly recommend the Gluten Free Gourmet cookbook and Gluten Free Goddess blog. And if options or scarce or you just have a junk food craving, watch my bodega run while snacking on Cheetos (they may also be food-free, but we all have our weaknesses).