Gluten-free: America has it right

A shelf section in Harmons Grocers in Ogden, Utah, with gluten-free items clearly identified.

In November 2012, we spent a month in America, and it was during that sojourn, that I began to realise the extent of my gluten intolerance.

I’d decided that since I was in the land of the hamburger, I’d eat this quintessentially American fast-food icon item at every opportunity.

I spent the entire holiday sleeping sitting upright, sucking antacid tablets, and it was only upon my return to South Africa, through a happy accident, that I figured out that the root cause of my gastrointestinal discomfort was gluten in any form, and also bran in most forms.

Almost four years later, I am back in the land of the hamburger, where gluten intolerance is front and centre in the merchandising focus of retail America, and an increasing number of food outlets have also cottoned on to this market segment, and are actively catering to its needs.

My relief upon arriving in America and finding that it has become the land of plenty for the “gluten-challenged”, was profound, having endured the appalling attempts of KLM Airlines to satisfy my dietary requirements.

In short, what was presented as gluten-free either tasted terrible, and had the texture of shredded cardboard, or wasn’t. Gluten-free, that is. On the second leg of our flight for example, the cabin attendant dumped a meal in front of me with a laconic “sorry, there are no more of your requested meal, so here is a vegetarian meal.” That the meal consisted of a doughy vegetarian pizza, didn’t seem inappropriate for one who cannot eat anything made from wheat.

My unhappiness over the airline meals was rapidly dispelled when we stopped for dinner in St George – way down south in Utah – at an Olive Garden (a quasi-Italian restaurant chain), the day after our arrival. Daughter Robyn asked the server (what we call a waiter) if there was a gluten-free option, and happily there was. He produced a menu with two or three starter, main and dessert items, and I happily ordered a bowl of spaghetti with Italian sausage sauce.

A visit to Fresh Market – a supermarket of the order of our Pick * Pay – the next week back in Ogden, revealed a small shelf section entirely devoted to gluten-free foodstuffs, but it was a visit to Harmon’s Grocers (a Woolies equivalent) that truly impressed me.

Instead of a small shelf section devoted to gluten-free foods, every shelf sticker for any food stuff in every food section which is gluten-free, trumpets its status in bright purple letters. It made shopping a pleasure.

During a visit to an open-air mall (yes, you read that right) in Farmington a day or two later, we ate lunch at Twigs Bistro and Martini Bar, a delightful restaurant which featured a gluten-free menu of substance – I’d guess around 50% of the items on the standard menu prepared gluten-free.

And it’s not as if they took the easy way out, and chose those items that do not normally contain any gluten: I had a gluten-free Cuban ham and pulled-pork hoagie (kinda-like a panini) that was just divine, golden brown, soft and with a beautifully delicate crumb. There are two burger options on the menu, and I’ll be going back for them. Both.

That gluten-free eating is something of a fad in America right now – there are a number of hilariously satirical blog and YouTube offerings that lampoon the “oh, I’m gluten intolerant” set unmercifully – is self-evident, but if this is why the retail and restaurant sectors rose to the occasion, then I’m deeply grateful, as I am sure are all those who genuinely suffer when they eat anything containing gluten.

I’ll be bringing a boatload of gluten-free crackers back home with me, by the way. I’ve encountered a few that are divine and as good as the best we can get in South Africa, made with wheat flour.

Here’s hoping that our local retailers and restaurants rise to the occasion as magnificently, but I won’t be holding my breath.