Photographs: © 2014 Helen Norman
Around the time I was 15, I stopped eating anything that contained gluten and soy, two ingredients that are found in the majority of American food products. Gluten is the protein found in wheat and several related grains, such as barley and rye, and soy refers to any product made from the soybean — from soybean vegetable oil, a common oil used in American restaurants, to soy lecithin, an “emulsifier” (or food thickener) found in most American processed foods.
To add to my list of restrictions, I had already been mostly off of dairy products (I say mostly because scientists devised a wonderful enzyme pill in the 1970s that allows lactose intolerant people like me to normally digest a moderate amount of dairy) for several years. An enormous variety of foods that I had enjoyed as a kid — from pizza to bagels to Chinese food doused in soy sauce — was suddenly off-limits as I tried to diagnose the cause of what had become chronic stomach pain.
Inside Kosherfest 2014. Photograph by Liza Schoenfein
The first food that jumped out at me yesterday when I walked into the vast Meadowlands Exposition Center in Secaucus, New Jersey, for Kosherfest 2014 was the gluten-free granola. The latest offering from Foodman’s Original Matzolah, the cranberry-and-orange flavored product is wheat- and nut-free. Its prominent placement (Matzolah is distributed by Streit’s, whose matzo is a key ingredient) heralded what seemed to me to be the trend of the show: foods that not only follow the laws of kashrut but also specifically address other dietary restrictions, whether they involve gluten intolerance, veganism, or avoidance of dairy.
Among the gluten-free highlights at Kosherfest — the largest business-to-business trade show for the kosher industry — were new matzo ball mixes from Streit’s and the Manischewitcz Company, which also offered a gluten-free brownie mix.
When Tim Horel was in his mid-30s, he tripped over his shoelaces and wound up shattering both of his elbows.
“It was way too early for him to be breaking bones like that,” Lisa Stander-Horel, Tim’s wife, told JTA.
The cause for Tim’s weakened bones turned out to be celiac disease, a condition in which the protein found in wheat, rye and other grains provokes an immune response that can damage the small intestine and lead to other health problems.
When the Horels cut gluten from their diet, Stander-Horel found that health problems she had long faced — such as rashes and migraines — disappeared as well.
There is no cure for celiac, which can prevent the body from absorbing needed nutrients and lead to osteoporosis, fatigue and even intestinal cancer. But strict adherence to a gluten-free diet can alleviate most symptoms and provide a chance for the small intestine to heal.
As awareness of the disease has grown, a plethora of dietary options have cropped up. A walk down the aisles of a grocery store finds gluten-free varieties of everything from Rice Krispies to kaiser rolls.
But for kosher keepers and those who just enjoy the pleasures of Jewish foods, adhering to a gluten-free diet can be a challenge. Jewish foods such as kugel, matzah balls and challah are rich in gluten. In fact, wheat and barley are two of the seven species mentioned in Deuteronomy.
To help bring traditional Jewish cooking to the gluten-free, the Horels published “Nosh on This: Gluten-Free Baking from a Jewish American Kitchen,” which was released in September. The book took 10 years to produce — a process Stander-Horel says was “mostly trial and error.”
Stander-Horel has been a passionate baker from an early age and wanted to reproduce all the recipes she remembered from childhood — a policy she calls “No recipe left behind.” In general, Stander-Horel advises gluten-free cooks to carefully examine the ingredients of all purchases and avoid cross-contamination in the kitchen.
Jewish cooks also can take advantage of products already designed to cater to ritual culinary needs. Faye Levy, author of “Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home,” told JTA that many Passover products can be repurposed for gluten-free cooking.
“Products that cater to those that don’t eat gebrokts — moistened matzah meal — often use potato or rice flour,” Levy said. “You can use Passover noodles in soups or for kugel, and it turns out really well.”
Chickpea flour, a traditional ingredient in the Indian kitchen, also works well in savory dishes like latkes and kugels, according to Levy.
For the Horels, finding gluten-free foods was difficult in the years following Tim’s diagnosis.
“The only flour available when we started was one, rice flour,” said Stander-Horel. “A lot of things were only available in Canada, and we had to learn to order things from far, far away.”
