I’m in Italy this week, in search of gluten. I want gluten, extra gluten, with some truffles on top please.
Good heavens what has created the furor over this poor little protein and binding agent of wheat, rye, and barley? It’s been cultivated for over 12,000 years, and exported the world over. Once upon a time carbohydrates were good for you. Endurance athletes would load them. Families too. How else could you consistently get children to the dinner table, if not for that affordable, delicious, nourishing comfort food that has been a balm throughout the history of love, war, and late night munchies.
Roger Cohen, a British writer for the International New York Times, just recounted a story he was told by a London caterer, who provided the food for a 96-year-old’s birthday party. When the caterer asked if any in the octogenarian and nonagenarian crowd had special dietary requirements, they were uniformly happy to eat anything. Yet when a Scottish woman had a house party for a mostly young crowd, the special requests poured in.
Maybe this is just an Anglo thing. One in five Brits claim some form of food intolerance (if you had to eat British food, wouldn’t you?), even though a 2010 Portsmouth University study found the claims were often unfounded. Over here the Mayo Clinic reports that four times as many people suffer from celiac disease today as did 60 years ago, and roughly one in 100 people are now affected.
Sure, we all know our food system has been tainted by mass production, caged, hormone-injected animals, farm-raised fish that live in their poop, GMO tainted produce, mono-farms, and endless forms of fertilizers and preservatives.
But it may be simpler. Perhaps Anglos can’t tolerate grains because we are better suited for meat, what with our carnivorous lust to colonize the world.
Earlier this year I attended the Natural Foods Show in Anaheim. “Gluten-free” was table stakes, with nearly every booth displaying a “gluten-free” sign – even with foods like rice, which never had gluten to begin with. And recently I opened the menu at a local restaurant and found a “G” beside every dish that was gluten free – nearly 80% of the menu!
Have we become a society so food-addled and plain nutty that we have to list what’s not in our food, even when we don’t label what’s actually in it? If so give me a B for every dish that’s beet free, please!
In the land of gluten there has been some pushback. Signs at some Italians restaurants now say, “We do not serve gluten-free.” While I’m sure Italians respect and sympathize with those who have food intolerances, the idea of visiting their country – whose culinary foundation is built on gluten – and then asking that it be removed, is a tad insulting.
Most Italians think about pasta from the moment they wake up until their last breath at night. They have a transcendent relationship with it. It’s part of their love language. Got a job? Let’s celebrate with a plate of pasta. Got fired already? It’s OK, have a plate of pasta. Got married? Pasta, please. Got divorced? You need pasta – and to come home to Mama. To turn down pasta because it has wheat is like turning down sex because it has orgasms.
A few years back I got to see Anthony Bourdain speak in San Diego, and he said the reason he never complains about tasting food that we would consider rancid is because food is politics, woven into the social fabric of a culture. To make special requests is to insult their culture. Thus he said when traveling, keep your intolerances to yourself.
I’m certainly following Tony’s advice this week with my own, private glutenpalooza. Pasta every which way, all day. Have I felt stuffed and bloated at times? Sure. Will I have to reckon with my overweight baggage upon my return? Oh yeah. But the discomfort has been more than mitigated by those fleeting moments of ecstasy, when the firm, viscous sensation of gluten slathered, al dente pasta marries the macerated flavors of its partners, sending spasms of pleasure through my body so intense that, for a brief interval, everything in the world is perfect.
You see, as difficult as life can be in Italy – with a terrible economy, entrenched class system, and corrupt politicians, all can be forgiven with pasta. And no matter where an Italian might go in the world seeking a better life, they will miss their pasta so intensely that it will cause many of them to return home. Because the country that glutens together, stays together.
Billy Fried hosts “Laguna Talks” radio show on KX93.5, Thursdays at 8 p.m. He can be reached at [email protected].