IMPORTANT PSA ABOUT GLUTEN-FREE PASTA
Quinoa pasta is bullshit. Corn/rice pasta is less bullshit, but it’s still bullshit. If you want something that is kind of wheat-pastalike in texture (wheat-pastalike flavor is not an option, no matter what), you are better off with rice, white or brown. Different shapes and brands are better for different sauces, temperatures, and recipes. If you’re still remotely interested, read on!
A few years ago I had a spate of abnormal pap smears, which most women my age have had. They’re not fun, because for two weeks as you wait for the results of something called a “colposcopy” you’re 99% convinced you have cancer and keep having to bring yourself back from the edge of feeling very Emily in Our Town about your life (that part where she bids farewell to everything in Grover’s Corners) by reminding yourself that you’re being melodramatic and that you almost certainly don’t have cancer. Unless you do. Anyway, I didn’t have cancer any of the times, obviously, and finally a doctor who was willing to spend more then ten seconds talking to me said “Your body should have cleared the HPV by now. Something’s compromising your immune system. Have you been unusually stressed out lately? Maybe you should take a multivitamin or something.”
I used this as an excuse to do something I’d wanted to do for a long time anyway: I went to see my friend Rebecca Curtis for a nutrition consultation. You probably know Rebecca Curtis as the author of numerous mind-blowing and perfect short stories published in The New Yorker and Harper’s and Vice lately, but she is also a certified holistic nutritionist with a practice in Park Slope near the food co-op. I went in for my consultation and Becky gave me some tests, which if you are a Harper’s subscriber you can read more about here. She said “Your body really doesn’t like wheat.”
I didn’t want to hear this at all! But of course it was something I had semi secretly known in the back of my mind for years. I had justified and excused my constant feelings of illness in so many different ways. I wasn’t getting enough exercise, I’d gotten too much exercise, I had food poisoning, I’d drunk too much, I hadn’t gotten enough sleep. But it was getting harder and harder to ignore that most of the time I felt crappy, achy all over and sick to my stomach. I have a friend who hates hearing about people’s “digestion” so much that he thinks it’s the most disgusting word in the English language, and it’s true that it’s mostly boring and gross to hear about someone else’s digestive problems. But in the hopes of helping someone who’s going through the same thing and thinking “maybe this is normal, just a part of getting older?” I should tell you that I was spending like half an hour on the toilet on a regular, yet also irregular, basis, and also just feeling generally ill and in pain and delicate for hours afterwards. I don’t even know what to compare this feeling to. The word “poisoned” comes to mind.
Something was clearly wrong with me, but it had started so slowly and increased in severity so gradually that I didn’t have the opportunity to notice a dramatic shift between feeling okay and feeling sick. Also, to add to the confusion, sometimes I felt totally fine. Mostly, though, I didn’t want to even consider the possibility that how I was feeling had anything to do with my diet. What would be the point of life if I couldn’t eat and cook anything I wanted, anytime?
A big part of my identity at that point was about cooking and eating, and I felt like limiting what I ate would mean totally sacrificing that part of my life. If you scroll back through the archives of this blog, you can see that it started out as a celebration of all kinds of food, from gourmet to extremely trashy. I reveled in reddi-wip out of a can, momofuku pork buns, and tons of delicious cookies and pastries and bread. When I came back from my consultation with Rebecca, I bought myself a gluten-free cupcake and posted a photo of it here. It was made with chickpea flour and way too much unabsorbed oil. It tasted like a falafel with frosting.
I was not happy.
Also, I still felt sick. Loathe to actually go to a medical doctor for more testing, I persisted in following the diet plan that Rebecca gave me for about a year. While it didn’t include wheat (or nightshades, some cheeses, most red meat and cow milk), it still included some other gluten-containing grains like spelt. I didn’t read labels or ask waiters to check whether things were gluten-free, only that they didn’t contain wheat. I ate a lot of salads. I also sometimes “cheated” — especially where my cookbook club or other dinner clubs were concerned. I never wanted to be the person turning down homemade, delicious food or worse, picking the crust off a pie because of some hippieish, neurotic “intolerance.” But of course I always felt terrible afterwards physically, even as I tried to convince myself mentally that having a YOLO attitude towards the sensory and social experience of food was worth feeling bad the next day.
The following summer I got a new job and new health insurance. I decided to use it as an opportunity to see a new doctor, and to be totally upfront with her about the extent of my struggle to figure out what kind of food I should be eating. She listened attentively and talked to me for like a half hour, then embarked on the diagnostic mini-odyssey that would eventually reveal that I have ***official celiac disease***!!!
It’s a testament to how confusing and strange this whole realm of life can be, and how far I’d come since my original “diagnosis,” that my reaction to being told that I will never eat another croissant or bowl of dan dan noodles or momofuku pork bun was absolute joy and relief. It was great to know that I wasn’t crazy, that my symptoms weren’t some figment of my hysterical imagination, and that there was something simple I could do to feel better. It was also nice to have a license to tell family and friends and strangers at restaurants that I had a medical condition, not an inconvenient whim. It’s still awkward as hell, of course, but one of the things Rebecca told me that I still think about a lot is that if people are going to act really put out because you can’t eat the food they made the way they intended it to be eaten, that’s on them, not you.
Also, in just the time I’ve been noticing, and probably thanks much more to people who have inconvenient whims (but who probably feel better when they don’t eat gluten, I’m not hating) the food industry has gotten MUCH better at making gf versions of bready staples. The America’s Test Kitchen How Can It Be Gluten Free cookbook is a total godsend. They were the ones who convinced me to stop eating (hi! welcome back to my original point) quinoa pasta. It’s fine if you want to think of it as entirely some other genre of food, but it’s definitely not pasta!
Rice, on the other hand, has a long history of being used to make noodles. It works decently well for this purpose. Even though it might seem weird to use Asian-style rice noodles in more Italian situations, it doesn’t actually taste that weird. To make the pasta salad above, soak a package of pad thai noodles (I used brown rice ones, but white rice works too) in boiling water til they’re as soft as you want them, rinse them in cold water, shake dry, then combine with pesto, chicken, mozzarella and cherry tomatoes. Serve outdoors in summer. Enjoy life however you can!