But Bonnie Gillert, a nutritionist and author of “Passover the Healthy Way,” says there are now many new gluten-free products on the market, making a gluten free diet radically easier than it used to be.
“With my celiac patients, I work on their mindset,” Gillert said. “They often begin feeling that they’re deprived, that this is a life sentence. Well, it’s something they have to consider for a lifetime, but being gluten free is no obstacle to a healthy, vibrant life.”
Months after super storm Sandy, the full extent of the damage is still coming to light.
This year, customers around the country scouring local grocery stores for their favorite Passover sweets will be sorely disappointed. Shabtai Gourmet, a company that provided gluten-free kosher for Passover cakes and cookies — including favorites like rainbow cookies, cupcakes, and black and white cookie, all gluten-free — for over ten years, was completely wiped out by the storm.
When Sid and Cindy Itzkowitz ventured from their flood-soaked home in Woodmere, N.Y., to their 12,500 square foot factory in the Far Rockaways, they had no idea what to expect. What they found, Cindy said, was beyond their worst nightmare. “There was seven feet of salt water and sewer water in there,” she said. “Everything was floating all over the place.”
But how did my family get so lucky that we are able to avoid this (great?) American pastime? And what will we be doing if not carving a twenty-pound bird and screaming at each other?
For as long as I have been conscious of Thanksgiving, my family has been making turkey-shaped pizza on the fourth Thursday of November. Apparently, there were some in my family who did not love the taste of turkey. So rather than deny the iconic status of this New World bird, my mother decided that a pizza created in its image would suffice (and ensure that her children could relate to American culture).
Last year I moved across the country to complete a seven-month internship program. There wasn’t a lot of time to make friends, but I found that sharing food seemed to foster a sense of camaraderie. I was excited when one day a fellow intern invited me to her home for Friday night dinner. Since I’m gluten-free my initial instinct was to offer to bring a dish so she wouldn’t have to go out of her way but I also knew that my standards of kashrut were not as strict as hers. We compromised and agreed that I would bring fresh vegetables for a salad from the farm I was working on, and she insisted on trying her hand at making gluten-free challah.
Later that week we sat around the Shabbat table and bit into the tough pieces of densely packed bread before bursting out in laughter. It wasn’t very tasty, but I was touched by the kind gesture and it the first of many Shabbatot I spent at her table. So earlier this summer when The New York Times ran a piece called “The Picky Eater Who Came to Dinner”, I was upset at the article’s snarky tone which laments how hard it has become for Americans to break bread together.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Leslie about her newest cookbook, “Gluten-Free Recipes for the Conscious Cook” and the benefits of a gluten-free diet, and the importance of eating sustainably for both the mind and body.
As much as Jews love their holiday feasting, big family meals can also bring up some anxiety. Maybe you keep more kosher than your parents. Maybe less. Maybe you used to be a vegetarian, but now you eat meat, but only if it’s sustainably raised. Navigating special food needs with loved ones is fraught because of the powerful symbolism of sharing (or not sharing) food. We know from our tradition of kashrut that the notion of “permitted” and “forbidden” foods plays a role in determining who sits together at the table. But what happens when we expressly want to eat together, just not eat the same food? This real email exchange (below), between a Jewish farming couple (Jon and Sherry — names changed for anonymity) and their family before a holiday visit, brings some of these questions to light (lightly!). Share your own family stories in the comments.
While those of us on a gluten-free diet may have our daily eating habits under control, the chagim (Jewish Holidays) present a whole new array of challenges. Unless you’re preparing a holiday feast in your own home where everything is under control and to your own standards, it’s often difficult to eat out — even if it’s with family.
For those of you gluten-free folks out there, hopefully your family is open to helping you navigate your way successfully through the holiday while keeping everyone happy. Just remember: many delicious dishes can be prepared easily sans gluten and so many are naturally gluten-free, such as salads, soups, sides…unfortunately just not a typical noodle kugel (unless you’re going to be adventurous and make your own egg noodles) nor a typical challah. Here is a quick guide to navigating Rosh Hashanah gluten-free with a few recipe links and ideas to help you out at this holiday season. Chag Sameach!