Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Good and ... The Good

Most people get married in their twenties or thirties. Not me. I didn't even meet Leslie until 1992.

The story: We were both standing in line to vote (fortunately, for the same candidate, Bill Clinton). I spotted her, realized that the precinct she belonged to had a much shorter line than mine, misinformed her about where to wait, and spent the next hour (Hudson County NJ is staggeringly disorganized) chatting.

Although our relationship began with this small deception it's been great. The best thing that ever happened to me, actually. We love and support one another, agree on most things political and otherwise, and are even on the same dietary wavelength. Which is not a matter of choice but a coincidence of genetics.

Leslie was diagnosed with Celiac disorder when she was 12. When we met she was an on-again-off-again gluten eater, willing to punish her gut for a good meal. I'll confess to never taking much care with my cooking then. Nothing was more appealing to me than pasta, pizza, sourdough bread, flour tortillas.... But then came the distressing summer of 2002. Both my parents needed surgery, I signed up for a writer's workshop that was at once intensely intimidating and gravely disappointing, and one of Leslie's best friends went to hospice to die.

It is known that the gene causing celiac lies dormant until triggered by something. For me that something was stress. No point repeating celiac's disgusting symptoms - let's just say my insides got sick and stayed that way. It took several months to figure out the cause, but at the end the two of us were united in yet one more way.

My gastroenterologist thought this situation was dreadful. I don't think he could imagine a modern life without a lot of pre-made foods. But for the two of us it was a lifesaver.

For Leslie, who had been unknowingly abusing her immune system by consuming gluten, this was literally true.

For me, the inability to eat foods I loved triggered my art response: Why settle for second-class when with a little effort I can make first-class replacements? So I set out to become a gluten-free baker.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history. Starting with cookbooks, I tried other GF cooks formulas for breads, biscuits and pies. I took classes, bought cooking-school textbooks, and worked at bending glutenous classics into gluten-free treats. My repertoire expanded to cookies, cakes, pizza and shortbreads. I dug into my mother's recipe box, as well as Leslie's mother's and grandmothers' recipe boxes, and riffed on their favorites. Sometimes I came up with OMG!!! Other times it was BARF! But no matter what I made, the experience was stunningly like those years of chemical-based photography: standing before a workstation combining entities, then processing them. Only this time, I got to eat what I made :)

I'm no pastry chef, but when it comes to sweets I can usually hit the ball pretty well. This, however, is not the challenge I most embrace. That would be bread. The staff of life. Nutrition in a loaf. And, in most gluten-free formulations, dust under crust.

I've worked on breads about 4 years now but never made much progress until I tried things the textbooks said I couldn't. These were: working without fats, dairy, sugar or eggs; making my own wild leavens. By combining knowledge gained from a huge diversity of sources - chemistry, art, handcrafts, physics and more - I've gradually become a very good bread baker.

In fact, what I concoct turns heads - and tongues. If you're reading this and live anywhere in the NYC area and would like to try, I invite you to drop me an email. I'm happy to share a baguette or two with you. The price is honest, written feedback.

In the meantime I'm working on the big goal: going commercial.

When I was in art school, one of my professors said that the difference between an amateur and a professional was the difference between a lover and a whore. At the time the moral chasm seemed huge, but not any more. All those celebrities' lovers who sell their stories to the highest bidder - are they really not whores? And I don't just mean the women. As for whoring - it it any worse a way to make a living than, say, inventing derivatives? Or selling gas-guzzling, planet-destroying SUV's?

But I digress. What I want to do is simply absolve myself of the possible moral shortcomings of professionalism. If I'm a prostitute, so be it. Doesn't stop me from being a lover, too.

In fact I hope to love food even more if I occasionally exchange it for some green.

Next: Family postscripts.


Katie said...

Hi there,

I saw a post you wrote on about GF sourdough starter, and would love some tips on baking gluten-free bread. I was diagnosed with Celiac two months ago, and while I used to bake bread all the time, it's just not the same any more. Any recipes or ingredient suggestions would be great. I live in southern CT, so local tips would be helpful too.

Thanks, and good luck with going commerical -- I'll gladly spread the word around here once you get underway!

Charles Luce said...

Hello Katie. Thanks for your comments. Because I do want to go commercial I'm holding my recipes pretty close to my chest. I can recommend Analise Roberts site ( and books for some great pizza and good bread ideas. Also, I'm always looking for taste-testers in my area and S. CT is not so far from NJ. So if you're interested in some loaves to taste, we can work something out. Also you should check out Dee's One Smart Cookie in Glastonbury. 860 633 8000. Please tell her I sent you.