Anna Strahs of annaB’s prepares delivery orders Sarah Walor photo
You don't need flour for cupcakes — 3 Fellers Bakery in Goochland proved that to me once and for all. The little gluten-free cupcakes in mocha, vanilla, carrot cake and even red velvet are perfect just the way they are. You'd have no idea, unless someone pointed it out to you, that they're from an unconventional recipe.
People who are gluten-intolerant or suffer from celiac disease (its more serious form) have a toxic reaction to anything with gluten in it (wheat, barley and rye, among other grains). It's considered an autoimmune disorder and damage to the small intestine can occur, as can impaired food absorption, which may lead to vitamin deficiencies and nervous system disorders. It can even increase your chances for gastro-intestinal cancer. It's on the rise, and according to the Celiac Disease Foundation, one in 133 people is affected by the disease.
I believe it. It seems like a lot of people I know suffer from gluten-intolerance, including my friend, Kendra Feather, owner of Ipanema Café and Garnett's Café. And Richmond magazine's neighbors Melissa Barlow and Carly Herring of The Empress café both have celiac disease.
"I just [eliminated gluten] to help with my eczema. I didn't know how sick I was until I started feeling better," Feather says. "Once you do it, and if you find that you do have a gluten intolerance, the difference in how you feel is amazing." Gluten-free options are available at dinner at Ipanema Café, and all the sandwiches at Garnett's Café can be ordered with gluten-free bread. The Empress offers gluten-free options for just about everything it serves, Barlow says.
"It's worth it," Feather says. "No more chronic migraines. No more mood swings. No more whining, ‘I just don't feel good.' I lost 14 pounds of weight that I couldn't lose no matter what before."
Anna Strahs agrees. She bakes gluten-free breads and desserts available under the label "annaB's" at the Farm to Family Market in Mechanicsville or by order (with free delivery).
"I was sick for years," she says. "The doctors couldn't figure it out. I've been told I have Crohn's disease, IBS [irritable bowel syndrome], cancer — one doctor told me I must be lying about being so sick because nothing was wrong! Finally my Mom read about celiac disease and its symptoms in a magazine. She called me and told me about it. I got tested and went on a gluten-free diet, and just like that I felt 100 percent better. That was about two years ago."
She started her business in April, and it's been steadily increasing ever since. "I get a lot of people asking me for particular breads or cookies — things they grew up on or were their favorite before they had to go gluten-free," Strahs says. "That's how we have cranberry-orange muffins — one of our customers really, really wanted one!"
Lots of Richmond restaurants have heard the call and offer gluten-free options. The Cheese Roll Bake Shop's cheese rolls are made of tapioca flour, and Bottoms Up Pizza will make your pizza on a gluten-free crust. The menu at Millie's Diner, as well as Kuba Kuba, with its emphasis on rice and potatoes, are safe bets, and despite the expectation that an Italian restaurant is all about the pasta, it's easy to find lots to eat at both Edo's Squid and Mamma 'Zu. The Belvidere at Broad conveniently marks its gluten-free offerings with a "GF." The menu at P.F. Chang's China Bistro has a lengthy gluten-free section. And Ethiopian cuisine, which uses the Middle Eastern gluten-free grain teff, is by definition a great option for those avoiding gluten-laden foods (try the Nile Ethiopian Restaurant & Café on North Laurel Street or Addis Ethiopian Restaurant in Shockoe Bottom).*
It's not the easiest diet to stick to, however. "Sometimes it sucks when you want to grab a quick breakfast or lunch option," Feather says. "Breakfast is especially frustrating for me." Strahs thinks the problem is more pervasive. "It can be quite challenging to stick to a gluten-free or allergen-free diet (especially if you're the parent of a GF kid!) when our culture so revolves around food."
I've tried to eliminate gluten from my diet but I've been spectacularly unsuccessful. My sister has celiac disease, and when I described some of the symptoms I've been experiencing (for the past few years), she persuaded me to give it a whirl and see what happened. The problem is that about halfway through a bite of a burrito or a crouton, or even a dish seasoned with non-wheat-free soy sauce (that would be all soy sauce, unless you buy a bottle specially), I realize I'm supposed to avoid these foods, and by then, it's too late. Pasta is a serious downfall of mine, and I have a tendency to decide to start abstaining from gluten the next day whenever I think about it.
"It's not hard at all, I swear. Especially after the first month," Feather says. Strahs is also encouraging. "It's easy to see that staying on a gluten-free diet is essential to both my physical and mental health and well being," she says. "It's almost just a huge relief — I'm finally not sick!"
*Of course, this list isn't comprehensive. It's just a sampling of the major players of the gluten-free scene. Don't forget that Ellwood Thompson's Local Market, Whole Foods and most major grocery stores have gluten-free foods and ingredients, too.