GLUTEN LITERALLY MEANS "glue" in Latin. Put simply, it's the group of proteins that make dough so doughy. It's in wheat, barley, rye, and spelt. It's in pizza, bagels, and doughnuts.
It's 2008. I'm 16 years old, and I've just been told I have celiac disease—a diagnosis that explains a small goiter and a lifetime of inexplicable gastrointestinal distress. Currently, the only reliable treatment for celiac disease is a permanent gluten-free diet.
The next day I make my first foray into the then-nascent world of gluten-free food, when I buy a pastry from a vendor outside of the Trader Joe's on NW 21st, right next to my high school. It's a $6 cheese roll that crumbles in my hands and tastes distinctly like Johnson & Johnson No More Tears baby shampoo, and goes down like the first dose of a new medication. My first girlfriend's older brother calls me a "pussy" for not eating lasagna. I am resigned to the fact that I will never be able to enjoy pizza, bagels, or doughnuts for the rest of my life without experiencing a sensation that could best be described as "phantom appendicitis," and occasionally escalates into an extended cut of that one scene from Dumb and Dumber.
And you know what? Sometimes it's fucking worth it.
But now it's 2016, and the world is on my side. Studies report that approximately three million people in the United States currently suffer from celiac disease—a disorder in which gluten causes an inflammatory autoimmune response in the small intestine. It's reported that six times that amount suffer from some type of gluten sensitivity.
Within the last few years, the "gluten-free lifestyle" has become a bandwagon diet and received national coverage, with Portland as one of its vanguard cities. Grocery stores have designated gluten-free sections, local "it" pizzerias Sizzle Pie and Lonesome's Pizza offer gluten-free crusts that are nearly indistinguishable from their glutenous counterparts (although the pies are smaller), popular brunch spots pretty much invariably offer gluten-free toast as a side (though again, the slices are smaller), and local breweries like Ground Breaker and Widmer Brothers have started producing gluten-free beers that don't taste like sand. (One quick caveat—Widmer's Omission beers aren't actually suitable for people with severe gluten allergies, only sensitivities.)
Additionally, Portland restaurants like A.N.D. Cafe and New Cascadia Traditional Bakery specialize in gluten-free dishes—and both restaurants are testament to just how far the delicate art of gluten-free cooking has come in the past decade. It's estimated that America's gluten-free food industry will be worth $23.9 billion by the end of 2020.
Like the Naked Bike Ride, our strip club statistics, that guy on the unicycle with the bagpipes, and "Keep Portland Weird" bumper stickers, "gluten-free" has become another facet of Portland's cultural identity projected onto us by people who don't actually live in Portland. As a result, the term's ubiquity has evoked proverbial eye-rolling from some surly Portlanders who reject the diet as merely the hipster bogeyman du jour. "Gluten-Free Lap Dances," mocks the marquee of one local strip club. "Gluten-free is total bullshit pushed by greedy doctors and needy assholes who want attention for their so-called 'disease,'" proclaims one particularly irate I, Anonymous poster. When I type "gluten free is" into Google's search bar, it helpfully recommends I finish my query with the words "fake," "bad," or "bullshit"—presumably remnants from searches by people trying to validate their misdirected ire.
And this is where those searches will land you: In 2011, Peter Gibson, a professor of gastroenterology at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, published a study confirming gluten's inflammatory qualities and its relationship to gastrointestinal symptoms in people without bona fide celiac disease, or a "non-celiac gluten sensitivity." Two years later, however, Gibson performed a second, more comprehensive study that yielded contradictory results—this time, he couldn't find any specific correlation between gluten and his subjects' symptoms. While Gibson's study isn't necessary conclusive, it elicited a collective Nelson Muntz-esque "Ha! Ha!" from longstanding skeptics and a sensationalist media who effectively dismissed the medical symptoms of 18 million Americans as imaginary (see: OPB's headline from May 2014: "Unless You Have Celiac Disease, Gluten Sensitivity Is Probably Just in Your Head").
"There's definitely medical research supporting people who have a sensitivity to gluten even if they're non-celiac," says Dr. Susan Allen. "We're getting better and better at being able to identify them."
Allen is a doctor of naturopathic medicine in Portland who believes that Gibson's studies don't represent the full picture—if anything, Gibson's mixed results are indicative of just how much more work needs to be done on the subject.
"I think that the whole culture of 'food allergy' is a little bit disdained in conventional medicine," Allen says, "as if it's really easy to rule out allergies when it actually isn't. There's still a lot of research to be done on this stuff in general, and I think the medical establishment worries that people jump on fads that aren't medically valid."
Making matters more complex is the fact that gluten-induced disorders exist on a spectrum: Celiac disease implies an allergy, typically confirmed by an endoscopic biopsy and the presence of anti-gliadin antibodies in the blood; non-celiac gluten sensitivity displays similar symptoms, but is only based on a diagnosis of exclusion. And all of these diseases defy a consistent clinical presentation—some sufferers of celiac disease have chronic respiratory issues, while others simply have unexplained constipation and stomach pain; some with the disease are especially sensitive to cross-contamination like residue from bread in a toaster, while others are seemingly more resilient and symptom-free.
