Separating the wheat from the chaf. And also, everything else.

In which Jono (unsurprisingly) rambles for a couple of hundred words before getting to the point – and then figures out he doesn’t quite know what his point is and that even if he did, he’s probably not qualified to actually make it.

So… I dunno, maybe just skip to the end where there’s a nice recipe for sweet potato flatbreads.

I recently had a fairly odd exchange with a close friend of mine. Luckily, most people who know me, are used to ‘odd’ being the default setting for any exchanges I’m ever involved in, so at least it didn’t take anyone by surprise.

So, Gil and I had met for an after-work beer/bourbon (beer for him, bourbon for me). This had quickly turned into a few more after-work beers, and then a fairly rousing discussion about how being single was having an adverse effect on his sex-life, which is clearly a topic that benefits greatly from the number of beers that accompany it being ‘a lot’. Without even noticing, we had quickly gotten to that point where it’s time to balance out the pints with something that comes on a skewer or in-between two bits of bun.

And so, in a stunning display of common sense and pragmatism, he suggested that we go and eat somewhere, which is an entirely normal thing to suggest. I went slightly red in the face, and (in a tone of voice reminiscent of someone having to admit that they’ve just had a lavatory accident on your carpet) slightly sheepishly replied that I’d quite been looking forward to eating by myself, and was it okay if I did that rather?

Which is slightly less normal.

I’m pretty sure that the very first thing I wrote on this blog was about eating by yourself, and in the four years or so that I’ve been parking random bits of belly-button fluff on this corner of the Internet, my love for eating alone hasn’t changed. Nor has my puzzlement as to why it’s something that very few people ever do, and the equal puzzlement of people for whom this isn’t an everyday thing.

By the way, Gil, being an emotionally sensitive and socially developed person was completely unfazed by my plan, so high-fives all round.

For me, eating by myself in public is like a reset button – it’s a chance to breathe the air of the World At Large (albeit a World At Large that’s specifically oriented around selling me a mussel pot or something) – without it being coloured or filtered though the expectations of the person sitting across from me. Where else can you slip anonymously into a crowded room of people, and purely by the safety afforded you by a table in the corner, soak in their stories, habits, conversations and lifestyles without being ‘that weird guy at the party that no one else knew and everyone was fairly confused as to how he got invited’?

Which is how I got to the steamy and crowded Greek place, Parea, that I squeezed into in an attempt do some of that ‘breathing the air of the world at large’ stuff I was talking about. And also to write about something which is completely not what I’m currently writing about.

This just goes to show, that a horse led to his ipad via a plate of squid heads won’t necessarily drink the ouzo.

Oh dear. This is all going stupidly and weirdly wrong…

Urg, this is what generally happens when I have to ask the Internet to look at a thing I did and am quite proud of, I get all procrastinaty and obscure. So let me rather stop beating around the bush and just say “Hey, so I don’t know if any of you guys noticed, but I was in the Sunday Times a week or so back, and it was very nice of them indeed to do a big fancy feature on me and five of my recipes”.

Phew. Okay that’s out of the way now.

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Anyone who knows my history with the Sunday Times, will probably understand how much of a nice thing this is for me, and will hopefully also indulge my wanting to show it off just a bit. So, thanks for that.

Interestingly, the reason they did it was because of an eating choice I made towards the end of last year that I’ve been doing for about 10 months now and have thus far not mentioned on this blog – which considering this is my blog about me and food, is either oddly negligent or protectively cynical on my part.

The ‘eating choice’ I’m talking about is going gluten-free, and the reasons I haven’t really talked about it here? Myriad and fairly complex. And mostly to do with the fact that I get eye-rollingly exhausted whenever I come across someone earnestly trying to tell me about ‘why they don’t eat shellfish or food that’s harvested in September’ – EVEN THOUGH I’M NOW ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE.

I’m seriously conflicted about this – trust me.

Let me try a quick experiment. I’m interested to see if there’s a sort of gut, reflex negative reaction to the following words or phrases: vegan, locavore, dairy-free, vegetarian, pescatarian, paleo diet, ethical eater, ‘no carbs after 5pm’. I’d be surprised if, when confronted by someone who claims to be one or more of these things (or some variant I’ve forgotten), that the majority of us don’t have to suppress some sort of visible sigh, because, you know – “Jeez, can’t you just eat normally like the rest of us? None of us need these stupid self-involved diets and we’re all awesome.”

Right. The problem is that I’m simultaneously confused by that weird reaction we all have (and I totally have it as well) to people who’s dietary choices don’t reflect either ours or what we consider to be ‘normal’ – and I am also confused by the self-righteous douchiness displayed by people who’ve chosen to have a slightly different way of going about eating stuff, and the apparent superiority they feel entitled to as a result.

Yoh. You guys? You make it so hard for everyone. We all get so defensive about this stuff, and it really puts roadblocks in the way of being common-sense about it all.

