I spent most of my 20s sick with stomach pains, bloating and major digestive issues. After dozens of visits to doctors and specialists and two hospitalizations, I found out I had a gluten-related disorder called non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
To some, the gluten-free diet is just another food-fad. To me, a gluten-free diet changed my life.
Gluten is the general name for protein found in wheat, barley, rye and triticale, a cross between wheat and rye. It gives food its shape and acts like a glue holding the food together. The most obvious gluten offenders are breads, pastries and pizzas. Here, the gluten acts as a thickening agent and helps make the dough stretchy.
More surprisingly are food items like ice cream, ketchup and soy sauce. In ice cream and ketchup, gluten is used as a stabilizer to increase thickness and help foods stay mixed. With soy sauce, soy and wheat are crushed together and allowed to ferment for days in a brine with mold cultures.
There are several gluten-related disorders. For all of them, the most effective treatment presently available is a gluten-free diet. The most severe of the disorders is celiac disease. For the 2% of the population that suffers from this condition, gluten ingestion can lead to permanent damage to the inside of the small intestine. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which is what I have, is the most common gluten-related disorder. It affects upward of 10% of the population.
Once, on a road trip to North Carolina, I called a restaurant in advance to ask if they had any gluten-free options. There was a pause, and then I was told, apologetically, “Um, we have vegetables.” To that restaurant’s credit, all vegetables, as well as fruit, are naturally gluten-free. But if your eatery has nothing for a gluten-intolerant patron to enjoy but, um, vegetables, count me out.
There is a wide range of naturally gluten-free foods, from local walleye to wild rice. And for recipes that call for flour, like breads and desserts, there are countless varieties of gluten alternatives that can be used in lieu of traditional flour: rice flour, buckwheat, tapioca, sorghum, amaranth or some mix of all these and more. If you can make it with gluten, you can make it without — and, sometimes, it’s all the better.
Recently, I went out on a self-guided gluten-free-food tour of Aitkin, with my gluten-loving husband in tow. Here are a few of my favorite stops.
Rosallini’s has two gluten-free pizza crust options on their menu. The 12-inch gluten-free pizza crust is made with rice and potato flour. Topped with my favorite toppings — sausage, onion and black olives — I can’t tell the difference. They also have a 10-inch cauliflower crust. Cauliflower is a great substitute, but it does have a distinct taste. If you like cauliflower, go for it! If you are looking for a spot-on substitute, go for the 12-inch.
A huge shout-out to the maker of the gluten-free almond and vanilla scones at the Beanery Cafe & Roastery, on the corner of Third St. and First Ave. They are the best scones I have ever had and a perfect companion to my medium almond-milk latte.
Stepping up the beer game is Block North Brew Pub. At the beginning of this year, they added a gluten-free apple ale to the menu, The Gilby. A collaboration with Gilby’s Nursery and Orchard, also in Aitkin County, The Gilby is a dreamy union of an ale and a cider.
And when you need a beer for fishing, look no further than Farm Island Store & Off Sale, on Hwy. 169. To my surprise, in the back, sat a six-pack of Omission Ultimate Light Golden Ale. Omission Brewing Company is among the best gluten-free beer brands out there. Bon appetite, and cheers!