Allen suspects that one reason those with an alleged non-celiac gluten sensitivity see a reduction in symptoms after cutting gluten out of their diets is because it forces them to eat better overall.
"Grains in general are something that people will feel a lot better eliminating for a while," she says, "and lots of people think they're gluten intolerant when really they're just eating a better diet, so I don't really think it matters [what you want to call it]. Medically, the most accurate food sensitivity or food allergy test is how you feel when you eat it and how you feel when you don't."
Even if the gluten-free diet has supposedly become "trendy" within the last few years, Teresa Atkins—co-owner of New Cascadia Traditional, the first dedicated gluten-free retail bakery in Portland—observes that a sizable portion of her clientele aren't merely trend-hoppers.
"For the majority of our customers, this isn't a choice, it's a necessity," she stresses.
Atkins and her husband, Chris Gumke, opened New Cascadia as a small kiosk at the Portland Farmers Market in 2007, before relocating to their current location off SE Hawthorne in inner Southeast. In addition to a diverse and ambitious menu that includes bagels, cookies, and whole pizzas, New Cascadia sells loaves of their own in-house gluten-free bread.
"There are a lot of people who talk about how eating gluten-free is a fad," says Atkins, "and I still think there is a small contingent of people who jump on that bandwagon and eat gluten-free because it's the next food fad—but I ultimately feel our customers seek us out because they need to eat gluten-free."
Atkins also thinks that the boost in gluten-free business over the last half-decade has more to do with an increase in clinical awareness of celiac and its related disorders than anything else.
"I think there are a lot of [our customers] who have just learned of their diagnosis," she says, "because there's so much more information than there was in 2007, even."
Mieke Johnson—owner of Tula Gluten-Free Bakery Café—also feels that a mere fad couldn't sustain an entire industry; especially considering that several of the more established gluten-free restaurants and bakeries opened in the midst of an economic slump.
"I follow [PDX Eater]," Johnson says, "and Kurt Huffman's been talking a lot about how it's a terrible time to open a restaurant in Portland and how about all of these restaurants are closing, but you look at all these gluten-free bakeries that are just cruising along—and a lot of us opened during the downturn. That does say something about the strength of the gluten-free need in Portland."
Tula's menu is as diverse as New Cascadia's, featuring an array of pastries, paninis, and savory tarts. Johnson claims her initial motivation for opening a gluten-free café was her frustration with the lack of gluten-free options at most coffee shops.
"I've been gluten-free for 13 years," she says, "and when I started you couldn't find anything at a coffee shop that was gluten-free, unless it was something inherently gluten-free, like an apple. So that was something I really wanted, a place where you could get really good coffee and a gluten-free pastry."
Johnson suspects that around 20 to 30 percent of Tula's customers have been diagnosed with celiac disease, while another 40 percent have a noted gluten sensitivity—and it's safe to assume that none of them are "faking it." While the medical world quibbles internally about the semantics of gluten-related illness—as Western medicine is wont to do—Portland has made strides to become a gluten-free oasis, scrooges be damned.
"It's really nice that we have gluten-free options everywhere, so people with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity can live a normal life," says Allen. "That's something that's so great about Portland—because there's so much alternative medical education and research available, we're just ahead of time, and ahead of the rest of the country."
And if it's benefitting the greater good, then why complain? The world is only getting better—especially for those of us who can't eat lasagna.
THE GLUTEN-FREE TOP FIVE
New Cascadia Traditional Bakery
1700 SE 6th
A dedicated gluten-free bakery that offers a variety of artisanal pastries and savory baked goods, in addition to offering a full brunch menu on Sundays from 9 am to 1 pm. Lunch menu is rotating and includes sandwiches and personal-sized pizzas. New Cascadia's in-house bread is also available by the loaf at New Seasons, Whole Foods, Food Front, and the Portland Farmers Market. On weekdays, more popular items are usually sold out by 1 pm, but they accept special orders 48 hours in advance.
HIGHLIGHTS: Their New York-style bagels, the raspberry lemon bundt cake, and on weekends, the potato pancakes.
Tula Gluten-Free Bakery Café
4943 NE MLK, #101
Gluten-free coffee shop that specializes in savory tarts, paninis, and scones, and also offers an assortment of pastries. Lunch menu includes sandwiches, soups, and pizzas. Also has an extensive tea and smoothie menu.
HIGHLIGHTS: The spinach-mushroom ricotta tart and the curry vegetable hand pie.
5420 E Burnside
A vegan-centric brunch spot that can also prepare any dish gluten-free.
HIGHLIGHTS: The biscuits and gravy with greens served as a "soul bowl" with meatloaf.
Back to Eden Bakery
2217 NE Alberta
A vegan and gluten-free bakery that also caters to those with soy and sugar sensitivities. Offers sweets and lunch items, in addition to having a huge selection of plant-based ice cream shakes and sundaes.
HIGHLIGHTS: The coconut cream pie and chocolate lavender shake.
Petunia's Pies and Pastries
610 SW 12th
Venerable gluten-free and vegan bakery that boasts an exhaustive sweets menu including cakes, pies, doughnuts, and cookies, in addition to some savory options and a cocktail menu. Pastries are also available at a number of retailers in the broader Portland area.
HIGHLIGHTS: The Buster Bar and Cookie Monster babycake.