So, having said all that, I’m incredibly aware of the extent to which sub-editors all around the world have, over the last couple of months, been trotting out GLUTEN-FREE, FAD OR FACT? type headlines. Partly I think this is because sub-editors as a class don’t like Gwyneth Paltrow – as the highest profile gluten-free acolyte around these days, and her rather annoying habit of calling her kids odd names and arriving at movie premiers looking fucking gorgeous.

Any new dietary approach generally gets labelled a ‘fad’ before its even had a chance to get out the gate, and in so doing, main-stream commentators have quite neatly branded anyone silly enough to give it a go the equivalent of hopeless novelty-chasers, like everyone who wore buffaloes in the late 90s. But it’s a genuine question and should be answered pragmatically. And it was my attempt to do so in the article in the Sunday Times that sort of got me into trouble.

Here is the Q&A that went with the recipes, and the important bit for the purposes of this conversation is the last question.

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So, it was that question and the answer that I gave, which prompted a lady called Dr Helen Wright (which is terrifying in and of itself, being called out by a doctor) to post the following letter on this blog.

I followed the Gluten Free tag having read your piece in the Sunday paper entitled “Feeling Good is the New Normal”. I also note that you mention in the blog Simpler Times that you have problems with “that stuff”. I am disturbed by your answer to the question posed in the Sunday paper article “Has gluten intolerance become a fad?” in that you failed to take a wonderful opportunity to educate the South African public that while eating gluten free may indeed be a fad for some people, or a preferred diet, (as for yourself it appears), it is in fact imperative that others follow a gluten free diet or they will become seriously ill. I have Coeliac Disease, proven by intestinal biopsy, which is a genetic disorder and I must follow a gluten free diet or I will become ill for several months. It is not a fad or a result of post WW2 eating habits as you suggest in the article.

This is a lot to do with why I, thus far, haven’t really gone into the gluten-free thing on this blog – for fear of being mistaken for some sort of expert or advocate for it as a medical necessity or lifestyle choice. Because really at the end of the day I’m just a guy who discovered, mostly by accident, that I generally felt a lot better if I didn’t eat things with gluten in them.

In the interests of balance, this was my response:

Hello!

I’m so glad you brought this up, because it was a facet to the privilege of being included in the Sunday Times piece that I was struggling to figure out how to address.

My original answer to that question was, as I’d written it, actually quit a lot longer than that which ended up being printed (to be fair, all of my answers were a lot longer – I’m a hopeless windbag) – and, inasmuch as I could, addressed the concerns and totally valid points you raise. Having said that, and also having a background in journalism, I do however understand the necessity for the newspaper to edit copy for column space and brevity, and so I can’t be too grumpy about the fact that my slightly more nuanced answer to what (as you so rightly point out) is a question that deserves a far more comprehensive answer to the one that was printed, for no other reason than that’s how newspapers work.

So much so, that in the two weeks since that have passed since the article was printed, I have been prepping a rather more lengthy blog post to specifically address my background with gluten-fee eating, and a more detailed perspective on why it deserves more weight and attention than ‘just a fad’. I am fully aware of the difficulties suffered by those with coeliac disease (several lifelong friends of mine suffer from it), as well as a lot of the science and biology behind the various degrees of sensitivity and symptoms that most humans have in reaction to gluten, and in a perfect world I would have had the space to fully lay those out in the Sunday Times.

But then again, this is why I have a blog, so that I can write those things down and park them somewhere for those who are interested to read. It perhaps hasn’t been posted as quick as I’d like, because I’m not the most talented or natural writer on the planet and getting all the full-stops, capitals and commas in the right place alas takes me longer than most.

Interestingly I’m trying to gauge how much of an audience there currently is for more dedicated gluten-free food discussion and recipes, and subsequently whether or not this dusty little corner of the Internet could actually become that space, and so I totally welcome and appreciate conversations like this, and hope to have many more in the future.

Thank you so much for your post.

But, now that we’re all here (and if you’ve read this far, then you’re definitely intent on going on this journey with me, and for that I can only say, “I’m sorry – I’ll get back to lame pop culture jokes soon, I promise”) let’s get into it shall we?.

The thing I return to most often, is the feeling that so much of what we experience physiologically, we sort of just accept as being ‘that’s the way it is.’ I did this for about a decade. Feeling low? Feeling listless? Digestion a constant plague of rumbling and farting? My general response to feeling all of those things was along the lines of: Well, I’m a fairly healthy person who doesn’t eat too much crap and so this must just be normal, something our bodies are designed to do after a certain point in life. You know, the same way a Land Rover Defender is designed to just leak oil all the time and break down for the rest of it. However, what we might be experiencing or think of as being ‘normal’ is sometimes actually a largely cumulative sequence of feelings and physiological symptoms caused by eating things that we all kinda know we shouldn’t be eating in quite as much volume as we do: mainly bread, sugar and dairy. Because, our bodies aren’t land rovers. They’ve evolved over millennia to be incredibly effective machines that perform superbly if you treat them right, and alas it appears (I say that very deliberately because I'm clearly not a medical expert, but my armchair research and self-experimentation has indicated that I'm possibly not wildly off) that excessive amounts of the Tricky Trio (bread, milk and sugar) isn't really that great for us. But what makes this all so fucked up is those three are just about the basis of everything we eat these days. And so, because this is widely considered (in the western world) to be ‘normal’, it’s almost unfathomable that the way we feel as a result could be ‘abnormal’. It’s like being told that you’re allergic to air or Downton Abbey. It seems fundamentally incorrect that something that’s so inherently part of everything we do as westernised humans from a food perspective, could be ‘bad’.

