LONDON — I was in Venice a few weeks ago and friends reported seeing a restaurant menu with the following important message emblazoned it: “We do NOT serve gluten-free food.”
It was easy to imagine an exasperated Italian proprietor, driven to frenzy by repeated requests from Americans for gluten-free pasta, finally deciding to cut short such exchanges with this blunt pre-emptive blow.
Rough translation: My way or the highway. If you don’t like my pasta the way la Mamma has always made it, try someplace else.
Gluten is the main protein component of wheat, rye and barley. Wheat was first cultivated about 12,000 years ago and it’s safe to say gluten has never had as hard a time as in recent years. The hunter-gatherer turned cultivator would be appalled at what he has wrought. Free associate from the word “gluten” these days and you’ll probably come up with poison.
This column, by the way, is gluten-free. Please feel at liberty to read on.
There has been a huge and mysterious rise in celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that results in damage to the small intestine when gluten is ingested. According to the Mayo Clinic web site, four times as many people suffer from celiac disease as 60 years ago, and roughly one in 100 people are now affected. Why is unclear. Perhaps it’s the way gluten products are prepared today, or even, some have suggested, the result of a bored immune system looking for new targets.
But of course the gluten-free trend is not just about multiplying celiac sufferers. People decide gluten must be bad for them because they see shelves full of gluten-free food at supermarkets. Forms of food intolerance, whether to wheat or dairy products or something else, have reached near epidemic levels among the global middle class.
Special dietary needs are all the rage. Allergies, real or imagined, multiply. One in five Britons now claim some form of intolerance, yet a 2010 Portsmouth University study found the claims were often unfounded. The narcissism of minor differences finds expression in the food-intolerance explosion: Having a special dietary requirement is one way to feel special in the prevailing “me” culture.
But I don’t want to show the intolerance of the omnivore for faddish food particularism, however overblown it may be. There’s a lot that’s good in food fetishes.
People are more aware of what they eat and how they want to feel as a result of what they eat. They are more demanding, with instant access to the information they need to make shrewd dietary choices; and they are surely not wrong to blame processed food and manipulated food and greater pollution and stress for certain allergies.
The political, it often seems, has become personal. Where people wanted to change the world, now they want to change their bodies. Wellness is a political pursuit because it involves choices about food that will impact the planet. Eating local or eating organic or both are lifestyle statements that have become engaged political acts. The pursuit of wellness, increasingly tied to the pursuit of beauty and agelessness, stands at the heart of the current zeitgeist. I eat well therefore I am.
People, if they have a choice (and it’s worth recalling that much of humanity still does not), are eating better. That’s good. But there is also a downside that has to do with self-indulgence, commercial manipulation, the rampant anxiety associated with “affluenza” and narcissistic fussiness.
Some years ago I was told about the experience of a London caterer who had provided the food for a birthday party for Lord Carrington, who is now 96. The caterer asked if any of the aged crowd had special dietary requirements. There were none among the many octogenarian and nonagenarian guests. They were happy to eat anything.
More recently, another friend told me of her sister’s experience with a large house party in Scotland last summer. When the sister inquired about any special dietary needs, many requests came in, particularly from the younger crowd. Hardly anyone aged between 18 and 25 was up for eating anything. One young woman wrote: “I can’t eat shellfish but I do eat lobster.”
If people over 80 will eat anything, yet people under 25 are riddled with allergies, something unhealthy is going on — and it’s going on most conspicuously in the most aggressive, competitive, unequal, individualistic, anxiety-ridden and narcissistic societies, where enlightenment about food has been offset by the sort of compulsive anxiety about it that can give rise to imagined intolerances and allergies.
Overall, I’m with the Venetian restaurant owner making his stand for tradition, la Mamma and eating the food that’s put on your plate. Gluten has done O.K. by humanity for upward of 10 millennia. It’s bad for some people, but the epidemic of food intolerance has gone way over the top.
Writer Roger Cohen/NYT