This, for me, is an example of how tricky this stuff gets – and also a prime example of why I haven’t brought it up on this blog before. Because, as much as I’m aware of and sensitive to the seriousness of coeliac disease, I also know that’s not really what most people experience. Yes, gluten causes major problems for coeliacs like Dr Wright, but the majority of people are more likely to be a bit more like me (not that way, god forbid) in that gluten causes them (if they’re even affected at all) varying degrees of mild discomfort (bloating, gas, mental fuzziness, weight gain, a general tetchiness and gloominess) which usually gets passed off as ‘getting older’ or as the effects of ‘the pace of modern life’ – all of which are certainly real things and have real effects, but which often aren’t really at the heart of what’s going on.

It’s also not helped by (and one of the things that Dr Wright took issue with) my reference to the post World War II industrialization of food production. What I was trying to get at (and what makes this water so muddy) is that often people feel like they might have a gluten sensitivity, but what they’re maybe actually experiencing is their bodies reacting to the chemical-heavy, unfathomably-processed and refined, sugar-packed quality of most food we eat these days, and here’s the key, especially bread. Most people who feel like they’re gluten intolerant or sensitive, won’t have any adverse reaction to a properly-made sourdough bread, baked with flour that hasn’t been chemically treated or processed. So, you can see why it maybe gets extra confusing if sometimes we can’t tell if we’re having a reaction to the gluten, or the chemicals that are generally found in foods that also happen to have gluten in them.

Oh dear. Again. All this wheat and chaff to sort out…

I think, if there’s one main take-out I’d like from this super-indulgent and rambling post, is that – for me – the benefits of going gluten-free have been undeniable. I’ve lost weight, my digestive system seems to be working normally these days as opposed to behaving like the crazed leader of a fundamentalist religious cult, and most importantly my energy is back, not just my physical energy, but my drive, my excitement and desire to do things. Oh, I also stopped snoring – which let me tell you, is fucking fantastic. But that is no way meant to be a zealous haranguing for any of you reading this to do the same. Do what you want to do, all I can say is that at the very least do it with a sense of curiosity.

Yes, it’s a pretty inconvenient way to live (unless of course you’re in South America, India, Sri Lanka, most of Asia and large parts of Africa – where wheat doesn’t feature so prominently), and the gluten-free substitutes for things like bread and biscuits and pasta are depressingly expensive. But as I increasingly stumble and totter down this path, the truth is that I honestly can’t see myself changing this way of living anytime soon. And I can only predict that those substitutes or alternatives will become cheaper and more readily available as more people discover the benefits.

So, if any of this stuff has been at all useful or appealing, let me know – and maybe I can start writing recipes specifically for this niche. I’d be happy to.

In the mean-time, here is the first of the recipes that were published in the Sunday Times, the rest of which I’ll post over the next couple of weeks.

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The rice flour used int this is one of those ingredients that used to turn me off recipes like this, it just seemed like a schlep to find, but these days just about every single supermarket stocks it and it’s not nearly as much of a mission as I used to think.

Ingredients – makes 6-8 flatbreads

350g sweet potatoes, peeled
250g of rice flour, with another 50g for dusting
2 tsp brown sugar
A cup of the sweet potato cooking liquid
A pinch of salt
1 tbsp olive oil

What to do

Boil the sweet potatoes in a pot until lovely and soft. Keep a cup’s worth of the cooking liquid to one side, and drain away the rest, letting the potato cool. Sprinkle in the sugar and a somewhat generous pinch of salt. In the pot, use a stick blender to blitz the potato into a soft mash, then start adding the flour – about 75g at a time, splashing a little bit of the cooking liquid as necessary to keep it from getting too dry. Once the potato has soak up all the flour, scrape out all the dough onto a surface dusted with the extra rice flour, and kneed for a a good ten minutes or so until you’ve got a silky ball of dough. Cover in cling-film and set aside for 30 minutes.

Brush a non-stick pan with the olive oil, so that it’s very lightly coated and get it onto a high heat. Break off a palm-size piece of the dough, press it into a rough circle shape, then roll out into a disc about half a centimeter thick, pop this into the pan for about 5 minutes each side so that it’s cooked through, and crispy and golden for the most part, slightly charred and blackened in others.

Serve with a poached egg, fresh coriander leaves and a tomato sauce made with plenty of cumin and a touch of green chilli.

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